“Absolutely we could beat them, why not?” said Hope Powell, when asked whether the England women’s football team, which she manages, could beat Roy Hodgson’s team. “‘I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women, but with technical ability I think we’re as good as the men.” Her comments came a couple of days after Marianne Vos, the most successful female bike racer of all time, and a multiple world and Olympic champion, called for a women-only Tour de France to run parallel with the traditional men’s race.
The contrasting approaches to women’s sport raise an interesting question: could women hold their own in competition with men, or are they destined to compete against each other in separate events? Hope wasn’t advocating an all-out open competition. In fact, she added ‘I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women,” before pointing out that technical skill is a factor in football. What she didn’t realize is, according to the few studies on the subject, if you take a woman and a man of equal weight and subject them to the same training regime for, say, six weeks, in the same environment with same diet, the woman’s body will respond in the same way as the man’s. In terms of muscular strength, the woman will remain five percent below the man. But how significant is five percent? With the exceptions of power lifting and weight lifting, sports require skill. The reason why females can’t compete against men has its source in culture, not the physical body.
Let me illustrate this with the marathon: the men’s world record is 2:03:38, compared to the 2:15:25 women’s best; in other words, women are about eight percent less proficient. It seems to reinforce the argument that women can never catch up with men. Until we realize that women weren’t officially allowed to run the distance until 1964. Since then the women have improved the record by over 1 hour 12 minutes; in the same period, the men’s record has been reduced by about 21 minutes. The moral of this would seem to be that, when women are allowed to compete openly in an event, they can perform at least on comparable terms with men. Imagine how the world’s number one female would fare in a head-to-head with the top male had women been competing with men for the past 105 years? (The first world marathon time was recorded in 1908). Most people will argue that the results would be basically the same: physical differences between the sexes will always determine the outcome. But let’s consider the impact of cultural change.
We can gain some measure of the rate of women’s progress in sports over the past couple of decades by glancing back at what was once a standard text, Social Aspects of Sport. In the 1983 edition of their book, Eldon Snyder and Elmer Spreitzer wrote about the types of sport women have been encouraged or discouraged from pursuing. “The ‘appropriateness’ of the type of sport continues to reflect the tenets of the Victorian ideal of femininity,” they wrote. They argued that for most of the twentieth century women were permitted to compete in sports that emphasized aesthetics and grace as opposed to strength and speed were acceptable. The rougher pursuits involving head-on collisions were not. There were exceptions, but women who opted for more rugged sports risked being stigmatized as “mannish.”
Now, women compete in every sport, even then ones that were once strictly “men only.” Even the once-exclusive male preserve of combat sports has been breached. Professional women cage fighters appear regularly on major MMA bills; Taekwondo is an Olympic sport, as is women’s boxing. Women are involved in virtually every form of combat sport. Over the years, women have not achieved as much as men; yet the conclusion that women can’t achieve the same levels doesn’t follow logically. In fact, it could be argued that, if women had been regarded as equally capable as men physically, then they would perform at similar standards, and that the only reason they don’t is because they’ve been regarded as biologically incapable for so long. And Vos and Powell have, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to this.
It would be ridiculous to deny that there are differences, though they are of significantly less importance than our conceptions about them. The body is a process, not a thing: it’s constantly changing physically and culturally, as our perceptions of it change. Competitive performance promotes changes in terms of muscular strength and oxygen uptake; changes in diet and climactic conditions induce bodily changes too, of course. In our particular culture and this stage in history we understand women and their association with men in one way; in another place and at another time, this relationship may be understood quite differently. It is a matter of convention that we organize sports into women’s and men’s events, just as it’s a convention to award Oscars for the “best actor,” a man, and “best actress,” a term that’s still used to describe the best female actor.
The experience of women in sport virtually replicates their more general experience. They have been seen and treated as not only different to men, but also inferior in many respects. Historically, women’s position has been subordinate to that of men. They have been systematically excluded from high-ranking, prestigious jobs, made to organize their lives around domestic or private priorities, while men have busied themselves in the public spheres of industry and commerce. Being the breadwinner, the male has occupied a central position in the family and has tended to use women for supplementary incomes only, or, more importantly, as unpaid homeworkers, making their contribution appear peripheral. Traditionally, females have been encouraged to seek work, but only in the short term: women’s strivings should be toward getting married, bearing children, and raising a family.
Women are underrepresented in politics compared to their total number in the population. They consistently earn less than their equivalent males and are increasingly asked to work part-time. Despite recent changes in the number of places in higher education occupied by women, they tend to opt for subjects (like sociology and art) that won’t necessarily guarantee them jobs in science and industry. When they do penetrate the boundaries of the professions they find that having to compete in what is, to all intents and purposes, a man’s world, has its hidden disadvantages.
Women’s experience has been one of denial: they simply have not been allowed to enter sports, again because on a mistaken belief in their natural predisposition. Because of this, the encouragement, facilities, and, importantly, competition available to males from an early age hasn’t been extended to them. In the areas where the gates have been opened — the marathon being the obvious example — women’s progress has been extraordinary. Given open competition, women could achieve parity with men in virtually all events, apart from those very few that require the rawest of muscle power. The vast majority of events need fineness of judgment, quickness of reaction, balance, and anticipation; women have no disadvantages in these respects. Their only disadvantage is what many people believe about them: in sport as in life, women will simply never catch up.