Women’s Sports

Date: Nov 22, 2018
Category: Sport Category

Introduction

Nowadays the involvement of women in different spheres of activity is increasing. The fact that women sometimes show better results in sports that seem totally unfeminine is particularly surprising and delightful. Therefore, the formation and development of women participation in sports is especially interesting.

The Book Women’s Sports

In the book Women’s Sports: A History the author Allen Guttmann makes an analysis of women’s participation in different kinds of sport. He leaves beyond the period after the mid 20th century and armed combat. According to Guttmann (1991), throughout the period from ancient times to the 19th century women's sports battle and the women’s sports in general was not widespread. Women martial arts became relatively widespread only in the late twentieth century.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Guttmann carefully details the range of sports in which women from different cultures and different periods of history were involved. However, he combines the riches of European and Anglo-American fund of historical knowledge. The survey starts from ancient Etruria and Egypt and ends with the Olympic Games of the mid 1970s.

According to Guttmann (1991), the first mentions of combat sportswomen appeared in ancient Greek mythology. First of all, they are the warlike Amazons, who were good at fencing. Famous Atalanta was one of the most beautiful women of her time, vowing to remain a virgin. She overcame the legendary Pele, the future father of the mighty Achilles.

Women's Sports in Greece

Nevertheless, women's sports in Greece were not very popular. In Athens, during their heyday sports for women were limited to a minimum, while in Sparta women's sports were encouraged. Unlike other Greeks, the ancient Spartans appreciated achievements in physical growth and courage of both boys and girls. The author of the book refers to Xenophon, who apparently deeply approved of both women's sports and the atmosphere of the Spartan military camp. Also Guttmann (1991) mentions legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, who called for girls to jog and struggle. Lycurgus believed that the highest function of a free woman is to give birth to a child, and he insisted that the female body needed a proper workout not less than the male one. He believed that for this purpose it was necessary to organize running and combat competitions for women as well as men. Physical education of Spartan girls had a pronounced focus on the selection. Without a doubt, adversarial sports were the basis of the psychological resistance of the legendary Spartan women. There are the female bronze statues of Olympic champions. All were victorious at the hippodrome - horse racing and chariot races, and some even won two Olympics games. Greeks organized games devoted to Zeus’s wife - the goddess Hera. They were held at the same time as the Olympic, i.e. 7-6 centuries BC. Unmarried girls wearing clothing rode about 160 m. Later Roman writers and historians expanded the list of sports, which involved Spartans. It included wrestling, pugilism and pankration.

Inconsistency of historical retrospective presentation should be noted. After a description of the ancient female sport the author lurches forward to medieval Europe. He analyzed scattered evidence and came up to the conclusion that the Christian orders, the tenets of medieval life, did not encourage women sporting activity, and women took part in medieval competitions as cheer-leaders. Guttmann (1991) argues that aesthetic perception of sporting achievements, such as fencing and field sports, comes with the Renaissance in Italy, France, England and Germany. The peasants prefer crude physical sports, such as running or stoolball. Unfortunately, the book seems to be pretty poor in such important facts as the social and economic context, body and its management in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The author adds nothing to feminist scholarship of the period.

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Most historians of women’s sport have paid their attention mostly to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, therefore, it is not surprising, that Guttmann describes this period more clearly. Feminist pioneers from women schools and colleges were acutely concerned about the physical safety of their younger charges. They embraced gymnastics and sports for young ladies to promote new ideals, both physical and mental performances. The development of women’s sports in this period has been well documented. Cricket, basketball, tennis, hockey and lacrosse were all regarded as appropriate. Many of the exercises could be done on the lawns of large private houses, and suited ideally for the private pursuit of pleasures of upper-class men and women. Archery was a popular pursuit of this kind: it was considered fashionable, and was regarded as a gain in the feminization of grace and posture. Guttmann pays adequate attention to these activities, and also mentions croquet, which was also "lawn" sport. He does not mention the games of bowls, however. Guttmann does not pay enough attention to the transformations of the private, domestic and institutional (schools and colleges) clubs either.

On the other hand, Guttmann (1991) expresses the position which is opposite to the opinion of most scholars of the Victorian era. He comes into conflict with feminist historians who believe that Victorian women’s bodies and physicality were subjects of patriarchal control. He criticizes Helen Lenskyj, Jennifer Hargreaves, and Patricia Vertinsky, because they consider mid-nineteenth-century prescriptions against female activity and late-nineteenth-century advocacy as the same.

I agree with Guttmann that there are grounds for questioning the extent to which gender ideology, such as the cult of limitations of women behavior, but it is necessary to see how he came into a full discussion with feminist scholars who tried to theorize such issues.

"Revolutionary" Nature of the Changes in the Women’s Sport 

In the second and shorter part of the book, Guttmann (1991) examines the "revolutionary" nature of the changes in the women’s sport since 1970. This part is a mixture of sociology, psychology, biography and journalism. However, incompleteness of evidence and duality should also be noted. For example, he pays special attention to tennis player Helen Wills, but does not mention Maureen Connolly. His work is also full of stereotypes such as over-muscled East German swimmers, masculine Soviet athletes, and widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in the East.

In this chapter the author also identifies three contemporary controversies:

  • the relative characteristics of female and male athletes,
  • drug-enhanced performances,
  • the “masculinization” of women athletes, and the erotic aspects of sport.

In the discussion of this final topic, Guttmann refers most directly to a theme that runs throughout the book: the link between women's sport and sex appeal. He accords a feminist critique of contemporary sport some credibility by agreeing that the athletes are objectified when people eroticize them. Sexually attractive female athletes are only bait which promoters and advertisers use to sell their goods and services; and that the media overly emphasizes the appearance of athletes, and belittle their performance.

Guttmann explains that women have never been as involved in sports as today, and how they get their results. He also explains how women are under-represented in the sports world, being oppressed by the opposite sex. The author makes an attempt to clarify why women are not treated equally in the sports arena referring to the fact that sport has always been a "male domain."

However, Guttmann ignores feminist analyses that go beyond the surface criticism and try to connect issues of women's sport with broader, sustainable forms of male dominance. He insists that eroticism is an important aspect of sport and refutes assertion that it can contribute to the exploitation and oppression of women, maintaining that “there does seem to be some biological justification for mutual attraction between men and women” (Guttmann, 1991). Failing to recognize this need, Guttmann continues, “be tantamount to compulsory heterosexuality, if we are ready also to recognize that men and women can also be moved, stirred, excited, and sometimes erotically attracted by athletes of their own sex” (Guttmann, 1991).

The point is well taken, but must be qualified, noting two important facts:

  • firstly, that reciprocity can not enter the relationship between man and the object of eros, and,
  • secondly, that homoeroticism and homosexuality do not correspond to heterosexuality.

In each case, some attention should be paid to the real question of power.

The Purposes of Guttmann’s Book

One of the purposes of Guttmann’s book is to explain the men’s ignorance which is the reason why they try to exclude women from their men’s sports world. The statements of the early 1900s doctors, say that playing sports women can damage their ability to bear children, are expressed and condemned throughout the work. The author concludes the study by explaining how women have come so far in the world of sports and continue to flirt today, despite the fact that the rate of improvement has slowed down tremendously.

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Women’s participation in sports life of society nowadays excites minds of feminists and historians. This issue is particularly acute in our time, when the issue of gender equality has gained momentum. The scholars are interested in gender and sexual aspects. They also tend to look for the roots of today's problems in the ancient times. Allen Guttmann conducted a thorough historical analysis, based on documentary sources, taking into account the gender dimension. Guttmann’s book is a result of historical and sociological research analysis. As a secondary work of synthesis, it combines the material from a very diverse collection of sources. One should be grateful to Guttmann for collecting so much information and making it accessible to a wide readership.

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