On July 30, 1996, fifteen women stood on a podium surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people and felt like all their dreams had come true. Those who watched them knew that they had come a long way to get where they were today, not because of the controversial loss a few days before and the strive to get back to the top, but because of the struggle that women have had for centuries to be accepted in the sports world. As those fifteen women stood there and saw the hundreds of reporters and television stations they knew that, even if only a little, they had been accepted into the sports world.
Those fifteen women were the members of the 1996 Olympic softball team. They were standing on that podium after beating China in the championship game, to receive their gold medals. Twenty-five years earlier no one would have thought that so many people would be excited about a women’s team. In 1971 most schools and community activities had little opportunity for girls and women to play sports. In 1972, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 was made a federal law.
Title IX states:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid. (Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972)
Before Title IX, “many schools saw no problem in refusing to admit women or having strict limits” (Women’s Sports Foundation). Once Title IX was put into effect, officials could no longer refuse to allow women to participate in sports. Although the law gave women the right to participate in any sport, it didn’t stop officials from making it difficult for them. There were few opportunities for them to participate and little support from society. In the 1800’s the Declaration of Independence proclaimed, “all men are created equal,” and yet we seem to forget this when it comes to women playing sports. There have always been more opportunities for men than for women.
Historians present women’s sporting experiences as if they were rooted only in modern society and became increasingly more complex and common. The latter description is accurate for a particular period, such as the twentieth century, but across time, their sporting experiences were more episodic than evolutionary. They were constantly being shaped by the social, economic and political experiences. Women’s role in sport in the United States can be divided into three major periods: the colonial era, the transitional nineteenth century, and the age of modern sports (Women’s Sports Foundation).
In the colonial era, around the 1600’s before the Europeans occupied the land that would eventually become the United States, the earliest American sportswomen were Native Americans who lived traditional lives in which sports and other displays of physical strength were portrayed in their everyday lives. For example, in religious ceremonies women were called upon to dance for hours at a time, and the transition from maidenhood to womanhood included physical displays and tests (Women’s Sports Foundation History). This life may have had women doing physical tasks and things that were sport-like, but they only did them because these sports were woven into their ordinary tasks and rituals. There were no organized sports for women. Not that it was unusual for women to be seen doing anything of the sort. In fact, by the middle of the eighteenth century, some African American women found some solace on their days off, when they danced, played simple games, and ran races (Women’s Sports Foundation History). Although it wasn’t frowned upon, it was obviously not seen as acceptable for the women to participate in any organized sport.
During the second half of the eighteenth century, a series of changes gradually altered gender roles. “Enlightenment ideology and the emergent capitalist economy combined to redefine women’s place, to move them into the home and away from public activity, and to emphasize biological differences (from men) as grounds for keeping them there” (Women’s Sports Foundation History). The immediate impact of these changes was the movement of many women off the tracks and fields and into the stands or out of public view, unless they were with a man. The middle and upper class people came to believe that the woman’s role was to bear and nurture children and families. There was no time for them to be out playing games, they should be in the homes cooking dinner and taking care of the children. They also saw women to be physically inferior to men. Even though by this time the Declaration of Independence had already declared, “all men are created equal,” it wasn’t really seen that way.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, people began to believe that the health of middle and upper class women was declining. Educators believed that to improve their health they needed to physically exert themselves by playing games and doing exercises. In order for them to fulfill their roles as caretakers of families they needed to maintain their physical and mental health. So women began doing calisthenics, and domestic exercises such as sweeping (Women’s Sports Foundation History). Once again, women are only allowed to do certain things, no organized sports and only because they have to be able to take good care of the children and run the house. Not because they want to or because it’s something that they enjoy but because it’s seen as socially acceptable to be a fit parent. Once women began participating more in sporting events, it quieted some of the fears of doctors who believed that physical movement in sports might have a negative effect on women’s biology and reproductive functions. But that didn’t last long. Many of the women who controlled the few sports for girls and women, had accepted the medical opinions that athletic competition could harm females, physically and psychologically, and even diminish their femininity. That’s when they began changing the rules of some games, like basketball, so that it wasn’t so strenuous for the women. Then in 1943, there was an important event that allowed women to leave the homes and go to work in the factories and play professional baseball. A new league was formed called the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.
All American Girls Professional Baseball League
In 1943, with many of the popular baseball players, such as Joe DiMaggio, drafted into the army, Philip K. Wrigley the chewing gum magnate founded a new league so that baseball fans would still be entertained. This league was first called The All-American Girls Softball League because Wrigley believed in the common idea that women could not play baseball. For ten years before, women were limited to playing softball so that’s what Wrigley decided his league would be. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Since a former major leaguer managed each team, they began to teach the women the techniques used in baseball. By the beginning of the second season, they had begun playing baseball and pitching overhand, instead of playing softball (All American Girls Professional Baseball League). This wasn’t the only change that took place. Even though they were playing baseball the rules were a little different for the women.
The main differences are in the size of the diamond and the size of the ball. Men’s baseball calls for 90-foot baselines, whereas girls’ baseball calls for 72-foot baselines. It is 60 feet six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate in men’s baseball, and 50 feet in girl’s baseball. The balls are very similar. Men’s baseball rules call for a ball “not less than five ounces nor more than 5 ј ounces and from 9 to 9 ј inches in circumference.” The girls’ baseball rules call for a ball “of 5 1/8 ounces, with a tolerance of an eighth of an ounce and 10 3/8 inches in circumference, with a tolerance of an eighth of an inch” (Ken Burns). These differences show us how the men perceived women. They didn’t think the women could handle playing the real game of baseball as it was made it be played. They felt they had to change the rules thinking that it would make it easier on them. If they let them play baseball the way the men did, they believed that it wouldn’t be fun to watch because the women wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Another major difference in women’s baseball was the appearance of the players. Wrigley believed that although the ladies were participating in a masculine game, they should remain feminine. As seen in the movie “A League of Their Own,” the players were required to go to charm school where they were taught how to eat, drink, walk, talk, and dress properly. Not only that but instead of wearing the regular baseball uniform of pants and a jersey, they were required to wear one-piece dress uniforms. These shorter skirts resulted in lots of abrasions, scrapes, and cuts on the players’ legs. This makes no sense, especially since they are expected to wear dresses in public outside of games. When they are wearing these dresses or skirts their legs will show at some point and that’s not very lady like if you ask me. Also, no matter what their ailment, including broken fingers, deep bruises, and even pregnancy, they continued to play like nothing was wrong. I have seen many baseball players who can’t play with broken fingers or cuts and bruises so don’t try and tell me that women can’t play with guys.
Finally, the players had a set of what were called “Rules of Conduct.” These rules were to be followed or have a penalty of a fine and if repeated offenses a suspension will be imposed. Some of these rules include: always appearing in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball, no smoking or drinking in public places, no obscene language, their hair should be well groomed at all times with longer hair preferable to short hair, and lipstick should always be worn (AAGPBL). This was just a way for the men to keep their pride. They figured that by the players dressing in skirts while playing it made them look like less of a ball player and that way people wouldn’t forget that men are supposed to be the ones playing baseball, not women. Their attire while playing also shows how society perceived women at the time, as feminine, prissy objects that are just good to look at.
For too long, girls and women have been discouraged from playing sports by a long list of myths and stereotypes. Some of these are:
· If she plays sports, she will become “mannish” and “unfeminine”.
· If she plays sports, she will develop an eating disorder
· Women who play sports are lesbians
· Women aren’t physically able to play at the same level as men
· If she trains too hard, her ovaries and bladder will drop.
Even in the 1880’s there were myths. Doctors tried to say that women who rode bicycles would suffer from a disease they called “bicycle face”, which is the distortion of facial muscles from the pain and suffering from the female sitting on the bicycle seat. All of these myths and stereotypes are known today to not be true and many of them come from a lack of knowledge. Men don’t understand the female body and how it works, therefore they have a fear of the unknown, and they are afraid that the women will take away their sports by playing. They want sports to be something that only guys do. And the men who play them aren’t the only ones responsible for these stereotypes. The media, our parents, coaches and even the government have helped them come along.
The combination of lack of knowledge and the widespread belief of these myths and stereotypes has been helped along by the fact that “the print and electronic media have failed to fairly portray the female athlete or rendered her invisible” (Women’s Sports Foundation Know Your Rights). Up until about 1990, the sports pages devoted more column space to dogs and horses then they did to women’s sports. Even today, about 90% of newspapers, and television shows that contain sports focus on men’s sports (Women’s Sports Foundation). For example, while watching the Olympic coverage a few summers ago, I was looking for the score to the women’s Olympic softball team game. The show spent almost the entire time on men’s track and field, and men’s volleyball, and men’s everything else. They showed bits and pieces of the games and had some really good highlights. But when they got to the women’s sports, like the softball team, all they showed was the score. There were no highlights, just the fact that they had won. If women and men are supposed to be equal then why aren’t the women given as much media coverage as the men? Even when the Olympic softball team won the gold medal there was no coverage. What kind of message is this sending to young girls who play sports? It’s telling them that the stereotypes are true and that men and women really aren’t equal when it comes to sports.
Growing up I was always very athletic. I loved to play sports and I was good at them. For a while it was ok that I played with the boys. We all saw each other as equals. It didn’t matter that I was a girl and I played with the boys. But as I got older, it wasn’t as accepted for me to play with the boys. They began to say things like, “You can’t play because you’re a girl,” even though I may have been just as good as them. It made me not want to be a girl just so I could play with them. I was kept from doing a lot of things because I was a girl and I am not the only one who had this problem. Olympic softball player Dot Richardson did too.
In her book, Living the Dream, she describes an instance where she was asked to be something other than who she was in order to play:
My brothers Kenny and Lonnie had joined little league baseball and I would go to all their games. One day, while waiting for one of their games to start, I was pitching to them…A coach walked over to me and commented on how impressed he was with my throwing arm. Then he asked if I would like to join his little league team…but there was on catch: He wanted me to cut my hair and answer to the name Bob. (Richardson, 19-20)
The only way she would have been able to play was to be a boy because society felt that it was only right for boys to be playing sports. Women just got in the way and made things more complicated.
The coaches of men’s football and other money producing sports that receive the majority of the financial support argue that sharing with the women will disadvantage the men…suggesting that the fact that the already disadvantage of the women is justifiable. The men are more important. Football and other major men’s sports coaches are paranoid over their budgets being cut in order to give money to the women’s sports. In reality, women have less than 37% of all athletic participation opportunities, 36% of all scholarship dollars, 36% of sport budgets and 28% of recruiting budgets (Women’s Foundation Know Your Rights). Which means that men have over half of everything the school receives. I hardly think it’s an equal opportunity for women. Apparently there is reluctance on the part of the administrators and officials to confront the problem because they do not want to take opportunities away from the men and give them to women. They still believe that it is “right” for boys and men to play sports and a “privilege” for women and girls.
In conclusion, even though Title IX states that women are to be given the same opportunities as men when it comes to sports, and the Declaration of Independence proclaimed, “all men are created equal,” it’s still not portrayed that way. Women are still thought to be the weaker sex and not capable of playing at the level of the men. This is proven by the simple fact that women’s rules in sports are different than men’s even when it’s the same sport, and their uniforms are made so that they are still seen as lady like. No matter what law is made, women have always had fewer opportunities to play sports than men. Even in those few opportunities that they do play they are not supported wholly by society. And we all know that when something isn’t accepted in society, nothing ever comes of it. That in itself is the problem. In order for women to get the opportunities they have a right to, society has to change its views and give women a chance.
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