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Questioning the Gender Divide in Sports

August 29, 2009
Sports from childhood. Football (soccer) shown...
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In the comments on an earlier post about the mistreatment of Caster Semenya, one topic of conversation that emerged was the issue of why we use sex or gender* to divide athletic competition at all; the topic seemed to deserve a broader examination.

Let’s begin with a look at the reason currently used to justify this divide: the idea that women cannot compete on equal footing with men. Even if we assume this to be true, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient. After all, there are many traits that put one at a disadvantage in sports. An adult who is under five feet tall is going to have a difficult time competing in basketball or volleyball. A swimmer with short limbs has to take more strokes to traverse the same distance and is thus at a disadvantage. On the Feministing Community blog, a former collegiate rower points to the challenges she faced as an athlete of average height. Arguments about women being unable to compete with men usually point to specific differences in muscle mass and size.

Why then do we not use any of these factors rather than sex or gender to divide our sports teams? We aren’t used to dividing people into two or more categories based on muscle mass, height, or arm-length, so using sex or gender comes easier to us. It is a normative dividing line.

But is it a valid divide? Are women really at a disadvantage? In Playing with the Boys, Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano argue against this idea, pointing out that that the average female physiology actually gives women an advantage in endurance sports, yet when sports are divided into male and female categories, women are usually given shorter distances to race, which serves to disguise women’s athleticism. There are also real-life achievements by women and girls that contradict the notion of female athletic inferiority. Just recently, Katie Reyes hit a game-winning RBI in the Little League World Series. That she was the first girl to do so is reflective of the shunting of girls into softball leagues rather than of limited female ability. In 1931, Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In judo, it took fifty years for Rusty Kanokogi to be awarded the gold medal she earned by defeating men in a YMCA tournament.

It’s also worth thinking about the history of using sex or gender to divide sports competitions. In ancient Greece, women were not only barred from competing in the Olympics but also from watching once they were married. They did, however, have their own games in honor of Hera. Clearly, this division had little to do with making sure women had a fair field in which to compete.

Even today, dividing sports into male and female rather than using easily quantifiable factors that directly impact performance has more to do with the importance society places on the gender binary than with creating opportunities for women to compete. The divide reflects and reconfirms the use of sex and gender as a fundamental way to classify and make sense of people. In the process, this penalizes people whose way of being calls the absolutes of the binary into question.

(For another take on sex-testing of athletes, see Maria’s post on Caster Semenya.)

*I use both sex and gender here as many sports leagues never make it clear which they use. I don’t recall any of the sports leagues I was involved in during my youth ever explaining what girl and boy meant. The problematic assumption is that there is a stable and obvious definition of these terms.

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