The struggle to attain equality for female participation in sport has been a long and hard fought one. One hundred years ago, a majority of people-many women included-would have thought it unnatural, if not immoral, to permit women to participate in sports. Today, women’s participation is widespread and accepted by most. However, there are still many sports and sport-related institutions and organizations that have not achieved full equality. Some sports, such as football or boxing, encourage very little female participation, although even these so-called “masculine” sports are changing. Women’s boxing, for example, will probably be included in the Olympic Games by the end of this decade.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when sports and physical education programs were first organized in North America, women were forbidden from participating for so-called “scientific” or “medical” reasons. Physicians as a group often spoke out against female athleticism, using the argument that physical activity would damage reproduction. Others claimed that it was quite simply “unnatural” for women to participate in sports. Little real evidence was provided to support these claims. In truth, the so-called “evidence” was more a reflection of physicians’ cultural assumptions about women’s place in society in general.
The 1920s and 1930s witnessed a short “Golden Age” in women’s sports. Individual athletes and teams or leagues formed to support female athletics. Track and field, tennis, softball, programs in physical education, and other activities were encouraged, at least for those women lucky enough to have the time and money to participate. There was even a Women’s Olympic Games movement in the 1920s and 1930s. At one point, the regular Olympic Games organized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), became concerned that the Women’s Olympics would gain enough power to challenge the superiority of the IOC’s Olympics. As a result, the IOC included a few more women’s events in their Games, although not many.
The Golden Age of women’s sports was followed by a long drought. The post-World War II era was one of very conservative traditional family values in North America. However, in the 1970s the current boom in women’s sport began. One of the driving forces in the movement was East Bloc countries, particularly the Soviet Union and East Germany, both of which encouraged female athletes at the highest level-the Olympic Games.
Female athletes with strong and muscular bodies emerged on the international sports stage. At first, this raised concern among the male-dominated sports establishment. However, after years of struggle, the muscular and strong female athletic body has become common in international sport.
In the late-nineteenth century, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, said that the sight of women participating in sport was an affront to the human eye, and unnatural. We’ve come a long way since then.