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Women in Sports: Separate and Not Equal


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Tennis Star Serena Williams Credit:

Tennis Star Serena Williams Credit:

Funding and publicity for women’s sports have grown substantially in the past two decades. Yet from high school to the pros, women often still have to contend with resistance and stereotypes that treat them like second class athletes. On this edition, Dave Zirin and Elizabeth Terzakis take a look back at the history of discrimination against women in sports, and we’ll hear where the long battle for equality and acceptance stands today.


Dave Zirin, Author and social commentator; Elizabeth Terzakis, Cañada College English and Reading instructor.

For More Information:

Dave Zirin

Elizabeth Terzakis

Socialism Conference 2009
Center for Economic Research and Social Change


Yesterdays New Quintet by Dice Games
Mulatu Astatke by Yegelle Tezeta


Episode Transcript

  • This week, on Making Contact.
  • To be a woman athlete in the 21st century, no matter what your skills, no matter what your accomplishments, you are the main attraction in an absolute carnival of sexism.

  • If men get beat, then the whole social order is overturned because the myth of male superiority is undone.

  • Funding and publicity for women’s sports have grown substantially in the past three decades. Yet, from high school to the pros, women often still have to contend with resistance and stereotypes that treat them like second-class athletes. On this edition, we take a look back at the history of discrimination against women in sports. And we’ll hear where the long battle for equality and acceptance stands today. I’m [? Tena ?] [? Rubio ?] and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, battle ideas, and important information.

In this first segment, we’ll hear from Dave Zirin. Zirin is a national sportswriter, radio personality, and author of several books about sports, race, and politics. His latest book is called A People’s History of Sports in the United States.

He spoke at the opening panel at the July, 2009 Socialism Conference in San Francisco. It was titled, Women in Sports– Fighting for Equality On and Off the Field. This is an excerpt from that speech.

  • I really want to start by talking about two women. And that’s to frame the whole talk. And their names are Danica Patrick and Candace Parker.

In 2008, Danica Patrick had quite the double play. She became the first woman to ever win an IndyCar race. And she also became the first race car driver to ever pose for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Now for some reason, curiously, the people at Sports Illustrated have never thought to put Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty in a Speedo, but they thought that Danica in a bikini seemed like a winner.

Now the bikini was actually a step up from her appearance in, I think it was Maxim magazine, or FHM, or whatever airport yuppie-porn magazine– I forget what it was called. But in this picture, Danica was wearing leather underwear, spread on the hood of a car. Now in the interview that ran alongside the photos, Danica Patrick had to answer questions like, “Is your underwear flame retardant?” and “Are there times of the month when you are a more aggressive or angry driver?”

Now you might want to ask yourself the question, what’s more infuriating, the fact that they asked those questions or the fact that she answered them. But the root of this problem is not the idiot yuppie softcore-porn magazine, or even Danica’s proud self-exploitation. It’s the fact that to be a woman athlete in the 21st century in this country, this is business as usual. I mean, no matter what your skills, no matter what your accomplishments, you are the main attraction in an absolute carnival of sexism.

And this was even displayed in more dramatic fashion with Candace Parker. I mean, Candace Parker is the greatest women’s basketball player I’ve ever seen. I mean, she will dunk on your head.

And she’s also pregnant. And ESPN had her on its cover in glowing maternal white, cradling her belly. And this is how the ESPN article starts.

It starts like this, “Candace Parker is beautiful, breathtaking really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup.” “She’s a woman who plays like a man– one of the boys– if the boys had C cups, and flawless skin, and perfect white teeth.” Now as my good friend Helen Wheelock, who runs the women’s sports basketball blog, after that article came out, she wrote me about the flip test. And she said, “Imagine how that would sound if it was about a man athlete and not a woman.” Her philosophy on sports writing is, is it sexist– let’s do the flip test and see how it sounds.

And so she wrote this to me. She wrote, “Peyton Manning is handsome, breathtaking really, with flawless skin, endless legs, and a medium jockstrap he is proud of but never flaunts. Now let’s go back to that ESPN article because it goes on to praise Parker, writing that, quote, “There is nothing crass or needy about her, nothing vulgar. You’d never see her nuding it up. She’s wholesome, the kind of girl you bring home to meet mom and dad.”

And then the writer goes on to actually bring Danica Patrick into the discussion. Noting this, she said, “Danica is nowhere near the best in her field. But she doesn’t need to be because she’s hot enough to pose for Maxim. While that works for her, Parker wants more.”

So there you go. You’ve got these two women, arguably, the two most famous women in sports today. And you have Danica portrayed as sexually submissive and available. And you have Candace Parker, the earth mother.

And I think we could say welcome to the new century of women’s sports. Unfortunately, it’s the 19th century. And if you aren’t willing to play this game, then you are doomed to be ignored, if you’re not willing to play the game of being a girl first, an athlete second.

Let’s look, once again, at our friends at ESPN The Magazine. Over five years from when the magazine started, 2004, to March, 2009, female athletes have appeared on– out of 168 covers, they’ve appeared on five of them. That’s 3.6%. Because I guess there just aren’t enough women to write about.

I can absolutely understand why the whole Danica Patrick, Candace Parker dynamic, it can conjure a lot of emotions like annoyance, anger, fury. But here’s another one for my money. I mean, and pardon my language, but it’s so [MUTED]. I mean, I’m tired. I mean, it’s tired because it shows that the vise that these women are in is the same vise that women have been in for a century in the world of sports.

It’s a vise that says, we are not a threat, we are sexy, and most critically, we are hetero, hetero, hetero. We are so straight, we have pregnant bellies or we want to be drooled on by frat-boy idiots. We are not L, we are not G, we are not B, and, heavens, we are certainly not T.

I mean, this is the vise, your skills are always secondary. Now I remember reading something that Billie Jean King said 40 years ago, where she was approached for an interview by the style section of a newspaper. And she angrily stormed away from the interview and she said, “This is the problem, we got to get off the style section and into the sports page.” And that’s still the problem.

And I want to use the rest of my time here to talk about how women athletes– gay, straight, black, white– have confronted this minefield over the last century. And if there’s one common thread I want people to think about, it’s that in the history, it’s only when sexism and homophobia are challenged off the field that you see inroads on the fields. So I just want to start– why not– in the 19th century. For most women, sports was something that they were simply denied. Denied the benefits of exercise, denied the benefits of healthy competition, frankly, denied the benefits of basic organized fun.

Now it is true that some wealthy women had access to the country club and sports like golf or tennis. But this was really no refuge or any kind of a victory. Like, for example, have you ever wondered why women’s tennis is best of three sets instead of best of five sets? I mean, it’s not because women were seen, well, it’s best of three because they’re too frail to play five. Actually, it did used to be best of five in women’s tennis.

The problem was, was that women had to wear corsets when they played. And they were starting to pass out on the court because the corsets were so restrictive. And so then the people– the men who ran women’s tennis– were faced with this question. What do we do about this?

Women are passing out. They could be dying. Well, let’s not remove the corsets. Let’s just make it best of three instead of best of five.

And this didn’t change until years later when a 15-year-old, named Lottie Dod, won Wimbledon. And she got a corset exemption because she was allowed to wear her high school uniform because she was 15. And in winning the Wimbledon prize, which I think back then was like a basket full of flowers, while men got money, she made a plea to allow, quote, “A suitable attire for women’s tennis, which does not impede breathing.” So sports were a place for middle and upper class women to develop manners, to get healthy, to work on their figures.

But this changed drastically in the 1920s. I mean, suffrage was won. World War I ended. The floodgates opened. And you have the first women’s sports stars emerge here.

Swimmers like Sybil Bauer, and Gertrude Ederle, and Babe Didrikson. And the games themselves became very political. Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel, set the all-time record– first woman to do it– she set the all-time record. And she beat the old record by two hours against the nearest man. And this inspired young women everywhere.

The ’20s also saw the entrance of African-American women in organized sports. There was a team called the Chicago Roamer Girls, which didn’t lose a game for six straight years and played to packed houses throughout Chicago. And– oh, basketball, I’m sorry.

And the black community also started their own women’s baseball team, though. And it’s interesting, the ad was– this was the ad in the Chicago Defender– it was, “Our women are voting now, so why not play a real game of baseball?” So it was very connected to this idea, we won the right to vote, we want the right to play.

But the greatest change for women in this decade, it happened because of the factory teams of working-class women who had access to play. And it’s worth saying that the whole idea of these factory teams– teams that were built inside of factories– it happened for one reason, and one reason only. And that was the 1919 strike wave in this country. One of the great labor war periods. One out of three workers on strike that year.

And as the Carnegie Steel manager, AH Wyman, he said it quite explicitly. He said, “Look, teams foster stronger loyalty to their bosses. That’s why they built them.” But for the women in these plants to be on a traveling company team, to have time from work to play, to forge friendships, or even relationships with other women, this was revolutionary. And just the fun and the freedom that they had that their own mothers could not have imagined.

Now the most famous athlete of the first half of the 20th century came out of the factory teams. And her name was Mildred Ella Babe Didrikson. And she was called Babe not because of a sexist derisive like, “Oh, she’s a babe.” But because of Babe Ruth. Because that’s how amazing they thought she was.

I mean, she won gold medals in track. She could box. She struck out Major League Baseball players.

And she could throw a football 50 yards. And a journalist once asked her, “Is there anything you don’t play?” And she said, “Yeah, dolls.”

But despite her skills, you had the backlash. I mean, she was amazing. But you see this– girls first, athletes second. She was denounced by sportswriters as, quote, “Mannish and not quite female.” She was someone who could not compete with the other girls in the very ancient and time-honored sport of man trapping.

Now this profound sexism in the 1950s was, for the first time, joined with a very explicit homophobia. And this is important because until now, it was all, like, code words. Like what Josephine D’Angelo said.

It was like the mannish athlete, something’s queer over here. But now it was becoming very explicit. The knives were out.

At the 1956 Conference of Collegiate Women’s Physical Educators, the guest speaker, Dr. Josephine Renshaw, this was her speech. It was a rant about, quote, “The muscular Amazon with unkempt hair, clodhopper shoes, and dowdy clothing, who had become disappointed in heterosexual attachments and see women’s sports in a predatory fashion. That’s our great danger.” And there’s a real echo of that today.

Now this was the terrain that existed– I’m going to be wrapping up now– until the 1970s, though, and the push against the war in Vietnam sparked a struggle for the rights of women and LGBT people. It manifests itself, of course, in Title IX, Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes match. Elizabeth is going to talk about some of this stuff.

But it is worth saying about Billie Jean King, just things people don’t know about her, like she was very connected to the movement, off the court. And that’s what’s important here. It’s like, she started the Women’s Sports Foundation. She started the first women’s sports union. She fought for equal pay, threatening a strike, wildcats and otherwise, like not showing up.

And she lent her name to a full-page ad what said simply, “I had an abortion.” Now imagine a woman athlete doing that today. So, in closing, I would love to end with a sense of progress. But hanging over this talk is Danica and Candace and the vise of sexism and homophobia that remains.

Just yesterday, there was a news headline that said, “Wimbledon officials admit players’ looks influence court assignments.” And that meant that in early rounds, they were saying, “We’re only going to put women on center court who we think are physically attractive and telegenic.” And LZ Granderson, of ESPN, he praised Wimbledon officials for that. He praised their refreshing honesty, their need to not be politically correct. And wrote that, “For those who complain, well, that’s life.”

I’m raising that specifically, and for the camera there, because LZ Granderson is actually a very good writer. He’s also African American. And he’s also gay, the only openly gay writer at ESPN. And if people throughout the decades had just said, “That’s life,” he wouldn’t be working! Wouldn’t have a job.

I mean, if it’s only life, that means that we accept things the way they are and don’t demand change. Yes, without question, sports in this country is a carnival of sexism and homophobia. But it’s also a place that holds the promise of liberation, a promise to be free, a promise to have fun, and a promise to break a sweat. But if there’s any lesson over the last 100 years, it’s that if we don’t break a sweat off the field, and fight for a better world, then on the field, it’s not going to make a lick of difference. So thank you very much.


  • That was Dave Zirin. His latest book is called A People’s History of Sports in the United States. You can find out more about Zirin on our website at We’ll be right back.


You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information, or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. You can also download programs or get our podcast from

We now return to Women in Sports, Separate and Not Equal. Next we’ll hear from Elizabeth Terzakis. Terzakis is a longtime social justice activist and writer. She’s currently an English and reading instructor at Canada College in Redwood City, California. She also spoke on the opening panel, Women in Sports, Fighting for Equality On and Off the Field, at the July, 2009 Socialism Conference in San Francisco.

  • About two months ago, one of my students came into my office hours right after soccer practice. And she was so tired and hungry and out of it, I had to feed her to get her to talk to me. And so as I was sitting there, I just wondered, why does she do it? You know, why does she play soccer?

Because that student, like most of my students, has a lot on her plate. Most of them are first-generation college students. Many of them are immigrants, or first-generation citizens, or residents, who go to school full-time. They work full-time.

And the whole time I was just wondering, you know, how does she do it? Like, why is she playing sports? I don’t understand how she can do that on top of all the other things that she does.

And then two days later, I heard that I would have an opportunity to be on this panel with Dave. And the first thing I did, I went back to her, and I said, “You know, grab another soccer player or two. Let me interview you so I can talk to people about why you do what you do. And I can tell them about the role that sports plays in your life.”

But first, I want to look at the state of sexism in society more generally. Because I agree with Dave, the Danica Patrick, Candace Parker dichotomy is very troubling. But it’s not at all surprising. As Dave pointed out, most of the progress made for women in sports has occurred in the context of larger social movements. It was in the context of the women’s liberation movement that Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs.

There is no such women’s movement now. And when there is no movement, there is inevitably backsliding. And the media’s treatment of Patrick and Parker is not the only evidence of this backsliding.

Now a lot of my talk is going to come from an excellent book called Playing with the Boys, which people should check out. It’s by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano. And they condense the arguments against women’s full participation in sports to the three I’s. The three I’s are inferiority, injury, and immorality.

So McDonagh and Pappano argue that the idea that women are naturally athletically inferior to men is a social construct. That is, it’s a creation of society, not nature. Now I know what you’re thinking, right? Men, on average, are bigger and stronger than women. And that’s true.

But as McDonagh and Pappano point out, averages don’t play sports, individuals do. OK? And being bigger and stronger also is not the only thing that counts in sports. For example, does anyone know who the first person was to climb El Capitan?

It was Lynn Hill, a 5 foot, 100-pound woman. She did it in 1993. Does anyone know what happened to Simon Nadin, the big, strong guy who tried to climb it with her? His exhaustion and swollen hands kept him from completing the climb.

And the interesting thing when I read this– this is in their book– is I’m a rock climber. And I had actually heard of Simon Nadin before but I had never heard of Lynn Hill. She was the first person to climb El Capitan. OK.

You have to ask yourself, if women are naturally inferior to men in athletics, how come every time a woman comes out on top, they change the rules so women can’t compete with men anymore? Who’s the woman who did the backstroke?

  • Sybil Bauer.
  • Sybil Bauer, right? They made it so she couldn’t compete with the men, OK? And Margaret Gisolo is another example. In 1928, she was 14, she played second base for a team in Blanford Indiana. She batted .455, which is a good average.

In a playoff game, she hit the single that broke a 7-7 tie after stealing three bases and handling 10 plays in the field. The manager of the other team complained that Gisolo was ineligible because she was a girl. But because the rules of the league didn’t explicitly say that girls couldn’t play, the team was allowed to keep its win. However, the next season, they changed the rules so that they did explicitly say that girls couldn’t play. And they kept girls from playing.

And this book is full of these stories. And many of them are remarkable for two things. The first thing is, is that the boys on the team tend to accept the women and girls.

They tend to be just fine with competing against them and competing with them. For example, when Michaela Hutchison won the Alaska State wrestling title in 2006, one of her defeated opponents, Aaron Boss, said, quote, “I don’t look at it as a loss to a girl. I look at it as a loss to a wrestler.”

The second notable thing about all these cases is that they tended to win in court. When women challenge sex segregation, they tend to win their cases. And the fact is that we won’t know how well women will compete with men until they do so in greater numbers and in more sports. How you train, who you train with, how you compete, and who you compete with matters.

It matters so much, in fact, that in 1996, a court ruled that a young woman named Tiffany Adams, who was not allowed to wrestle with the boys, was caused, quote, “Irreparable harm,” because she missed opportunities to develop her skills as a wrestler. And in a lot of these cases, they win it in court. But they’re too old at that point to actually compete.

I think that if we started integrating sports around gender at the very lowest level, a whole new style of play would develop. And we have no idea what it’s going to look like. Because if you have to beat people who can dunk, and you can’t dunk, you’re going to figure out a way to do it.

Remember the woman who swam the English Channel two hours faster? She probably knew something about the currents that the guys didn’t know. It wasn’t necessarily that she was bigger and stronger than them. She figured out a way to beat them.

But besides policing women’s sexuality and appearance, besides insisting that we be available to and pretty for men at all times, if men get beat, then the whole social order is overturned because the myth of male superiority is undone. And now this came out really clearly in the interview I did with my students. So they’re going back and forth and they’re talking about how if you take a guy down, they get all mad. And I don’t know anything about soccer.

I’m like, “Well, what does that mean, you take a guy down?” And they say, well, if you get them hurt, or you trip them, or school them with the ball, or slide tackle, or if you take a guy on and you can take them on and pass them on, you know, everybody’s like, “Oh, you got schooled by a girl.” I’m like, pass them on, what does that mean? You steal the ball from them?

You steal it or you get past them with a trick. I love that. Technically though, in the soccer field, a girl should not pass a guy. Technically, I said.

There’s a rule that says that? “No, it’s not a rule,” said one of them. Not a spoken rule. But the guys know.

Yeah, that’s their rule for them. Yeah. “For them,” I said, “because they’re better than women.” Yep.

And I would love to play it for you because you should hear their voices going from this excited back and forth, clearly the joy of the competition in the game, how much it means to them to be able to do this and do it well. And yet, how they understand that that skill that they have is actually not acceptable. So why do they do it? That was the first question I asked the two soccer players, [? Xenia ?] and Gabby.

Both emphasized that sports gave them an avenue of escape from the pressures of school work and family. Both of them talked about how sports helped them to feel more confident, to understand their own abilities, and to persevere to overcome obstacles in other areas of their life. They also both stressed that sports was the one place where they could go where they didn’t have to worry about how they looked. And they talked about this all the time.

And how angry they were when the team changed their uniforms from big baggy shorts that went down to their knees to ones that came halfway up their legs. And the things that they go through to lengthen the shorts. You know, rolling down the tops and wearing spandex underneath.

And how unfair it is. They’re both fairly small, but for the bigger woman who have to wear the women’s-size tops that are very constrictive and all this kind of stuff. So you see the corset coming back on.

And they said, “You know, like, we’re not here to put on a show. I mean, with the game, we are, right? But not with our clothes.”

Sports for them was the one place where they could go where they wouldn’t have to experience the restrictions of mainstream femininity. It was a place to be treated like a person. Both young women were also very aware of the ways in which they being held back by the unequal dedication of resources to men’s sports and by traditional views about women in sports. Both had to struggle to win acceptance for their athletic interests from their families, their schools, and their school districts.

And when I asked them what they would change about sports if they could, they answered instantly. Gabby said, “Equal share in media and equal share in money.” And Gabby went on to say, “It always seems like the men always get everything, it’s always going to them. The women have to do something crazy to get their attention, like Brandi Chastain taking her shirt off.” Do people remember that?

  • Yeah.
  • OK. And [? Xenia ?] said, “You can see every day in the news, they only talk about the boys, the men’s sport, rarely about the women’s sport. And it’s like, what the heck, we play too.”

So, legally speaking, we have the ingredients for integrated sports. But why don’t we have them? The answer should be clear. Because we need a movement.

And notice that I said movement, not a new legal strategy. Because we already have that. We’ve got the legal stuff. It’s done, OK?

Title IX was an addition to the Education Code that was passed in 1972. It wasn’t really intended to be about sports, although it quickly became almost all about sports. And the way that it got interpreted around sports was that women had to be offered equal options to men.

Essentially, all it required was for schools to construct separate but equal athletic opportunities for women. So if you have a football team for boys or men, you have a field hockey team for girls or women. But of course, we all know that separate is not equal.

Nevertheless, Title IX made a huge difference. Between 1971 and 2000, women’s participation in high school sports went up by 800%. Participation by college women went up 372%. And the participation of women of color, at both levels, increased by 955%.

OK, so we need a movement. Now, what will this movement do? The first thing that needs to be done is we need to make it so that it is impossible to use the word lesbian as a slur or any of the other letters that LGBT stands for. The second thing we need to have it do is take full advantage of the fact that the word transgender has passed the presidential lips, giving the go-ahead to other lips of power to say transgender in the context of other words like rights, and equality, and people too. We need to make sure that nobody gets left behind in this fight.

As long as there is homophobia, as long as transgender people are not free and safe to be who they are, then all women will be caught in the straightjacket of mainstream femininity. And this straightjacket has been used to deny womanhood, right– think about that– to working-class women, women of color– particularly African-American women– lesbians, and women with muscles, right? You know, we’re not really women because we got muscles. It’s ridiculous. It’s been used to keep women out of sports and out of jobs that they are perfectly capable of performing.

I just want to return to Danica Patrick for a moment and say a word about the role that professional athletes might play in this movement. We can’t tell Danica Patrick, or any other famous woman athlete, what to do. But we can be clear about where she’s coming from and where she’s going. Where she’s coming from is from a place of personal gain. And where she’s going is away from the interests of the vast majority of women.

There’s a name for what she’s doing and it is not feminism. It is not power feminism. It is not do-me feminism. It has nothing to do with women’s rights whatsoever. It’s called opportunism.

Now there are other women in professional sports, I wish they would do other things than what they’ve done. For example, Annika Sorenstam, after beating 27 male golfers in the first round of a tournament– of a men’s tournament, PGA, which doesn’t have an MPGA, it’s just PGA– and beating 10 men in her second, she said, “I’ve got to go back to my ladies golf professional association, or whatever it is, and tour where I belong.” Now I’m sorry that she has internalized the inferiority, you know, the idea of women’s inferiority. But I think if we had a movement for women’s liberation, we could give people like her confidence. And she, in turn, could inspire us and give us role models.

A woman’s movement and professional athletes could work dynamically together to push us forward. And we’re not there yet. But I think it’s a place to look to. Thank you.


  • That was Canada College instructor, Elizabeth Terzakis, speaking at the July 2009 Socialism Conference in San Francisco.


That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Or you can get our podcast at Special thanks to Preeti Shekhar for recording this audio. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.


Funding and publicity for women’s sports have grown substantially in thevpast two decades. Yet from high school to the pros, women often still have to contend with resistance and stereotypes that treat them like second class athletes. On this edition, Dave Zirin and Elizabeth Terzakis take a look back at the history of discrimination against women in sports, and we’ll hear where the long battle for equality and acceptance stands today.


Dave Zirin, Author and social commentator; Elizabeth Terzakis, Cañada College English and Reading instructor.For More Information:

Dave Zirin
www.edgeofsports.comElizabeth Terzakis
Cañada College
650 306 3327

Socialism Conference 2009
Center for Economic Research and Social Change


Yesterdays New Quintet by Dice Games
Mulatu Astatke by Yegelle Tezeta

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