Heterosexuality as a Factor in the Long History of Women's Sports

By Case, Mary Anne | Law and Contemporary Problems, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Heterosexuality as a Factor in the Long History of Women's Sports


Case, Mary Anne, Law and Contemporary Problems


I

INTRODUCTION

Too many accounts of the development of women's sports tend to posit their origin in the late nineteenth or even the twentieth century, as a belated, slowly developing, and sometimes vehemently resisted addendum to the development of sports for men. To begin a history of women's sports at such a late date has several important distorting effects. Most simply, it ignores both the much longer history of women's participation in many kinds of sports and the fact that the history of organized men's sports as presently conventionally understood itself does not date back appreciably farther than the last century and a half. If we look back beyond that point for men's sports, we should not fail to take note of the sporting women we also find in those earlier times. Were we to do this, we would see that the history of women's sports is more complicated than a progress narrative. Rather than seeing women being gradually admitted into more and more sports over time, we would have to acknowledge that a variety of sports--from wrestling and boxing to polo and baseball--were played by women and were seen as suitable for women over long history. Women's recent readmission to competition in some of these sports follows an intervening period of exclusion.

More significantly, to begin the history of women's sports in the nineteenth or early twentieth century is to begin it after what Thomas Laqueur has dubbed the "discovery of the sexes," (1) in a time period in which men and women were seen, as both a descriptive and a normative matter, to be as different as possible from one another physiologically and psychologically. The view of sexual difference prevalent in the nineteenth century included, in ways relevant to their potential participation in sport, that men were and should be strong and active, while women were and should be delicate and passive. (2) Thus, the modern history of sport is often seen to begin at precisely the time women were seen as least suited to participate in sports. For example, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, insisted, the "Olympic Games must be reserved for men [We] must continue to try, to put the following expression into practice: the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism ... with the applause of women as a reward." (3) Women's participation as Olympic athletes, according to Coubertin, would be "impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper." (4)

Coubertin structured Olympic competition along a multidimensional heterosexual matrix: First, the division of heterosexual labor is that men compete and women applaud them; second, women who do compete are not heterosexually desirable but instead are "uninteresting, ungainly;" (5) finally, "[w]oman's glory," Coubertin said, "rightfully came through the number and quality of children she produced, and that where sports were concerned, her greatest accomplishment was to encourage her sons to excel rather than to seek records for herself." (6)

Like Coubertin, this article also views the history of sports through a heterosexual matrix. (7) It argues that from the dawn of time through the development of the modern Olympic movement, a culture's openness to women's participation in sports was tied to whether that participation was seen to have a heterosexual payoff. In ancient Greece and Africa as well as in medieval and early modern Europe, women's sports often formed part of mating rituals, and a successful female competitor was seen as a desirable mate. In the nineteenth century, however, athletic and other sporting competition often was seen as doubly debilitating to a woman's chances for heterosexual success: not only would sweating and the development of muscles make her unattractive, but strenuous physical exercise was thought to risk physiologically compromising her reproductive capacity. Rather than seeing physical fitness as conducive to reproductive fitness, as had their ancestors, men like Coubertin saw the two as in tension with each other. …

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