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The struggle for sexual equality within sports has been going on for some time, at least in Scandinavia, and it’s no longer a specifically feminist demand that women and men, girls and boys be treated equally in terms of access to resources in and for sports. This is probably not as obvious in most European countries, and in the US it took an amendment to the Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which originally had no relation to athletics, to outlaw sexual discrimination in sports. But is this about equal distribution of resources between the sexes? Or does the differences between the sexes in sports go deeper than that? It certainly does, answer Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, and the very title of their book hints at the direction of their argument: Playing with the Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports (Oxford University Press). The basic idea is that equality in resource allocation – in itself still largely a utopian idea, will not create sexual equality when the actual performance of sports is heavily segregated along sexual lines. This idea is not new; in these pages they have been advocated by Kutte Jönsson, among others, and our reviewer of Playing with the Boys, Sara Edenheim, is also well acquainted with the argument. Nonetheless, McDonagh’s and Pappano’s book makes a vital contribution to feminism, and we may wish to agree with the publisher that athletic events is “the next battleground in the fight for sexual equality”.

Gender inequalities in sports

Sara Edenheim
Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies, Umeå University

Eileen McDonagh & Laura Pappano
Playing with the Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports
349 pages, hc., ill.
New York: Oxford University Press 2008
ISBN 978-0-19-516756-0

From my apartment I have a nice view over a football field. Apart from giving me the opportunity to watch a game of football whenever I feel like it, is has also given me some insights in different styles of coaching. One thing that struck me was how the boys’ teams and the girls’ team differed in organization: the girls were allowed to goof around, to not pay attention, to talk to their friends, or to not make a real effort without the coach interfering. The boys, however, were treated with almost military discipline.  Within the girls’ team the level of skill also varied much more than among the boys; newcomers were mixed with more experienced girls just because they shared the same age and the same gender. Suddenly I remembered my own frustration at that age; the irritation from never really being able to play in a team without at least one or two beginners “messing it up”, the feeling that our training was not as demanding as the boys’ on the next field, the suspicion that the coach only did this because his daughter was on the team, and not because he wanted all the individual players to be the best they could be.

These are all inequalities that cannot be tackled with the current equality policies since these policies only adhere to equal treatment concerning equal, but separate, access to fields, coaches, and games. Rather, these are differences that originates from this very idea that “separate is equal” within sports. In Playing With the Boys, the American political scientist Eileen McDonagh and journalist Laura Pappano present a wide range of arguments for why this kind of coercive sex segregation is not only based on sexism and old tradition, but also how it makes women adapt to standards that have nothing to do with sports; standards that may even prevent women from achieving better results. They cover most questions and objections that might come up when one suggests that sports should be based on achievement and not gender (or race, class, and sexuality): “Matters of facts” supposedly based on history, laws, genetics, hormones, economics, etc. are explained, taken into account and presented with counter-arguments that manage to give the reader a strong defense to avow that sex segregation within sports follows the same rules as sex segregation within all those other fields of society where it has been challenged and broken thanks to feminist critique and activism. 

And they are not ‘only’ talking about shooting, curling or other “non-contact” sports, even though policymakers within these sports obviously have a much harder time explaining the need for segregation than, let us say, football (‘World’ and ‘American’), running (short and long distance), or even weight lifting.  McDonagh’s and Pappano’s argumentation is based on a human body that is not ready-made from birth, a body that is not gendered or at least not gendered in the same way for every single individual within the two groups of men and women. The over-lapping in all physical areas between men and women are not only in existence, but can also be broadened if women were allowed to develop their bodies without being limited to ideas of femininity and (hetero)sexuality. McDonagh’s and Pappano’s project hence far surpasses athletic emancipation; it is clear that this is really about an even more radical change: that of the culturally imposed limits to the human body.

This is a book for anyone interested in sports, or in equality, or in both.
How come, for example, that even though athletes of both genders run 42 km just as fast, and women even outrun men when the distance is longer, women were barred from the Olympic marathon until 1984? And they still run in different classes: women starting somewhat later than the men. How come boy wrestlers that are beaten by girl wrestlers cry their eyes out? How come professional male golfers like Vijay Singh refused to play on the same tour as female golfer Annika Sörenstam, claiming she would not be able to beat one single guy and just make a spectacle of herself? And how come that even though Sörenstam played better than a whole bunch of those professional male golfers on that tour, she still said that she did not belong there? And how come women athletes had to prove themselves to be women before participating in the Olympics, so that no man would try to pass as a woman, even though this has only happened once in the high jumps of 1936 and the impostor only ended up in fourth place anyway? How come that when one stopped doing these tests because it was too difficult to fix gender on a genetic and hormonal level, sex segregated sports still prevailed? And why do the media concern itself so much with the femininity of women athletes? The search for drugs cannot answer that question alone: take away the make-up, the long nails and hair, and the tight uniforms of today’s female athletes and they will look just like the infamous female athletes from the days of Eastern Europe. And why is lesbianism always used to discourage girls and women from getting into male-dominated sports? And how come there actually is a higher amount of lesbians within these sports? Actually, one could go on forever and even include competitions such as poker, cooking, or even the Oscars (why one “best male actor” and one “best female actor”? Sure, male leading roles usually outnumber female roles one to five, and these few roles are quite limited in variation, but acting is acting no matter what, is it not?). How come that even though every coach and every athlete know that one only gets better by being challenged, by playing with people who are stronger and faster, this is suddenly not applicable when it comes to girls and women? 

In the end, only two explanations remain that can be said to answer all these questions at the same time: 1) sex segregation within sports makes it possible to uphold hierarchies based on gender (and sexuality) both within and outside the field of sports, and 2) men are afraid of losing to women. The authors do not make this statement quite as explicit, but this underlying castration anxiety does probably cause most of the regulations concerning gender within sports. In all other aspects (for example race and class), sports are supposed to be based on a meritocracy and from this follows that sex segregation has to be explained away by other means since women’s merits do not even get a chance to be tested. This just isn’t ‘cricket’, as the English put it.

This does not mean that we should let the present women’s national football team players try out for the men’s national team. For them it is already too late. But it does not mean that women will forever be condemned to “the B-team” either, even though it does imply that fewer women than men may be present in the “A-team”, at least for a while. Because this is a utopian project that depends on letting our children play together and doing this without the interference of parents, worrying about their girls becoming “to masculine” (or their sons becoming “too feminine”), without the coaches treating girls differently, without media encouraging boys more than girls, and so on. As philosopher Iris Marion Young convincingly argues in her renowned essay Throwing like a girl (Indiana University Press, 1990), any child can learn how to throw a ball in the most efficient way – there is no gene for “throwing balls”, on the contrary it requires a very socially based learning process. I remember very well how I learned to throw that ball further than most guys in my class: I watched and observed the good throwers and rejected the bad ones and because I was more worried about being good at sports than being a good girl, I “threw like a boy”. Though for me, that was not gendered, it was just more efficient. But, I must admit, it not only gave me a feeling of corporal strength and freedom, it was also a way to differentiate myself from those “loser girls” who always made a spectacle of themselves and seemed to have no control of their bodies at all – yes, I was quite the little misogynist as a kid, but who can blame me? I lived in a society that devalues anything feminine. And they did lack a corporal sense of strength and freedom because of the gendered bodies they unconsciously aspired to perform. From this perspective, it has never been a mystery why feminists first and foremost work for women’s right to their own bodies. The female body is materialized according to many different rules: some of them are a part of the law (such as limited rights to abortion) and most of them are inscribed in culture (such as veils or high heels) or in language (such as “throwing like a girl”); but they all have spatial limitations and lack of corporal control in common, and they have real, material effects on how women experience, live and move their bodies.

Hence, it is also to get rid of misogynistic approaches such as my own, that this book makes a vital contribution to feminism. Sure, there looms a “free subject” between the lines of this book; a looming that becomes more apparent in the exclusively “American” perspective given by the authors. It is by referring to the American constitution that they critically assess the equally American law ‘Title IX’, and it is through American history that sex segregation within sports is historicized. One might very well ask why all organized sports around the world are segregated if it is the American history that can explain this state of affairs, and equally, one might ask why taking seriously the American liberal constitution with its beliefs in an autonomous subject would be the solution, when the critique of this liberalism within feminist research is quite advanced. However, this book makes no explicit theoretical declarations and somehow, even to an anti-foundationalist as myself, all that seem less important because I believe that even the first step – that of giving women within sports the chance to expand their current limits – is radical enough in itself.

This is a book for anyone interested in sports, or in equality, or in both. And the good thing about it is that it can be read by anyone: the feminist will find arguments, the athlete will find inspiration, the sports fan will find loads of nerdy examples, and the researcher will find an equal amount of references to the expanding field of research on women and sports.

© Sara Edenheim 2009.

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