The History and Significance of Women’s Achievements In Sports

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women’s movement and its achievements,
people often forget the contributions
of sports and women athletes to the
social and political emancipation of
women. Sport was and remains a way for
women to achieve positive life skills,
ensure physical health, and rebel against oppression.
From the late 1800s, sport was a way for women to gain
a measure of freedom in a society that greatly inhibited their
social choices. Of course, the advent of women emancipating
themselves through sport was very harshly criticized by
the male dominated society. For instance, the 1878 edition
of the American Christian Review showed a diagrammed
downfall for any woman who engaged in croquet.
1. A social party
2. Social and play party
3. Croquet party
4. Picnic and croquet party
5. Picnic, croquet and dance
6. Absence from church
7. Imprudent or immoral conduct
8. Exclusion from the church
9. A runaway match (more croquet)
10. Poverty and discontent
11. Shame and disgrace
12. Ruin
Many women saw sport as directly intertwined with the
growing suffrage movement. The activity that these
women saw as their means to establish some freedom was
bicycling. In the late 1800’s, leading suffragette Elizabeth
Cady Stanton stated, “Many a woman is riding to suffrage
on a bicycle.” Susan B. Anthony continued with more
detail about how bicycling and suffrage were meshed
together for women: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling.
I think it has done more to emancipate women than
anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom
and self reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a
woman ride by on a wheel.”
The early feminist movement saw equality in the field
of play as one of the fronts by which women could assert
their equality to men. While the general society stated that
women could not handle the rigors and physicality of
sport, Elizabeth Cady Stanton dispelled this myth by arguing,
“We cannot say what the woman might be physically,
if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy in romping,
swimming climbing, playing ball.”
More cracks came to the myth of male superiority in
the 1920s through the efforts of many female athletes. In
1922, Sybil Bauer broke the world (read: men’s) record for
the backstroke. In 1926, Olympic medalist Gertrude Ederle
was the first woman (and sixth person overall) to swim
the English Channel. She swam the Channel two hours
faster than any of the men who had previously achieved
the feat.
While women athletes were shattering male records,
the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) had refused to allow
women’s athletics. The AAU had been at the forefront of
social conservatism and alleged that women athletes
would likely be lesbians or have loose sexual morals. The
AAU succumbed to public pressure in 1924 and allowed
women’s athletics with the establishment of a women’s
track and field organization.
The patriarchal status quo was reeling when Mildred
Ella “Babe” Didrikson hit the sports scene. She won three
medals in the 1932 Olympics and excelled in multiple
sports, with her primary sport being golf. She dominated
the sports that she played. But such dominance and
achievement brought sexist backlash. Critics slimed
Didrikson by calling her “mannish” and that she “could
not compete with other girls in the very ancient and time
honored sport of mantrapping.” The allusions to lesbianism
and that talented female athletes lacked femininity
would be hallmarks of criticism that women athletes
would face. Yet, Didrikson did not yield to such criticisms
that she needed to appear more feminine and continued to
hone her vast talents. She was unapologetic about her athletic
prowess, even when confronted by the media who
routinely criticized her looks because they could not criticize
her ability. When a journalist asked her, “Is there anything
you don’t play?” Didrikson quickly responded,
“Yeah, dolls.”
While women athletes faced discrimination in their
sporting activities, it was even worse for African American
female athletes. Althea Gibson was the daughter of
sharecroppers and grew up in Harlem during the Great
Depression. Despite a difficult family environment and
academic troubles, Gibson excelled in table tennis.
Activists in the community quickly introduced her to
the Harlem tennis courts and assisted her training. She
was prohibited from playing in tournaments because
tennis was a segregated sport. It was not until former #1
tennis player in the world, Alice Marble, wrote a
scathing editorial stating, “Miss Gibson is over a very
cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to
loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis
is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we
acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious
hypocrites…. If Althea Gibson represents a
challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only
fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
Gibson was subsequently given entry into the 1950 US
While the world had its eyes focused on the civil
rights movement in the South and African Americans
like Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball,
Gibson’s entry into professional tennis broke tennis’s
color line. Gibson dominated professional tennis by
being the first to win a Grand Slam tour as well as backto-
back-to-back doubles titles at Wimbledon and the US
Open in 1956, 1957 and 1958. From 1956 to 1958,
Gibson was ranked in the top ten players of the world
and achieved the #1 ranking for 1957 and 1958. Gibson’s
monumental success struck a blow to both racial
and gender based discrimination.
As women achieved the right to control what happened
to their own bodies in Roe v. Wade and were fighting for
equal access to higher education with Title IX, this struggle
was aptly reflected in sport. On Sept. 22, 1973, Billie Jean
King took on Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”
King routed the sexist Riggs and gave further enthusiasm
to the movement for gender equality. King continued the
struggle for equal rights by establishing the Women’s Tennis
Association and in 1973; her organization got the US
Open to be the first professional tournament to offer identical
purses to the male and female winners. She also supported
women’s right to choose by being profiled in Ms.
with the title “I Had an Abortion.”
As sports have entered the last 25 years, women athletes
have continued to struggle for equal treatment in
society. During the 1980s, Martina Navratilova overwhelmed
competition and used her social status to speak
out about social justice issues, primarily acceptance of
homosexuality. Navratilova was an open lesbian athlete
and often gave her partner a prominent seat in the family
seating area during events. As an out and open athlete,
Navratilova helped to foster acceptance of the LBGT community
as well as equal rights for women.
In the last decade, the two most memorable faces of the
intersection of sports and the women’s rights movement
are the 1999 World Cup Women’s Soccer Team and the
Williams sisters in tennis.
During 1996, that women’s team successfully led a
strike, with mentoring from Billie Jean King, to ensure that
the women’s team received equal compensation to the
men’s team. In 1999, this team won the Women’s World
Cup and gave the world the immortalized picture of Brandi
Chastain celebrating scoring the winning goal. When
asked about the importance of their win, the US National
Team Coach stated, “They had an impact on America’s
consciousness, on women’s sports, on women’s voices.”
The success of these women athletes on the international
stage inspired numerous girls and women to get involved
in sport and gave them female role models of what they
could achieve.
Venus and Serena Williams are synonymous with the
pinnacle of tennis performance. Much like Althea Gibson,
the Williams sisters honed their skills on the public tennis
courts of Compton, California with the help of their father.
Through their dedication and hard work, they have
become positive role models for women everywhere.
Through sport and other forms of resistance, women
have gained numerous rights in the struggle toward full
social equality. Women gained a monumental boost with
the establishment of Title IX in 1973. Title IX gives women
equal opportunity and equal access to educational programs
and activities. It has given women and opportunity
to overcome discrimination in academic programs, but
also in sports. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation,
before Title IX there were 1 in 27 high school girls
playing sports. The ratio is now 1 in 3. The involvement of
women and girls in sports has had many positive outcomes.
Studies have shown a correlation between such
involvement and higher grades in school, better self
esteem, less early pregnancy and drug use, and higher
graduation rates.
While women athletes have made vital contributions
toward gender equality that have positive impacts on
athlete’s lives on and off the field, there are still battles
that need to be fought: swimsuit issues that sexualize
female athletes, photo shoots that promote an unhealthy
and dangerous style of beauty, and Maxim-style articles
that cheapen women’s sports into simple ogling festivals
of attractive female athletes. These are dangerous for
women’s physical and mental health. Similarly, this is
also dangerous for men. These images create a sexualized
stereotype of women athletes. Sexualized imagery
of athletes does not promote an appreciation for athleticism
or the sport being played, but rather treats women
as things to be objectified. Often, the most talented
women athletes will not be the ones focused on by the
media, but rather it is the athletes deemed “most attractive”
that receive the attention. Many of the talented
players are deemed “too mannish” and “not feminine
enough” for widespread appeal by mass media. Other
studies have shown that these sexualized images negatively
impact the interest level of males and females to
the sport being represented.
There is also the struggle for acceptance of gays, lesbians,
transgendered and queer players on teams. There have been
more open lesbian athletes like Martina Navratilova than
there have been male athletes. Sport should be an open
place for all players, no matter their sexual preference, to be
able to hone their skills and enjoy play.
As struggles remain on the forefront, it is important to
remember the valiant struggles that have gotten us this far
both in politics and sport so we can have motivation and
vigilance to continue the fight for social justice.
For further information about contributing to the struggle
of women and sports, check out the Women’s Sports
Foundation and the academic work of Prof. Pat Griffin.

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