Women and Sport

by Summer R. Owen

Victorian Women and Sport

"Feminism is about freedom: the individual and collective liberty to make decisions. Sports have freed women, and continue to free women, from restrictive dress, behaviors, laws and customs-and from the belief that women can't or shouldn't achieve or compete or win" (Nelson xi).

The subject of women and sport has been intriguing and shocking throughout many centuries. In this writing, I am going to focus on the birth of acceptable women's sport in the Victorian era as compared to the modern female sport. The following paragraphs highlight women in both eras while concentrating on the history of women and sport, the sports played by women, and the future of women in sport.

The importance of studying women in sport is inarguably one of the most influential and overlooked topics of the women's movement. In the sports arena women are given the opportunity to level with men. To be given the opportunity to succeed is a landmark milestone in itself throughout women's history. The overall importance of this topic is further summed up by Mariah Burton Nelson: "sport alters the balance of power between the sexes. It changes lives. It empowers women, thereby inexorably changing everything" (x).

The true beginning of women in sport occurred between the years of 1840-1901: the Victorian era. Due to women having "higher educational opportunities, an increasing number [ . . .] in the workforce, technological advancements, urbanization and immigration (Powell 3)," women had increasingly more opportunities. This wave of change in the Victorian era also influenced sports participation. Due to some of these changes, women were slowly being allowed to participate in a sport experience. The constraints that most closely inhibited women's sport participation were "women's physiology, fashion, and social expectations" (Powell 10). In the Victorian era, the physiology of women was the number one reason society limited her participation in many activities. Women playing croquet Strangely enough, "the assumption of women's health being governed by her womb was not seriously challenged until later in the twentieth century" (Powell 14). Any ailment that a woman had from a sore throat to back pain was thought to be related to the uterus (Powell 14). Physicians agreed with the theory that all women were frail and weak making them unable to participate in sport. Despite the health warnings, women wanted the freedom to play sports. As women began participation, the college athlete arose as the trendsetter of the time. Some "opponents [to women's sport] inferred that college women who participated in exercise would become unfeminine, muscular, and subject to uterine damage" (Powell 36). However, some people also believed that physical exercise could benefit women by helping with the birthing process (note how both sides come back to the uterus). The beginning of women's sport were feeble but, "women's demand for sport and physical education were expressions of varied attempts at female liberation that would become increasingly evident as the century matured" (Vertinsky 63).

Women playing tennisDuring the rise in female athleticism, certain sports were deemed suitable for beginning women players. One of the popular womanly sports was croquet. Croquet allowed both women and men to play together, which opened up new social frontiers. Croquet was "one of the most popular sports both on and off college campus for a short period of time despite warnings that it would make players round-shouldered" (Powell 40). Archery was another sport which women were allowed to participate in alongside of men. Archery "was one of the first organized competitive sports for women, who were included as members of many archery clubs and were allowed to participate regularly in tournaments" (Vertinsky 70). Another sport that women adapted well to was golf. Although golf was restricted to only the very wealthy (the aspect of class and sport will be addressed later), the game became very popular. By the end of the century, "women who were wives or daughters of members were allowed to play on all but one of the 1200 golf club courses and some clubs had established Ladies Day" (Powell 62). However, tennis was the most popular sport of the entire Victorian era. The popularity of tennis once again came with men and women getting to play together and also that women could play without being perceived as unfeminine. The tennis that was played in the 1880's was a far cry from what we play today. It was usually played on the lawns of the rich or at country club (Vertinsky 70). The net was also higher looking very similar to today's badminton. Tennis was a sport that was only played by the wealthy for primarily social outings. It was also thought at first to be a sport only for women because of its slow pace (Davenport 1169). One last popular sport that revolutionized society was bicycling. For women, "bicycling offered the potential for physical mobility and the benefits of healthy, active recreation, as well as a new sense of liberty from restrictive dress and chaperonage" (Vertinsky 70). Bicycling called for women to wear lose unrestrictive dress with no corset and even to turn to bloomers or knickerbockers as dress alternatives. Thus, "it was eventually exercise, not fashion, which provided the key that unlocked women from the corset prison" (Powell 21).

From all of the innovations that came from women in sport, dress reform had the greatest impact and reach of any social change. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, sports were the true cause for the dress reform of the latter part of the Victorian era. Also, the women who were at the forefront of the fashion and sport trend were college women. The college women "were assimilated into society, and they provided the role model and acted as the catalyst that propelled other women into sport" (Powell 52). These women were mostly in an all-girls environment which allowed for greater freedom from societal norms. This environment coupled with the women being educated, trendsetters allowed for the perfect environment for sports. Since college women had great involvement in sports, "when they returned home they exposed their social strata to demands for sports participation" (Powell 55). Since different sports were becoming socially acceptable, women of all classes with leisure ability were participating in sport. From all of this sport interest, came the dress reform. The true begging of dress reform was at Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr Universities. The women at these colleges saw the need for bloomers for their bicycles and short sleeves for tennis (Vertinsky 74). They were the women who first wore the shocking new attire. The bicycle "was credited as being the stimulus for dress reform and the encouraging of exercise" (Powell 85). The women who took to the bicycle demanded loosened corsets, and even a more functional shoe. So, the era of the sports women was created with the most assistance form higher educational institutions, however; the real implications of this time are far greater than sport.

"As a number of determined women pursed opportunities in the public domain, they also sought the right to use their own bodies as they wished, by choosing to marry or not, by pursuing professional careers, and by playing tennis or golf or riding a bicycle" (Patricua Vertinsky).

Modern Women and Sport

Needless to say, today is a far cry from the feeble beginnings of women in sport. In 1972 the most important piece of legislation for women in sport was passed. Title IX, the Educational Amendment Act, stated that "federal money could not be given to public school programs that discriminated against girls" (Steiner 9). Schools were forced to have equal men's and women's sports, equal scholarship funds, and equal equipment. This legislation marked the beginning of modern sport. The conflicts that followed and still resonate today are enormous, however; the law still stands. The reasons women participate in sport today have much to do with body image. Today women athletes are perceived as beautiful and their bodies are desired by women. Female "athletes reposes their bodies" (Nelson x). In fact, it has become some what of an obsession among pop culture in America to be fit and toned. In addition "to dietary aids and cosmetic surgery, physical exercise has also become a commodity in the highly commercialized be auty culture" (Choi 64). There are numerous sports and fitness magazines and publications distributed to women who can not wait to try the new featured butt workout or the new overnight diet. Thumbing through a popular magazine, I see strong, beautiful, model-like women who are showing the readers what they should look like and be like. According to Wiseman's survey of American magazines, "they found a significant increase in the number of diet, exercise articles in the last fifteen years" (Choi 64). Sport today, is about beauty, image, and power.  Texas Rowing

The women athletes of today strive for bigger challenges than ever. In today's society, it is acceptable for women to participate in any sport she desires. Women are body builders, power lifters, football players, and ballerinas. Women athletes are now expected to lift weights and show their body definition. According to Muscle and Fitness Hers, "women should do medium to heavy weight training three times a week to see maximum results in their body" (Boubion 64). Women athletes play and challenge men athletes in almost any sport. The typical athlete is an empowered woman who is competitive, strong and enjoys taking risks. Today there are women's professional football and basketball leagues. From Muscle and Fitness Hers, a player on the women's pro football team, Quake, quotes: "tackle football is the last of sports that women don't play, the last of area that Title IX hasn't reached" Lara McLashan also says that "For me it's exciting because-not that I picture myself as major barrier-smashing femini st-it's something women haven't had a chance to do, and now we're doing it".

The future for women in sport seems very bright with all of the innovation and talent on the horizon. Women are ever more empowered by their sporting ability; in fact, women are a dominating force in some sports such as running and bodybuilding. While playing sports, "women use their bodies to do as they please. If in that process female bodies look unladylike-if they become bruised or bloody or simply unattractive-that seems irrelevant" (Nelson x). Women today use their bodies for whatever purpose they want. They enjoy working out not with the fears of looking "manly" but with the desire for health and power.

"Lunging for a soccer ball, women do not worry if their hair looks attractive.Leaping over a high bar, they do not wish they had bigger breasts.  Strapped snugly into a race car, roaring around a track at 220 miles per hour, they do not smile and wave" (Nelson x).

Women athletes are empowered by their ability to challenge their bodies with whatever activity they choose. Women athletes do not necessarily call themselves a feminist or a revolutionary, but without even realizing it, they are making a profound statement to the world: "we are redefining what it means to be an athlete and a woman."  UCSB Field Hockey

Not Quite There

Although the future for women in athletics is bright, women have a long way to go before they begin to truly invade "the old boys club." Referring back to Title IX, "not surprisingly, the men's organizations fought Title IX compliance guidelines in Congress" (Hult 98).Without truly mentioning it, most men in the sports arena, especially football and basketball, do not understand why women's and men's sports should be considered equal on any basis but primarily a financial one. Title IX stands, but that does not mean women have won the respect of their male counterparts. I am a rower for the University of Texas, which was added due to Title IX compliance. Yes, we do get a lot of funding, but are we equal to male sports? We are not even close. Like Title IX, "the resolution of the broad issues concerning equity and freedom of participation for women in sport lies in the future" (Vertinsky 79). Women in the WNBA get paid less than the professional men, and not to mention all of the other professional women ath letes who barely make a living. When was the last time you saw a women's athletic event in prime time? Women athletes are not taken too seriously outside of the collegiate level. It has become a societal norm to be interested in men's athletics but not women's. Even in high schools the women play at 5:30 and the men play at the 7 o'clock prime time slot. Little girls are raised hearing, "wow, what a beautiful throw. You've got an arm like a guy. Yes she loves sports. She's our little tomboy" (Hart 30). American society accepts women's subservient role to men in athletics. Needless to say, women have a long road ahead to reach, if ever, true equality with men.

Telling women they are weak only makes them stronger. Telling women they are not good enough pushes them harder. Women athletes are an impassioned, hardworking, and dedicated group of women who will persevere no matter what society's hand should deal them.


copyright 2005 - Team David Salon