Curious Tension: Feminism and the Sporting Woman

As a former athlete and a graduate student in sports studies, I embraced feminism in the 1970s. It seemed to be a natural alliance because I had experienced sports as personally liberating and felt that it offered females the possibility to become accomplished athletes, develop strong and healthy bodies and defy societal views of females as physically and psychologically unsuited for sport.

Simone de Beauvoir’s view of sport and physical activity in The Second Sex, which many consider the starting point of second-wave feminism, clarified what I felt. In 1949, she claimed that if a female could “swim, climb mountain peaks, pilot an airplane, battle against the elements, take risks, go out for adventure … she will not feel before the world … timidity.”

De Beauvoir shared similar views with earlier American feminists of the 19th century, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who understood the importance of educating and liberating the body as pivotal to some of the most basic concerns of early feminism.

As I studied the female athlete, women’s sports history and feminism, I soon discovered that there were curious parallels between the women’s movement and the women’s sports movement in the United States. When the feminist movement was advancing in the late 19th century, for example, women donned the bloomer to ride the bicycle and took up the newly imported games of tennis and golf. In 1892, Senda Berenson modified the rules of basketball for her students at Smith College. As “second wave feminism” gained energy and support in the U.S., Betty Friedan organized the National Organization for Women in 1966 and soon thereafter Title IX, which promoted equality of sport for females, was passed. Then, in 1973, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes”.

Feminists of Billie Jean King’s era tackled a range of issues they considered as obstacles to equality, including legal inequalities, the family, reproductive rights, sexuality and the work place.

What is surprising, though, is that feminist authors paid extremely little attention to sport and the sporting woman in their writings. Leading journals such as Feminist Studies, first published in 1972, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, first published in 1975, seem to have avoided the topic of athletic women altogether. Although the body received some attention, the principal focus of these writings concerned wresting the female body from the control of men.

I have continued to be baffled by the lack of attention given to the liberation of the body by feminist researchers of the last 30 years and have often wondered if, perhaps, Germaine Greer’s views concerning the female body reflected a particular angst among feminists. In The Female Eunuch (1971), Greer argued that the only thing more surprising than the male hatred of the female body was the female hatred of her own body. The ever increasing dissatisfaction of women with their bodies has resulted in dramatic increases in plastic surgery and other means of achieving the “perfect” body and lends support to Greer’s provocations.

The connection between sport, the body and female liberation appears to have been overlooked or considered insignificant in the writings of academic feminists of this period. It seems that many feminists in colleges and universities considered sport as an arena in which masculinity was fashioned, performed and contested–“where boys became men”–and was, therefore, not a feminist issue. Or perhaps they viewed the achievement of elite level athletes as irrelevant to the more significant issues, such as abortion and reproductive freedom, equal pay and sexual harassment, that feminists considered important for women. I also think that many academics today generally consider sport as irrelevant to the intellectual and educational purposes of colleges and universities, supporting the view that mind and body are separate entities and sport is an activity of the body. In fact, a negative view of sport among professors and opposition to it on college campuses has increased given the recent scandals and abuses in college sports and the increasing salaries of personnel related to men’s football teams, which are far above the salaries of full professors.

The relationship between sport and women’s liberation was celebrated in at least one source of popular feminist information. Some of the earliest issues of Ms. magazine, first launched in 1972, welcomed the sporting woman and recognized that female athletes were on the forefront of women’s liberation. Writers such as Michele Kort advocated equality for women in sport; redefined female beauty as strong, muscular and athletic, and celebrated the achievements of female sports heroes.

Women writers realized that Billie Jean King challenged not only the traditional view of the hero and raised questions of economic equality of women in tennis but in other professional sports as well. She also made public traditional views of sexuality and homophobia in sports, issues that remain highly debated in today’s society. Following in the footsteps of King, tennis star Martina Navratilova continued the battle against what has come to be discussed by sports feminists as sexual containment, or attempts to control women’s sexuality through gender verification tests for female athletes, such as Caster Semenya, a South African runner and gold medal winner in the 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships.

Yet, topics about matters of the individual responsibilities of elite level athletes, the inequality of media coverage of female athletes, sexual containment and homophobia remain prevalent in sport in the 21st century. Female athletes continue to be sexualized in the media and receive much less attention in televised accounts, the Internet and on sports pages. This sexualization and exclusion of female athletes are attempts to marginalize and trivialize them, and suggest that they are only of interest as sex objects and are not “real” athletes.

Although some feminists–including a good many academics and writers of the Second Wave–may not have recognized the liberating potential of sports for girls and women, female athletes are powerful, visible symbols. Like King and Navratilova, women in sports represent the physical and societal liberation of others. Perhaps these feminists should have a talk with 6’8″ Brittney Griner, three-time All American basketball player, AP Player of the Year and recently named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four [which her team, Baylor University, won].

Excerpted with permission from On the Issues Magazine

Image of tennis player Li Na from Wikimedia Commons user Windsok via Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Fantastic post. I’ve also noticed a relative paucity of focus on questions of sports and athletics in the feminist reading I’ve done, which is interesting and a little sad to me. Sports and athletics went a very long way in helping me understand that I am actually quite strong and brave, which is contrary to the messages I received about women and girls when I was growing up. In turn, that helped me to become stronger and braver in every other aspect of my life.

    I also know that the only reason I am able to take part in the sports I love is due to the activism of women who have gone before me. Basically, you can’t untangle my belief in feminism and my passion for sports. They are intricately connected in many ways.

  2. A very interesting commentary. My own feeling is that in the 70s many feminists steered clear of sport at least at first because of the then uncomfortable intersection with real or perceived/stereotyped lesbianism. Title IX covered sport as a byproduct, not as the goal of educational equity, just as gender discrimination was an afterthought of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As late as the late 60s when I was in college, many of us were still forced to play half-court basketball (and not allowed to play anything when it was “that time of the month”)!

  3. Ellexis Boyle says:

    I am a PhD graduate from a Kinesiology (sociology stream) program in Canada. While i think you are referring to the lack of attention by major feminist theorists to sport, there is an entire ‘body’ of feminist sport sociology that tackles the intersections of gender, class, race, ability in sport, constructions of the female body and a whole lot more. This is important to clarify for readers not familiar with the discipline of sport sociology. Names like Anne Hall, Helen Lenskjy, Patricia Vertinsky, Jennie Hargreaves, Mary Louise Adams, Leslie Heywood and many more have been directly focused on gender and sport and the female body in particular. Many of these feminists have also documented the long history of ground breaking women in sports. I just think this requires clairification so people don’t think that feminists have not paid any attention to sport whatsoever. It is a major field within sports sociology. While the major white feminists may not have considered it, many other and well known women have made their academic careers in looking at women and sports.

    • Susan Bandy says:

      I can not agree more with Boyle’s remarks. Many sports feminists within sport studies in many countries – including Canada, Great Britain, and the U.S. – as she notes (as well as many European countries) – wrote about gender, sport, and the body from the 1970s onward. And this is very important to the discussion so it should be clarified so as not to mislead readers or fail to recognize what has been the subject of much research within sport sociology and sport history, in particular, and the work of sports feminists. I have worked within sports studies for many years and have, like Ms. Boyle, studied the works of the many fine authors she mentions. I intended in the article to note the importance of sport to writers of more popular literature such as writings in Ms. Magazine while academic feminists – not those working within the discipline of sports studies – did not address it as a principal concern of feminism of the same period, the 1970s and 1980s. I would also like to say that even sports feminists have failed to address, to any full extent, the liberating potential of sport for girls and women. Rather, they have, from a feminist perspective, critiqued the structure of sport, called for equality in sport, traced the history of women in sport, showed the patriarchal control of women’s bodies, as well as many other topics that are relevant.

    • Thanks for the list of names – I’ll be looking up all of them and reading their work.

      I can’t speak for Bandy but I’ll say that in my experience as a non-academic feminist whose understanding of feminist theory has come from blogs, books and zines, I rarely see the feminists whose work I read address women in sports, athletics and fitness unless it’s in reference to Title IX. I can find writing about all other aspects of the body – sexuality, reproductive freedoms, rape and violence, beauty ideals – but very rarely about sports or athletics. I am trying to change that through my own efforts but I know that I’m not the only feminist who has found herself feeling like a bit of a lone voice in the wilderness with regards to this subject.

  4. As a charter member of the first chapter of NOW in around 1966 , I can tell you why NOW did not emphasize athletic women. We faced an extremely hostile press, and an entirely unsympathetic public all too eager to believe we troublemakers were queers and /or hags angry because we couldn’t get a man.

    After some years NOW embraced the taunts and marched under a lavender banner.

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