As with most other aspects of life in Western patriarchal societies, women have had to fight hard for their proper place at the table in the world of sports. From the beginning of their fight for equity in modern sports with the Olympic Games to the ongoing struggles faced by female athletes today, here’s a look at the last century and change of achievements in women’s sports, both the crowning moments and the trailblazers who made it happen.
Early Beginnings: Women’s World Games
The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and competition was almost entirely exclusive to male athletes for the first 36 years they occurred. Though women began competing in 1900, they made up a tiny percentage of the total athletes involved and were limited to a select share of sports like tennis, golf and sailing. The wave of social change began to rise in the 1920s as women began to earn the right to vote in more and more countries.
From there, the dam began to burst, with women fighting for their fair share in increasingly wide-reaching venues: one of those being athletic competitions. Despite the blowing winds of change, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) remained steadfast in their desire to prevent women from competing on a broad basis.
Sports requiring higher levels of physical exertion like sprinting or throwing events in track and field remained off the table, as outdated views of modesty and pseudoscientific belief held that strenuous exercise would harm a woman’s reproductive organs or even prove fatal. Katherine Switzer was the first woman to run in and complete a marathon, and she did so nearly a half century later in 1967, fighting off a race manager who tried to remove her race bib and thus disqualify her from officially competing.
Without an official endorsement from the IOC, those trailblazing women of the 1920s decided to spur change themselves. Every four years from 1922 to 1934, female athletes competed at the Women’s World Games, an offshoot competition sponsored by the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale in order to blaze a trail for female athletes.
Competitors showed that they couldn’t just hold their own during arduous track and field events, they could also excel at them, which helped increase the popularity of women’s spectator sports. Women were able to compete in the 1936 Olympics, but the battle still wasn’t entirely won, as female athletes have had to conquer additional hurdles to those on the playing field in the time since then.
Trailblazers, Old and New
Here in the United States, women’s soccer—the US Women’s National Team, in particular—and the WNBA have become the major battlegrounds in the fight for sporting equity.
They’re gaining more popularity than they used to enjoy, whether with the little things like betting promos or the fanfare associated with the World Cup, but there’s still a long way to go: with increased notoriety comes increased opposition.
Players on the Women’s National Team have received quite a bit of backlash for their outspoken styles, both on the pitch and in the arena of fighting for social change.
Soccer champion Megan Rapinoe of the USWNT, for instance, has become an incredibly polarizing figure. Rapinoe isn’t afraid to speak her mind and be herself, whether she’s talking politics, the gender gap or her own life and experience as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. She doesn’t shy away from hard truths, and her candid personality makes her an easy target for misogynist hatred, showing how far we still have to come as a society if female athletes are hated for being themselves… a quality that people love when it’s the straight white male athletes doing so.
With regards to other trailblazers in women’s sports, many of the early activists of the modern era never received the recognition they deserved: instead of receiving a gold medal, Olympic champions received porcelain plates or other inauspicious prizes. Some never even realized they were world champions, never informed of the gravity of the games they competed in, left as an afterthought among the fanfare.
Women’s Sports: Where We Stand Now
Even with all the advances of the past century, even with pioneers like Rapinoe, Switzer and tennis icon Serena Williams, women’s sports still haven’t managed to occupy their rightful share of viewership or revenue in the United States.
We’ve seen that start to change in the past couple of years, with the WNBA receiving an extra layer of focus from fans and media alike. The league is heavily subsidized by the NBA, which helps to keep it afloat as they fight to become self-sustaining.
Detractors of women’s sports attack the physical ability of the athletes, saying that their game isn’t as compelling as the men’s counterpart because of the discrepancy in physical talent.
If a female athlete shows herself to be a physical powerhouse, however, she’s immediately derided with homophobic or transphobic comments.
We’ve come a long way since the early 1900s, sure, but it’s easy to show progress when the initial benchmark was painfully low. There’s still a long way to go, and these modern trailblazers will be at the forefront of the push for equity, absorbing hatred and opposition just like their predecessors did.
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Featured image: Champions of women's sports: Megan Rapinoe (center), Serena Williams (right), courtesy of Fan Go Sports