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Holding Space - Issue #15

Dr Sheree Bekker (she/her)
Dr Sheree Bekker (she/her)
On the history of (the segregation of) women’s sport.

Well, it’s been an interesting weekend. A Twitter thread of mine went a little viral. As I write this, it’s had 7 million impressions and 500 thousand engagements.
Clearly it struck a chord.
Tweet Analytics page showing 7 million impressions and 500 thousand engagements
Tweet Analytics page showing 7 million impressions and 500 thousand engagements
I’ve had lots of people ask me if I’d write the full thread up in a different medium to make it more accessible outside of Twitter, so here it is.
On the history of (the segregation of) women's sport
I have been hearing more and more frequently the narrative that women’s sport apparently exists as a ‘protected category’ so that women can win (because on this account no woman will ever win again without this protected category).
This:
a) is not the reason why women’s sport exists as a category, and
b) it is not true that no woman will ever win again.
This narrative is also profoundly paternalistic and keeps women small.
I wanted to unpack this a little:
A. It is important to know that women’s sport exists as a category because the dominance of men was threatened by women competing.
We see this over and over again in the history of sport:
Exhibit A1: Figure Skating
In 1902 Madge Syers enters the World Champs and comes 2nd (no rule preventing her from entering, though no woman has ever entered before). By 1903 women were banned from the World Championships. Then, in 1905, we have a segregated women’s category.
Exhibit A2: Skeet Shooting
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, Zhang Shang wins the Gold Medal. The event had always been an open event (so no gendered categories). By the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, women are banned from skeet shooting. Then, at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games we have a segregated women’s category (in which there are fewer targets for women).
Exhibit A3: Football (soccer)
In 1920 women’s football is thriving in the UK with 53000 strong crowds (men had been off fighting in WW1)**. Then, in1921, the Football Association bans women’s football (men had returned from WW1). It is only fifty (50!) years later in 1971 that ban on women’s football is lifted. And women’s football is still recovering today.
More examples exist (I have since learned about the fascinating history of a ban in baseball, for example) but the pattern is clear: where women were included (or simply included themselves) it was only when they started threatening men’s dominance/entitlement that they were segregated into a separate category.
This is why we still often see the categories described as ‘Sport’ & ‘Women’s Sport’.
Women’s inclusion was on the terms of those in power. They didn’t want women ‘taking opportunities’ away from men so they segregated women.
It was never about a benevolent (still sexist) aim of supposedly ‘giving women a chance to win’.
It was about control.
And the narrative (B) about women being inherently physically inferior to men?
Concocted as a reason to segregate us without threatening masculinity.
There are once again greater fears here that women may start to challenge men’s dominance more broadly.
Indeed we are already starting to see this:
Exhibit B1: women are beating men in ultra-endurance racing (particularly fascinating is the story of Jasmin Paris who won the Spine Race and smashed the record held by a man by 12 hours, all whilst breastfeeding her young child).
Exhibit B2: women are crushing big wave surfing (in 2020 Maya Gabeira surfed the biggest wave of the year in a record-breaking feat, Maggie Mertens explains here why you wouldn’t have heard about her feat).
Exhibit B3: The ban on men pacemaking for women (currently women are not allowed to have men pacemakers in the women’s marathon because, apparently, it makes women ‘artificially faster’)
Exhibit B4: shooting again (women are outgunning men in 10m air rifle - this article is…interesting…in its quest to try to explain why)
I share all this to show that things often look different when you know the history, and that it is important to interrogate what we think we know about men’s supposed physical superiority. [We make a similar point in our research article about gender and knee (ACL) injuries here.]
There are some really lovely real-life examples and research studies that show that the more men participate in sport against women, the more they are willing to accept that women can be good athletes too. For example, this has been shown in basketball, football, and mixed-gender martial arts and combat sports. I’d love to see more of this.
This is why inclusion is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes us *all better.
And this all is why I will always fight for the inclusion of trans women in women’s sport.
Just as cis women are kept small, so too are trans women kept small. As Chase Strangio and Gabriel Arkles write in their article debunking myths about trans athletes: “The idea that women and girls have an advantage because they are trans ignores the actual conditions of their lives.” Our liberation (and excellence!) is bound up together.
Sport isn’t inherently gendered. We manufacture strict binary gendered differences, and then we naturalise them. Understanding and interrogating this helps us to understand the panic and fearmongering around women’s sport right now, and where we might go next.
I’ll end with this paragraph on women’s sport as a radically inclusive space (from Professor Jennifer Doyle):
“Women’s sports is not a defensive structure from which men are excluded so that women might flourish. It is, in fact, the opposite of this: it is, potentially, a radically inclusive space which has the capacity to destroy the public’s ideas about gender and gender difference precisely because gender is always in play in women’s sports in ways that it is not in men’s sports (with a few exceptions — e.g. figure skating). Because men have been so committed to the “end of women’s sports” for so long, women’s sports thrives in the zone of destruction. It has its own character thanks to the gender trouble at its origin. If women’s sports has one job that really is different from men’s sports, it is the destruction of sex/gender difference. Men’s sports (with a few exceptions which prove the rule) reinforce ideologies of gender difference. Women’s sports destroy them.”
It is possible to have a different conversation here.
Gender expansiveness gives us all permission to break free from - and take up space beyond - societal norms, and I’m very much here for that.
Onward.
***I want to add here that Professor Jean Williams has kindly shared with me that this may have unfolded differently from the way the FA describes this history on their official website. She has also shared some more fascinating history that makes an even stronger point: 160 matches were played by the British ladies football club from 1894 onwards and increasingly against men. These drew some of the largest crowds into 1902 when the FAA ruled that men teams may not play against ladies teams.
Don’t miss out on the other issues by Dr Sheree Bekker (she/her)
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Dr Sheree Bekker (she/her)
Dr Sheree Bekker (she/her) @shereebekker

Sensemaking for narrative change at the intersection of gender and sport.

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