Throughout history women have been discriminated against in many aspects of societal life, and athletics is no exception. Although there is a long-standing history of women participating in recreational athletics, it was not until the passing of Title IX as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that women began to participate in competitive sports.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program or activity which receives federal funding. Not only did it open doors for female student athletes, it also shattered the stigma that women could not be both academic and athletic.
The Sport Journal cited, in an article titled “The History of Women in Sport prior to Title IX,” facts from 100 years prior to the passing of Title IX. The article states, “Horseback riding for pleasure, showboating, and swimming became fashionable, but women were not encouraged to exert themselves. Such physical activity for a woman was thought to be especially hazardous because during menstruation she was ‘periodically weakened.’” It also stated that, “Both muscular and brain labor must be reduced at the onset of menstruation.”
In the early 1900s, the Sport Journal publication said women began to form athletic clubs for activities such as archery, bowling, croquet and tennis but they were mostly informal. Women divisions of collegiate sports also began to form but they were widely unrecognized because the competitions were mostly intramural rather than extramural. For years, women clamored at chances to participate in intercollegiate competitions.
Although many women were forced into recreational clubs, a few managed to break into the spotlight. One of those women was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Zaharias actively competed in basketball, track and field and golf competitions and was known as the greatest athletes of the 20th century according to Encyclopædia Britannica. In the 1930s, not only was she part of the women’s All-American basketball team but she also competed in the track and field events at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She took gold for the 800-meter hurdles and the javelin throw and silver in the high jump.
After years of sparse competitive play, women finally broke out into the limelight of athletics during the second world war. In the 1940s, men from across the country left their homes to fight in the war, leaving gaps in many industries to be filled by women. Many are familiar with the character “Rosie the Riveter,” whose strength and solidarity encouraged women to enter into the workforce, but factories weren’t the only new place women could be found. In 1943 the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was founded in an effort to replace the regular baseball league while the men were at war. Over 600 women joined the league and their legacy was exemplified in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.” After the war, when the league was disbanded, support for women athletes had grown enough to spread female athletic competitions. This support grew through the ‘50s and ‘60s until, in 1969, there were finally national championships for gymnastics and track and field. Swimming, badminton, and volleyball were added to the schedule in 1970 and in 1972, basketball was included.
In 1976, a, editorial by Kathie Neff in the Nashua Telegraph spoke highly of women’s changing role in athletics but also pointed out the shortcomings and stereotypes which persisted in health clubs. She pointed out that the focus of most women’s athletic programs was to “shape up” rather than condition their muscles or actually get fit, implying that it was more important for a woman to look good rather than actually be healthy. Neff not only sees this stereotype of the “weak woman” evident in athletics but in the realm of employment as well. Many women were not hired into positions which require physical activity. The example Neff uses is the police force. Women were not often hired as officers because it was not thought that they could handle themselves if faced with a large attacker on the beat, but Neff points out that with specific training, women could actually be at an advantage in an altercation with a large man.
Neff concludes her article with a quote that still rings true for women today and really speaks to their potential and need for equality. She said, “Women’s bodies are not merely convenient housing for their internal organs, Nor are they the cosmetic afterthought of the Great Creator. They are useful, powerful instruments, and, in that regard, not all that different from men’s.”
Abbygail Vasas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org