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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.

Why is sport so clearly defined in terms of gender?
Susan K. Cahn, a historian who studies sport, asks this question in her book, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Women’s Sport.

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.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

9 Comments

  • Thank you for this.

    I am amazed at the fears we had (maybe still do) about women’s achievements and the fears we had of women using their bodies. Do men simply fear being out-done by women?

    • Tom says:

      Just curious why so often the go-to conclusion so often is that “men are sexist”? There are all kinds of things people used to believe that we now find ridiculous:
      – when the steam locomotive was first invented, there was serious concern that if a person travelled at a speed greater than what a horse can run, you would die (regardless of gender, I might add).
      – drinking Radium was thought to be healthy
      – many doctors recommended smoking cigarettes to solve problems with the lungs
      – and on and on and on . . .

      Sometimes people aren’t sexist (or rascist, or homophobic, or whatever) they’re just dumb.

      • Rebecca Koerselman says:

        I did not realize the conclusion was “men are sexist.” Instead, I intended to explore the origins of the separation between males and females in sports to shed light on why this distinction is still a source of conflict. My conclusion, in the words of Willard, suggested that co-ed sport is fun.
        I also agree that we have been, are, and will be dumb. What are we doing/believing now that our grandkids and greatgrandkids will find ridiculous?

        • Eric Van Dyken says:

          “co-ed sport is fun”

          Yes and no. Start with co-ed boxing and mixed martial arts and fun would go out the window quite quickly.
          Also, it would not be so fun for women to be summarily excluded from the majority of major sporting events because their athletic achievement would not measure up. Simply put, male athletes are faster, stronger and quicker than female athletes. If all Olympic events, for example, were co-ed in nature, the opportunity for women to compete would be basically nonexistent. I assume what you are pining for looks different.

          Even removed from high-grade competition, co-ed sports can be fun but also fraught. Men grabbing women in wrestling maneuvers like they clutch other men is not without troubling aspects. Also, at the recreational level, the physical differences between women and men can make for difficulty playing together. I played a number of co-ed intramural sports in college. I once broke a girl’s arm in co-ed floor hockey in a physical collision that would like have been rather benign between two guys.

        • Tom says:

          Coming back to this much later, but I apologize Rebecca, my reply was not meant for you but to the previous comment (“the fears we had (maybe still do) about women’s achievements”). I enjoyed your post, just am frequently puzzled by how some folks very easily impute bad motives when the explanation is much simpler.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Illuminating.

  • RLG says:

    So who’s going to clean house, watch the kids, and cook supper?

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