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I love watching World Cup Soccer. This summer, I have had the pleasure of watching elite women’s teams battle it out on an international stage. Of course it doesn’t hurt to be a fan of the most dominate team, the U.S Women’s National Team. As I watch, I cannot help but think about the various discussions about the pay gap between the U.S Men’s National Team and the U.S. Women’s National Team.
In the 1830s, medical ‘experts’ showed concern over the frailty of (primarily upper class) women and advocated moderate exercise. By the turn of the century, United States women showed increasing interest in sport, resulting in some attention to the “athletic girl,” as a symbol of modern womanhood. In the 1880s and 90s, the bicycling craze opened up athleticism to middle class and elite women. Frances Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, took up cycling, along with 30,000 + other women. Willard learned to ride at the age of 53 and wrote an essay about the experience called A Wheel Within a Wheel; How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. Willard recommended bicycling because it lay to rest the “old fables, myths, and follies associated with the idea of women’s incompetence” in athletics.
In response to female cyclists, some experts warned that excess riding caused women serious physiological damage. These experts cautioned against the risk of uterine displacement, spinal shock, pelvic damage, and hardened abdominal muscles. In addition, avid cyclists could also develop facial muscles into a hideous “bicycle face,” notable for a protruding jaw, wild staring eyes, and strained expression. In other words, while some found cycling to be liberating, exhilarating, and a source of fellowship and exercise, others saw cycling as dangerous and threatening.
In particular, skeptics were convinced that sport would turn the female body into a facsimile of the male. According to Cahn, “the female athlete kindled acute anxieties about the erosion of men’s physical supremacy and the loss of distinct male and female preserves.” Critics found evidence to support their claims: Dudley Sargent admitted, “It is only by taking on masculine attributes that success in certain forms of athletics can be won.” Dr. G.L. Meylan remarked that women’s small shoulders and large hips disqualified them from gymnastic expertise. Meylan also advised against women participating in gymnastics because “of course, we should not care to see our women teachers of physical training…approach the masculine type.”
By WWI, the experts gradually articulated an athletic philosophy for women than emphasized moderation. Physical educators worked particularly hard to shield women from the supposed physical and moral dangers of uncontrolled “masculine” athletic games. They established female separatism. By establishing separate women’s departments that offered specially modified “female” versions of “male” games, educators differentiate women’s activities from the more strenuous male versions of sport. In this way, they believed women could gain the traditional benefits of sport – including health, fun, cooperation without fears of sexual harm or the “taint of masculinity.”
As I reflect on the arguments for and against women in sport, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that FIFA isn’t going to make international soccer co-ed any time soon. But what happens when identity politics are less important than the sport itself? Is that even possible in today’s climate?
I keep cycling back to Frances Willard’s observation on co-ed bicycling – that it encouraged “good fellowship and mutual understanding between men and women who take the road together . . . rejoicing in the poetry of motion.”
Susan K. Cahn, Coming On Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport, 2nd edition, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015.