Changes in Societal Perceptions of Women’s Sports

In 776 B.C., the first Olympic games were held in Athens, Greece (1).  These games showcased only the athletic abilities of men; women were prohibited from participating (1).  In modern times, women athletes compete in the same Olympic games as men and participate in many of the sporting competitions in the same manner as their male counterparts.  Not only has female participation in sports changed on a global scale (as seen by the modified inclusiveness of the Olympics), it has drastically altered within the arena of the United States as well.  From the 1800s to the twenty first century, America has seen female athletics take on new roles within society.  This evolution in female athletics was only possible due to the changes in American society’s attitude toward women’s sports over time.  As women have gained more prominent roles within American society and sought gender equality, perceptions of women’s sports have transcended restrictive barriers.

In the 1800s, the athletic endeavors of women in America consisted of recreation such as horseback riding, tennis, croquet, golf, dancing, and archery (2-p.120).  The limited extent of female physical activity was due to the social perceptions of women as feminine childbearing and home keeping figures.  Sports for women in this era were viewed as mediums for social interaction rather than competitive or physically beneficial activities (2-p.121).  The metamorphosis of female athletics from practically nonexistent in the 1800s to hugely popular in the twenty first century can be contributed to a paradigm shift in American interpretations of sports for women.  This shift was enabled by events and phenomena such as increased education for women, women’s suffrage, World War II, Title XI Act, and the professionalism of women’s sports.

The shift toward increased acceptance of women’s sports within American society coincided with the shift toward decreases in gender discrimination.  For instance, in the early 1900s the discrimination against women in education was reduced as more women’s colleges were established (6-p.553).  As young women began to experience educational freedom and claim the independence to subtly move away from the realm of domestic responsibilities, female sports became more than social interactions.  As early as 1896, the first recognized varsity game for coeds was held between Stanford and the University of California (5-p.88).  In essence, it became more socially acceptable for women to take on physically rigorous activities as they proved their ability to take on mentally strenuous occupations.

American views of women’s sports evolved once again in 1920 when political discrimination against women underwent a drastic change.  Women over the age of eighteen gained suffrage, and with increased political responsibility came the opportunity to expand female participation in other areas, such as athletic endeavors.  Although the image of women still pertained to fragility in this time period, American society was becoming more comfortable with the concept of increased gender equality (5-p.64).  Women were proving themselves to be capable of making decisions that affected all of society, so America began to view female sports as conventional rather than abnormal.

While the early and mid 1900s introduced a period in which women started participating in sports to a much greater degree, feminism in this era was still defined by societal modesty in relation to the average female body (4-p.30).  While athletic activity requires mobility, suitably covering and movement hindering outfits characterized early female sports.  For example, in order to maintain socially acceptable modesty, female swimmers throughout the early and mid 1900s were required to wear bathing suits composed of blouse and bloomer sets (4-p.35).  This attitude about female sporting apparel exemplified that society did not want to sacrifice its image of female modesty even as it grew to accept women’s sports.  However, as women continued to become enamored with the concept of playing sports just like men, American ideals adapted to accept functionality over modesty in sporting apparel.

As women became perceived as more integral to the success of society in nondomestic areas, female sports became seen as an important component of American culture. This correspondence is exemplified by the founding of the All-American Girls Baseball League during World War II by Phillip Wrigley (6-p.553).  Throughout the war, women had to take on male roles as leaders of households and industrial workers.  Also during this time, women became more involved in sports because the men’s sporting events that they often spectated were no longer available.  Even after the war ended and America men returned from military duty, American society held a new respect and appreciation for women’s sports.

From the 1800s to the twenty first century, America has witnessed drastic alterations in tolerance within every region of its culture.  From the end of World War II to the 1970s, this trend was applicable to the growth of women’s sports.  A steady increase in participation and support for intercollegiate women’s sports, high school varsity female sports, and professional women’s sports was evident throughout this time period.  The culmination of this metamorphosis of women’s sports from feminine in nature to competitive at a level similar to men’s sports came in 1972 with the passing of the Title IX Act of the Education Amendment in Congress (1).  According to this legislation, sex could not be the determining factor in discrimination, participation, or awarding of benefit in any educational program that received federal funding (1).  At this time, 31,000 women were in involved in college athletics and the average number of women’s teams at colleges was 2.1 (1).  The passing of this act represented a concrete reversal in societal opinion about women’s sports from the very beginning of women’s athletics to modern times.  Instead of condemning women’s sports, the new opinion was that women’s sports should be supported as much as men’s sports.  While it was widely lauded, all members of society did not agree upon the Title IX Act; it was quite controversial in nature.  However, the legislation continued to move female athletics forward in a positive manner by legally proving that society valued women’s sports as much as men’s sports.

Once the Title IX Act was passed, the next step for women’s sports in America was establishing successful professional leagues and continuing to improve competition at intercollegiate and youth levels.  For example, in the case of women’s basketball, the Women’s National Basketball Association was developed in 1996 to give female basketball players the opportunity to compete at a professional level (6-p.555).  At the collegiate level, basketball continued to become more and more competitive, leading to spectator crowds as large as 24,000 people at championship games (1).  Even when it came to female youth basketball, leagues such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) became more and more intensive on the women’s side.  In all sports, not just basketball, the late 1900s and early twenty first century exemplified society’s belief that women’s sports should be played, recognized, and appreciated at a level comparable to that of men’s sports.

As society has adapted to changing times, the terms of femininity, modesty, and tolerance have been redefined.  As these terms have gained new meaning, female sports have gained new roles within American society.  In the 1800s, American society had restricted perceptions of women’s sports due to the current definitions of the aforementioned terms and the limited role of women at the time.  However, as time has passed, society has overcome the barriers that those terms provided in their old context.  This has allowed female athletics and the perceptions of women’s sports within American society to flourish.  If the positive attitude toward women in athletics that is evident in modern times continues to shift toward an even higher level of support, women’s athletics will excel.  Women will keep fighting for completely equal status with men on and off the playing field as long as society continues to support them.  Currently, women’s sports do not bring in the revenue or support that the most popular men’s sports achieve, yet this may change if female athletes are given the resources and opportunities to accomplish athletic feats of greatness.


4 thoughts on “Changes in Societal Perceptions of Women’s Sports

  1. Hey Mallory,

    I really how you approached the topic of women’s participation in sports and the way it reflects the changes happening in society. The quality of your examples make it apparent that you have conducted a lot of research. However, I would have to agree with Luke that by using a timeline to describe all the main events happening throughout the last few centuries, you do not really thoroughly analyze certain parts of your essay. Furthermore, while you do mention how women’s involvement in sports was not immediately accepted by society, I would humbly suggest to give a few example; you could for instance name some groups/organisations that opposed women’s participation in sports for religious, economic and possibly even political reasons. Anyhow, this is a very solid rough draft and I definitively think you are on the right path.
    Good luck!

  2. Mallory,
    I think you start off this paper well, I really like your use of the Olympic games in your introduction and how you compare the ancient games to the current ones, it really displays the overall idea of your shift well. I am a little confused about your second paragraph. It sounds more like just additional information that might be found in your introduction or along with your thesis. The rest of the overall flow of the paper is nice and the way you connect social and political milestones to sports strengthens your paper. A small suggestion might be to try not to use the phrase “women’s sports” so much. I realize that is the focus of your paper so obviously that is what you are talking about the entire time but maybe switching it up to female athletics or just something fresh.

  3. Hey Mallory! This is a great example of a paradigm shift, just for the fact that there has been so much change in the face of women’s sports over time. If I could offer any advice to you, I would suggest that you avoid the trap that I started to fall into when writing my paper. That is, try to keep from merely going through a timeline of important events in the history of women’s sports, and try to possibly analyze their positive/negative effects. For instance, when you talk about Title IX, you state that it was controversial, and that it demanded equal funding for mens’ and womens’ sports, but you could probably expand upon WHY it was so controversial. Other than that, good job!

  4. Please ignore the numbers at the ends of some of the sentences! They are just there to help me do my in-text citations for the final draft.

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