Going the Distance: Women and Sport

The sports stories generating headlines this summer are not about the Olympics as planned, but rather, the growing activism forcing the sports world to acknowledge its sexist, racist, heterosexist, and ableist culture. The WNBA Black Lives Matter protest is one of many solidarity actions. Mounting public pressure has finally shamed long-resistant sports teams into changing their racist names. There’s even been a public apology by NFL head Roger Goodell for not listening to players about racism.
The struggle for equality in sport has a long history. A look at the Rise Up archive quickly reveals that feminist challenges to gendered inequality in sports have been, to quote an 1983 Herizons article, “fraught with ambiguities” (p.30).

Cover image from a 1978 issue of Branching Out focusing on Women and Sport. The original caption (not shown here) reads: “Could this woman bake a cherry pie?”.

Artist: Maureen Paxton

Addressing gendered inequality in sport has meant different things to different people. For some, equality has meant having the opportunity to play sports from which women have been historically excluded. For others, it has been about the right to train alongside and compete against men and boys. A number of court cases (p.36 of the .pdf) addressed this issue, including that of Justine Blainey, whose fight to play boys’ hockey was finally won on appeal in 1986.

For still others, equality has meant gaining recognition for women’s physical abilities and achievements. In an interview published in Branching Out (p.22 of the .pdf), M. Ann Hall puts this need for recognition clearly, stating: “It’s as if there is only one ideal in sport and that’s the male. Women athletes are never truly recognized as individuals pursuing something that’s worthwhile in its own right…” 

In education and recreation, as well as competitive athletics, just getting access to the level of facilities, funding, training, and programmes available to men and boys has been a struggle. Opportunities for leadership positions and careers in sport, let alone governing bodies, were, and are, limited. And when it comes to popular media, coverage has not only been disproportionately in favour of men’s sports, but its chauvinistic tone has often undermined women’s achievements. Upstream had a regular section on sports that examined many of these issues, including “‘Womansport’–What’s been done?” (p.16) and other critiques of federal policy.

Lyrics to “Gym II” by Meg Christian, published in the April 1983 edition of Herizons (p.29). Beneath the lyrics, Herizons included the caption:

“A founding mother of women’s music, Meg Christian records for Olivia Records, a national women’s recording company. Gym II is from her latest album ‘Turning It Over’. Through her music, women feel validation, strength, humor, pride—and the power and energy that accompany a woman in transition to a new identity.” 

This longstanding exclusion, underrepresentation, and under-resourcing of women in sport has long been premised on the idea of women as not-quite-women when they want to compete, including potential questioning of their sexuality. Betty Baxter’s “outing” and subsequent firing as head coach of the Canada’s national women’s volleyball team in 1982 is just one example of this chilling effect.
The history of keeping women out of sport has also been supported by stereotypes about gender and frailty, faux-concern about impacts on women’s reproductive capacity, and assumptions about women’s “gentler nature.” In an article for the  Winnipeg Women’s Liberation Newsletter (p.8), Abby Hoffman recounted her own experiences, noting that “[r]egrettably the international governing bodies of sport have helped to perpetuate one myth: that some of those girls out there aren’t quite girls. And their solution to this problem is the sex test”. The struggle of Caster Semenya and others who have challenged the dichotomous nature of sexed and gendered bodies demonstrates clearly that the troublesome male-female divide in sport persists.

The reality is that, in the 1960s and 1970s  “few feminist groups …rallied on behalf of women in sport” (p.4 of .pdf). Many of those who might have otherwise mobilized had been so discouraged from sport their whole lives that it did not feel like a feminist issue. Others rejected sport outright, having no wish to “replicate male sport hierarchies, pseudo-militaristic training or the win-at-any-cost mentality” (p. 30 of .pdf).
Yet change was taking place. More women athletes emerged over time, providing new role models. The establishment of organizations like the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport created new pathways to recognition and new ways of representing women in sport.  For those outside the world of athletic competition, fitness and self-defence training bred new pride in strong bodies and spirit. Some, such as the NotsoAmazon Collective, aimed to redefine the rules to “allow all women, regardless of skill level, to play together in an atmosphere of cooperation and camaraderie”.
Still, progress towards equity in sport has been uneven and slow. Today’s headlines, perhaps, offer new hope.

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