"One Of Feminism's Stickiest Subjects": The Sports Question

Illustration for article titled "One Of Feminism's Stickiest Subjects": The Sports Question

Writes Judy Berman in Salon, "Although women's bodies can do incredible, unique things of their own (childbirth, anyone?), men seem to have a biological advantage when it comes to feats of strength and speed." But of course it's more complicated:

Berman's thoughtful meditation is prompted by British writer Dominic Lawson's assertion that sports should be unsegregated, freed from the "apartheid" that leads to controversies like that surrounding Caster Semenya. And in a theoretical sense, you can see his points; the distinctions can become very tricky - and very fraught. (Although, on a social level, track is already one of the most integrated.) Says Berman:

What should a "woman" be, for the purposes of international sports? Should socially constructed gender and biological sex be part of the equation? Should believable-looking girl parts be enough to pass the test? (And, if so, what do we do about transwomen athletes?) Or is this extensive battery of medical and psychological testing necessary? And, perhaps most important of all, is enforcing whatever standard we choose worth publicly destroying the lives and identities of athletes who have only ever known themselves to be women?


But at the same time, says Berman, would such a proposal really achieve much? It could even, she suggests,

have a dramatically negative effect on women athletes, from the elementary-school level all the way up through Olympians. If female medalists become rare, and if only a few young women each year make their high school's co-ed soccer team, it's easy to imagine girls becoming alienated from sports. Why even try if you're so unlikely to achieve anything you can be proud of?

I agree with this point - and I'd add that there are a lot of social and communal benefits to single-sex sports, perhaps especially for young women. In addition to the obvious benefits of bonding, leadership and mutual inspiration - to say nothing of healthy competition - there's a lot to be said for creating an oasis from the highly-charged sexuality of adolescence - whatever the orientations of the folks involved (since I think the kind of public expressions or pressures I'm referring to tend to be pretty heteronormative at the high school level.) Of course, though, this point works a lot better in a post Title IX perfect world where women's sports are given respect and girls are given the same encouragement and equivalent opportunities. And frankly, I'd worry less about making adult sports co-ed than about encouraging a true equality; it's only "apartheid" if you consider one group inferior.

Women should obviously be given a chance to play football with men when there's no equivalent girl's team and not enough interest to found one - at any rate, they should have the chance to try out. But it's important to remember that it goes both ways. In my progressive high school, there was a boy who wanted to play field hockey and, since there was no equivalent boys' team, he won the right to do so. At 14, he was about the size of most of his teammates and opponents. Three years in, let's just say the team was dominant and there were grumblings from rival schools.

The issue's a lot less complicated at the child's level, where kids are still on an equal physical playing field - literally, too, since the 1974 lawsuit forcing Little League to admit girls. The fact that girls are still underrepresented is a good demonstration that Lawson's utopian suggestions wouldn't solve everything. As Bob Cook writes on TrueSlant, the fact that there are two girls ( Katie Reyes, and Bryn Stonehouseat) at this year's Little League World Series is notable. But, he adds, there's a "groundswell of support" for those girls who wish to play baseball rather than softball. Says he, "As it turns out, there are more female-only baseball organizations forming for the benefit of girls who would like to play the sport without having to put up with the male bullshit. Part of the ultimately unsuccessful bid to get baseball back for the 2016 Olympics was to have men's and women's baseball events." And that, at least, is equal-opportunity discrimination.

The End Of Sex-Segregated Sports [Salon]
No Sexing, Please – Let's All Race Together [TimesUK]
Girls Play Baseball, Too [TrueSlant]


Phillipa Marlowe

Can I just say this? The whole platform from which we judge athletic prowess is determined by a male-dominated athletic sport structure. Sports, in their origination, were designed to show off 'manly' abilities. It's so hard now to separate our understand of strength, speed, power from the mechanisms of measurement that are dictated by the particular abilities of male bodies.