Women, Sports and Power

by | November 20, 2014, 10:31am 0

Some of the times I have felt most powerful in my life have been on an ultimate frisbee field. Faking out my defender and sprinting hard to the endzone for the score. Marking up against a fierce competitor and frustrating her with my ever-presence on her cuts. Locking eyes with a teammate who knows just where to cut for my forehand huck, and then completing the play perfectly together. It’s a full-body feel-good feeling, like electricity starting in my chest and surging outwards to my fingertips, to my toes.

This weekend I was reminded of all that, playing with a small and scrappy alum team at our alma mater’s tournament (winning the tournament, of course). It was two days, six games of playing against various college teams from the northeast, and each game I was thinking how wonderful it was that there were six teams of women completing against each other. The players ranged from first year students who had only touched a disc starting in September, to seasoned seniors with beautiful throws and impressive vertical skills, to some of us who have continued playing after school on elite club teams and have lived and breathed ultimate for up to a decade.

The community of women this weekend brought me so much joy. To see all of us out there, with no men in charge, was glorious. Because, how often does that happen? In our workplaces? In our local and national government? In our schools’ senior leaders? Rarely, rarely, rarely. Yet there is so much value in complete self-determination for women, as when we are playing on a women’s sports team. You have complete control over your body, and this is no small thing, when we live in a culture where women’s bodies are policed, critiqued, picked apart by the media, by passerby, by families, by friends. On the field, my body is completely mine.

I bow at the feet of the women’s groups who not only got Title IX to Congress’s door, but fought for it once it was passed but being poorly instituted. Despite being passed in 1972, the federal Office of Civil Rights was not enforcing the law, and it took lawsuits and advocacy until a full 15 years later, women’s rights groups were victorious in passing the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which made Title IX stronger, clearer, and more enforceable (sources here).

The gains have been huge. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s fact sheet, before Title IX, girls represented just 7% of the students playing sports in high school. In 2001, girls made up 41.5% of students playing sports in high school–from 300,000 to 2.7 million girls playing. That translates to 1 in every 2.5 girls playing in high school in 2001, versus just 1 in every 27 girls playing prior to Title IX.

In college, women represented just 2% of student athletes prior to Title IX, whereas women made up 43% of college athletes in 2001.

But let’s not get complacent. Taking the micro example of the ultimate frisbee world, many women join in college, but after their four years in school, never play again. Most women’s club teams, who compete regionally and nationally (and are very badass, I can tell you from experience–one example here), know that part of their work is improving the pipeline to get women to keep playing. We–like most women’s sports–have not hit the critical mass that men’s divisions of the same sports have. There are so many men who play ultimate, that for example, the co-ed winter league I played in in San Francisco accepted all women who signed up, but always cut a good number of men purely because the ratio of men to women who wanted to join was so skewed.

This is not a matter of, ‘oh well, men just like ultimate frisbee better!’ It means that many good and excellent college women ultimate players have not gotten the encouragement or the opportunity to keep improving out of college. There are not women’s teams in every city, so many women have to play in co-ed leagues or on co-ed teams if they want to keep playing. But when you are a woman playing in a co-ed league game and a man calls another man a “pussy” when he messes up; or a co-ed team and you get constantly looked off on open cuts you are making; or when men dominate the email chains a co-ed team is using to fire everybody up (all of which I experienced just in the last couple of weeks), the incentives for women to stay playing get fewer and fewer.

(And don’t even get me started on the impact of “professional” men’s frisbee teams having women cheerleaders at their games. The short version: the impact is that girls and women watching get the message ‘your place is not on the ultimate field.’ This a huge detriment to the development of particularly girls playing ultimate, and if you’re a man on one of of those teams–you need to realize you are part of the problem, and you have the power to change that. Men on teams with all-female cheerleaders and all-male players should refuse to step on the field until their manager promises there either will be no female cheerleaders or there will be female players on the field. Preferably the latter.)

And none of this is trivial. There are countless, proven benefits to women and girls persisting in sports. Women and girls who play sports have higher grades, lower drop out rates, lower pregnancy rates, and lower drug usage rates than those who don’t. They also are more likely to graduate college, and sports significantly increase women’s self-esteem and confidence. The next studies I want to see are the impacts of women playing sports past college. I would posit that women playing sports are more confident at work, ask for raises more, and are more willing to speak up when something unjust is going on in their workplace and in their relationships. I know sports has instilled all of that in me.

So women readers, I ask you–when was the last time you did something with only a large group of women? And what did it feel like?

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