women in sports, how it is changing, and how women in sports have impacted our lives and society. Women have participated in sports for centuries, and yet, sports have historically featured men, especially in more modern professional sports settings. While women have made great strides into many professional and exhibition sports, they are still largely absent from the big professional sports franchises, such as Major League Baseball and Football. Until women gain true equality in all sports, women in sports will continue to be unequal with the male-based and biased world of professional sports.
Historically, sports have always been a part of life, even back to ancient times. The Greeks invented the Olympics before Christ was born, and even then, sports were male-dominated. Women were banned from competing in the Olympics, and when the modern Olympics made their appearance in 1896, women were again banned from the competitions. It was not until 1900 that women competed in the Olympics, and then they only competed in three events: tennis, croquet, and golf (Editors, 2008). Throughout the 20th century, women made great strides in sports. Professional soccer, basketball, and football leagues have sprung up for women, and women are some of the most well-known and respected tennis, track and field, and gymnastics stars in the world. Women dominate some sports, but they still do not receive the same pay and attention as professional male athletes, and this continues even today, when most people consider themselves open and even supportive of women’s sports.
In the beginning, women were often onlookers and spectators in sports, rather than active participants. In addition, there were only certain “genteel” sports open to women, such and croquet and badminton, because many people felt that women would “harm” themselves or make themselves seem less genteel if they participated in other, more demanding sports. Even today, women do not participate in the major college and professional sports; they are spectators and/or cheerleaders at these events. Women have their own professional leagues, such as soccer and basketball, but they do not gain the attention or retribution that professional male athletes can attain. This follows the societal norm that places men and women, especially fathers and mothers, in specific, gender-regulated roles. Society expects mothers to take care of the children and the home, while fathers provide the income that sustains the family. Society sees this as the primary role of the family, with the mother in a secondary position. Sports follows the same societal model. Women are expected to remain on the sidelines, cheering their sons/husbands along, while the men actually take part in the game. Thus, society sets the rules and regulations about women participating in sports, and this follows society’s view of families and family makeup.
Women perpetuate this societal norm by not challenging it, and by learning this gender norm of women raising children and not participating in sports from a variety of sources. One researcher notes, “We learned… that batting, catching, throwing, and jumping are not neutral, human activities, but somehow more naturally a male domain. Insidiously, our culture’s reverence for men’s professional sports and its silence about women’s athletic accomplishments shaped, defined, and limited how we felt about ourselves as women and men” (Carty, 2005, p. 132). Schools, families, and even the media perpetuate this norm in a variety of ways. Schools support male athletics, such as football and baseball, far more extensively than any female athletic programs, and females are traditionally banned from sports like baseball and football. Even in track, they compete against other women, rather than men. The media perpetuates it, as well, by basing most coverage and commentary on men’s sports, even in the Olympic Games, where women compete in a wide variety of events today.
Even families themselves help perpetuate this learned view of women’s roles. The course textbook notes, “As development continues, girls are often given positive rewards for being ‘Mommy’s helper’ and interacting with their mothers, and they learnt to see mothers as a role model for femininity” (Woods, 2009, p. 164). Fathers and mothers, by embracing traditional roles, pass them on to their children, and this includes their ideas about women in sports, and sports in general.
There have been gradual changes in how society views women in sports, and it has impacted society in many areas. It is much more accepted for young girls and young women to participate in certain sports, such as figure skating, gymnastics, swimming, soccer, and such, and more young women are actively participating in these types of sports than ever before. The Title IX Act, first enacted in 1972 by then President Richard Nixon, helped empower generations of female athletes and ensure funding for female athletic programs. One publication notes, “Since it was enacted, Title IX has allowed for a record number of female participants in various sports, provided women athletes with societal acceptance, and created opportunities for greater prize money in sports such as tennis and golf” (Author not Available, 2006, p 83). This act helps thousands of female athletes attend college on athletic scholarships, in addition, as it provides funding for female athletics when many schools might ignore the female athletics program. This indicates that gradually, at least some of this gender norm is changing, and that more women in athletics are becoming acceptable and accepted by society.
While society may becoming more accepting of at least some forms of female sports, race and ethnicity still plays a major role in women in sports, as well. Many of the black female athletes that are so well-known today began their careers in the 1970s, when they faced the double problem of race and gender. Track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee says, “That was a big moment for me, because when I was growing up in the 1970s, women in sports weren’t a celebrated thing” (Joyner-Kersee, 2008, 54). Many of the top male athletes in football and baseball are from different ethnic backgrounds, such as African-American, Hispanic, and Asian, and that is an accepted part of the sport. In women’s athletics, many players are African-American, but there are still few other ethnic groups represented, which indicates just how far behind women sports is when compared to men’s sports.
Much more important, however, are race and ethnic views on sports. For many ethnic athletes, both male and female, they may view athletics as their way out of their poor neighborhoods and to obtain a college education. They look up to ethnic superstars, both male and female, as role models, and they aspire to be like them someday. In this, they tend to be less dependent on traditional society’s views of families and women, and so, in some ethnic communities, at least, it is more common to see women athletes competing, and becoming successful in their fields. The Williams sisters, professional tennis players, are a good example of this ethnic acceptance of women in sports. Their family supported them throughout their careers, and helped them get started playing tennis, which led them to fantastically successful careers.
Unfortunately, there are many stereotypes surrounding professional athletes, especially women. Because of the strict societal roles for women, revolving around home and family, a woman who chooses a career over family is often seen as “abnormal” or somehow less feminine than her counterparts are. This is especially true for female athletes, who are seen as somewhat more “masculine” than their counterparts, especially if they have physically large or striking physiques. The media stereotypes these women as somehow less attractive and compelling than non-athletes, and this helps perpetuate the idea of what is feminine and masculine in our society. A woman whose body is too “buff” or muscular is seen as masculine, as well. The family also helps define these roles, as the text notes. “Some parents actively discourage their children’s interest in toys and games that are associated with the other sex. For instance, boys may be persuaded not to play house or cook, and girls may be dissuaded from engaging in sports that call for high levels of physical aggression” (Woods, 2009, p. 170). If the girls do engage in these aggressive sports, they will often be perceived as less feminine and more masculine than their counterparts. As the text notes, “Women athletes sometimes feel special pressure to look feminine. Women athletes in my classes tell me that, if they don’t look ultra-feminine, others think they’re lesbian” (Woods, 2009, p. 178-179). Thus, stereotyping still exists in women’s sports, and women still have to face male-dominated attitudes even at the top of their fields.
Women in sports have impacted society in many ways. Some of the most famous female athletes have inspired others to become athletes, and the enactment of Title IX has brought an entire new generation of sports to women and to the country. So many young girls now play basketball and soccer when even 20 years ago that was nearly unheard of. Women are making strides in society, and as women in sports become more acceptable, the roles of women may actually alter in society, and some of the walls between genders and their roles may come tumbling down.
One area of sports that is worth concern is the influences of men and masculinities on women in sports. Many women may look up to male sports celebrities and want to be like them. However, male players may have at least some influences and tendencies that are not so socially acceptable. Another author has studied male sports and the link between aggression and some types of assertive sports, such as football. Her findings suggest than these aggressive sports can be dangerous to women. The researcher writes, “In an observational study of male athletes in college bars, Curry found that the masculine ideology enforced in the locker room often carried over into aggressive and risky behavior in social settings” (Gage, 2008, p. 1016). These athletes may become violent or aggressive toward women, especially their dates, and they may carry this violence into their relationships later in life, with their families and children, as well. Since most sportscasters are also male, they dominate how the viewing public sees female (and male) athletes. They may allow their biases to come out, intentionally or not, giving bias to the way the public views and thinks about female athletes, especially in alternative sports such as weight lifting, some track events, and other more assertive sports that require larger, more muscular bodies.
In conclusion, while women have made great strides in sports, they still have a long way to go. Women do not play in professional sports nearly as much as men do, and they do not receive the outrageous salaries that have become the norm in professional sports. Because of this, women athletes rarely gain the same attention and notoriety that men athletes enjoy. Some women do become well-known, such as the Williams sisters, but often that is because they are exceptional sisters and athletes, which makes them noteworthy. An excellent example of this is Natalie Coughlin, an Olympic swimmer who won five medals at the 2004 Olympics and six at the recent Beijing Olympics, and yet, her accomplishments were totally overshadowed by Michael Phelps and his string of Gold Medals. Phelps accomplishment was huge, but Coughlin’s was extremely impressive as well, and she did not receive nearly the media attention and subsequent product endorsements and fame that Phelps has enjoyed after the games. This indicates the gap between men and women in athletics today, and how far women still have to go to gain true equality with male athletes.
Author not Available. (2006). Five game-changers women’s sports. Coach & Athletic Director; Vol. 75 Issue 8, 83-84.
Carty, V. (2005). Textual portrayals of female athletes. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. Vol. 26 Issue 2, 132-155.
Editors. (2008). History of women in sports timeline. Retrieved 15 Sept. 2008 from the St. Lawrence County Branch American Association of University Women Web site: http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/timeline.htm
Gage, E.A. (2008). Gender attitudes and sexual behaviors: Comparing center and marginal athletes and nonathletes in a collegiate setting. Violence Against Women. Vol. 14: pp. 1014-1032.
Joyner-Kersee, J. (2008). Turning point. Good Housekeeping, 0017209X, Jul 2008, Vol. 247, Issue 1. 54.
Woods, J.T. (2009). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture. Eight Edition Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
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