Heterosexuality as a Factor in the Long History of Women's Sports
22 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2018 Last revised: 3 May 2018
Date Written: December 15, 2017
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. 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 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 century is to begin it 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, with men strong and active, women delicate and passive. 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.
This article views the history of sports through a heterosexual matrix. 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 Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, saw the two as in tension with each other.
After considering the extent to which these competing views of women’s athleticism in relation to heterosexuality influenced the development of women’s sports, the article will conclude by observing the remnants of a heterosexual matrix in twenty-first century sports, from figure skating and synchronized swimming to gymnastics and crew.
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