Future of Feminism: Encouraging Girls and Women in Sports

I’m not much of a sports fan, but I can certainly appreciate the strength, time and sweat that goes into the training of a top athlete. Also, it’s hard to miss that in the hubbub around March Madness, women’s college basketball, despite its long history of stunning athleticism, is yet again being largely ignored in the media–or, at the very least, not receiving anywhere near the representation that men’s basketball does.

Contending with this issue of representation is one of the main goals of the Women Talk Sports Network, which aggregates blog posts and other online discussions of women athletes. The site also includes a directory of “female professional athletes,” with more than 1,000 names and counting. That certainly beats the occasional profiles you’ll find on top sports networks like ESPN or in Sports Illustrated. (On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that ESPN has had a blog dedicated solely to women’s sports since 2010, although their “regular” content is still largely male-dominated.)

While the passing of Title IX in 1972 did much to encourage and support girls and women who wanted to take part in sports, there are still many prejudices with which women have to contend if they’re interested in sports–from automatic assumptions of weakness or inability to assertions like, “Oh, you’re pretty good for a girl.” These stereotypes, combined with the fact that women’s sports are still often thought of as less interesting/important/worthy/difficult than men’s sports mean that young girls need reassurance that being good at sports has absolutely nothing to do with sex or gender. See the UN’s 2007 report, “Women, gender equality and sport” for more on the benefits and stumbling blocks for women athletes.

Supporting girl and women athletes is the central focus of long-standing organizations such as the Women’s Sports Foundation, the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport (NAGWS), as well as newer programs such as Girls on the Run International, which has local and regional branches and “combines interactive curriculum and running to inspire self-respect and healthy lifestyles in preteen girls.” Their 12-week programs culminate in a 5K run.

Initiatives like these are still very much necessary, as even recent studies–such as the Girl Scout Research Council’s 2006 report on “healthy living”–indicate that “the more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, regardless of how much they weigh.” That report also shows that girls “need access to more opportunities for informal, less competitive physical activities in safe environments where they do not feel self-conscious about their looks or ability.”

Since I’m not a sports buff myself, I could use your help, Ms. readers. What other organizations do you know that encourage, advocate and support women and girls in sports? Leave recommendations in the comments!

Part Nineteen in a Women’s History Month series celebrating organizations and ideas that represent the future of feminism.

Photo by Flickr user millicent_bystander under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Great post! I think the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (wftda.com) deserves to be mentioned as an association that promotes women in sports. As the international governing body for women’s roller derby it has played a huge role in legitimizing and bringing attention to the athletes that play roller derby around the world, to roller derby leagues as women-run businesses, and to women’s sports as community builders.

  2. Old Coach says:

    As retired coach and one who lobbied for passage of Title IX over 40 years ago, I have always admired and respected womens sports. Therefore, I am someone who is well qualified to discuss this subject.

    I agree with Professor Dove-Viebahn that womens sports deserve FAR more media attention than it generally gets. However, the problem isn’t the media – the problem is the fact that, contrary to what so many feminists believe, WOMEN ARE FAR BIGGER SUPPORTERS OF MENS SPORTS THAN THEY ARE OF WOMENS SPORTS. These women put their money into tickets, baseball caps, pennants, beer steins, and other sports related stuff which involve mens teams such as NFL, MLB, and NHL. They do not spend even a fraction of that money into womens sports team. Mention the WNBA and most women couldn’t even name one player in that league. They simply do not regard these players as athletes and often question whether they are women at all. No, don’t argue with me or object in any way ~ I am quoting women whom I have spoken to over the years.

    Women did not attend enough matches at the womens pro soccer or pro softball league and both became defunct. Had they bothered to attend these matches both leagues would have survived and thrived.

    Another problem is that all too often female athletes do not give autographs as often as male athletes do. And I find this is especially true when approached by male fans ~ these women athletes often get surly when approached by them. Small wonder why men refuse to support these leagues as well.

    {continued in next post}

    • I think it’s quite inaccurate to say that female athletes do not give autographs as often as male athletes do. On the contrary, I think female athletes, such as WNBA players, work overtime to reach out to their fans, female or male! As for not “arguing” with you because you’re quoting women you’ve spoken with, that’s not quite a scientific survey. There ARE staunch WNBA women fans who could name LOTS of players. And while I’m sure you’re right that women’s sports need a lot more support from women fans, the media IS culpable in not giving more exposure to women’s sports. It’s a chicken-egg situation: If you give sports more media support, many would argue, it boosts interest in the sport and draws more fans to it. (Media often argues there isn’t enough support to warrant more coverage.)

      • Old Coach says:

        Thank you for your reply.

        Sadly, I must say that I have twice seen instances in which women athletes were surly towards fans. One was in the old WBL (womens basketball league) and the other in the womens soccer league. In both instances the players used profane language to scare away people who were asking for autographs. The WBL incident happened to a coworker of mine – when he approached a player he was hit with a torrent of profanities. I could see from his facial expression that he was genuinely hurt by that experience. The second incident involved a woman who managed the building I live in. She took her three children to a match (one son, two daughters) and before she could ask for autographs one of the players started using profanities to scare them away. By the way, the news media was present in both cases but refused to report it.

        Today with all the mobile phones and cameras this is not likely to happen. In fact, some time last year when the Minnesota Lynx won the WNBA championship they were at a famous tavern here in the Twin Cities and invited a group of men to join them in celebration. They got good publicity out of that.

        This is how to approach your fans – love them as they love you. I believe that will help generate greater support for womens sports.

        • But all the many many many more incidents of bad behavior on the part of male athletes hasn’t driven fans away from men’s sports! My point is that you shouldn’t highlight a couple of incidents in women’s sports as a reason that they’re not more successful at attracting audiences than they are. There are SO many more reasons to explore.

          • Old Coach says:

            You will note that I said “another reason why” and certainly did not say or imply that it was the exclusive reason for this. I stand by the fact that these unfortunate incidents did take place and that my coworker and the lady who was building manager both swore off womens sports after those unfortunate incidents.

            Now, if you please, I’d like to get back to the issue of the OP who asked how can we best encourage girls and women in sport.

            As I mentioned above, my admiration for women athletes goes back to the days of Olympian Paula Pope (Hall of Fame diver, sports trainer, racquet club manager, dental hygienist, homemaker & mother). She accomplished all this well before Title IX was discussed in public. It is because of people like her that I lobbied for this legislation back in the day. Therefore, I say that parents should watch womens sports and tell their children to admire these athletes for the same reason they admire mens sports. Miss Amanda Leve would be the perfect example to start with. She is strong, dynamic, highly motivated, poised, and determined. I will eagerly watch her career develop – will you do the same and encourage your children to do so as well?

            One last thing ~ I predict that we will see many more dynamic and admirable women athletes like her. Times are changing and with your help as well as that of the OP there will come a day when the first name children will mention as their sports heroes and heroines will by the Amanda Leve’s of this world.

  3. Old Coach says:

    Again, let me emphasize that I STRONGLY support womens sports.

    Recently, I saw an event that would surprise most sports fans and that is this:


    A female mixed martial artist easily defeated an experienced male performer who is bigger, older, and more experienced. This is how it ended:


    This remarkable young woman displayed greater overall strength in her legs, upper body, and her skill. That comes from her great work ethic as shown in this article:


    Contrary to what many people believe, women have FAR greater upper body strength that is commonly believed. I as coach know this for a fact. As you can see from the video, Miss Leve has the superior upper body strength and beat a much heavier opponent with it and with her great skill.

    I believe that having mixed gender matches in a variety of sports will go a very long way towards getting women athletes the public respect and recognition they deserve. It certainly worked in the Bobby Riggs-Billy Jean King match years ago. Remember?

    I hope (and believe it is very possible) that some day womens sports will have the same attention, respect, and public financing that it deserves. Back in the WWI period many colleges reported higher attendance at womens sports than in mens. During WWII the womens pro baseball league flourished. WTA tennis was far more popular and generated huge revenues during the height of the Williams sisters era. Feminine sports such as figure skating and gymnastics continue to outdraw many mens sports events. Here I am in my 60s and still remember Paula Pope, Micki King, Joyce Grable, Gigi Fernandez, and many others as being among my biggest sports heroines. I will always admire and support womens sports because from my earliest youth I saw beauty, strength, skill, and determination as positives in women. Teach your daughters and, yes, your sons, to see women athletes that way. When you do, all of society will benefit – we will be a better society when womens sports is given its proper respects and support.

    Where can we start? Let’s start with Amanda Leve – at age 15 a powerful woman who is beautiful (and yes, never be afraid of beauty in women athletes), strong, athletic, and has a strong work ethic. I look forward to seeing her turn pro and will follow her career henceforth as she is my new sports heroine. Watch for other such athletes and build large fan bases for all of them. This is the type of encouragement girls and women need in sports.

  4. Old Coach says:

    Woman anchors mixed gender swim meet successfully:


    Britta Steffen of Germany helped her mixed gender team win in a European meet. Here are two portraits of her:



    You will note that in addition to being a powerful athlete, she is also beautiful. Now, some modern day feminists do not care much at all for the issue of beauty in female athletes. But I as a progressive and advocate of social reform am from the old school. Those of you my age are likely to be this way as well. When it comes to women and sports I always say ~ WOMEN ATHLETES SHOULD BE STRONG BUT BE BEAUTIFUL AS WELL. Tell your daughters the same – that she need not be afraid of losing gracefulness or femininity by lifting weights, gaining in strength, or having nusculature due to exercise. She, like Miss Steffen will still be beautiful as well as stronger, more athletic, and more successful in her life pursuits.

    • Old Coach says:

      oh, pardon me ~ meant to say ” musculature ” for female athletes

      Amazing that a woman anchors a swim team and it got virtually no media attention at all. Imagine a woman as quarterback of a pro football team – that would get a lot of well deserved media attention. So should Miss Steffen’s accomplishment.

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