Women in Sports

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Female participation in sports rose dramatically in the twentieth century, especially in the latter part, reflecting changes in modern societies that emphasized gender parity. Although the level of participation and performance still varies greatly by country and by sport, women's sports have broad acceptance throughout the world, and in a few instances, such as tennis and figure skating, rival or exceed their male counterparts in popularity.


For most of human history, athletic competition has been regarded as an exclusively masculine affair. In antiquity, athletic competitions were held among warriors to prove their fighting prowess or otherwise demonstrate their virility. The exclusively male origins of competitive sport carried over into the Ancient Olympics, where women were not allowed even to watch competitions, much less compete. However, a separate women's athletic event, the Heraea Games, was eventually developed.

Few women competed in sports until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as social changes in Europe and North America favored increased female participation in society as equals with men, as exemplified by the women's rights movement. Although women were permitted to participate in many sports, relatively few showed interest, for a variety of social and psychological reasons that are still poorly understood.

Olympic games

The modern Olympics had female competitors from 1900 onward, though women at first participated in considerably fewer events. Concern for the physical strength and stamina of women led to the discouragement of female participation in more physically intensive sports, and in some cases led to less physically demanding female versions of male sports. Thus netball was developed out of basketball and softball out of baseball.

Time Cover in 1924-08-25.JPG

Amateur vs. professional sport

Due to a relative lack of public interest in female athletics, most early women's professional sports leagues foundered, so amateur competitions became the primary venue for women's sports. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Communist countries dominated many Olympic sports, including women's sports, due to state-sponsored athletic programs that were technically regarded as amateur. The legacy of these programs endured, as former Communist countries continue to produce many of the top female athletes. Germany and Scandinavia also developed strong women's athletic programs in this period.

In the United States, nearly all schools required student participation in sports, guaranteeing that all girls were exposed to athletics at an early age, which was generally not the case in Western Europe and Latin America. In intramural sports, the genders were often mixed, though for competitive sports the genders remained segregated. Title IX legislation required colleges and universities to provide equal athletic opportunities for women. This large pool of female athletes enabled the U.S. to consistently rank among the top nations in women's Olympic sports, and female Olympians from skater Peggy Fleming (1968) to Mary Lou Retton (1986) became household names.

Tennis was the most popular professional female sport from the 1970s onward, and it provided the occasion for a symbolic "battle of the sexes" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, enhancing the profile of female athletics. The success of women's tennis, however, did little to help the fortunes of women's professional team sports.

Women's professional team sports achieved popularity for the first time in the 1990s, particularly in basketball and football (soccer). This popularity has been asymmetric, being strongest in the U.S., certain European countries and former Communist states. Thus women's soccer is dominated by the U.S., China, and Norway, who have historically fielded weak men's national teams. Despite this increase in popularity, women's professional sports leagues continue to struggle financially. The WNBA is operated at a loss by the NBA, in the hopes of creating a market that will eventually be profitable. A similar approach is used to promote female boxing, as women fighters are often undercards on prominent male boxing events, in the hopes of attracting an audience.

Today, women participate competitively in virtually every major sport, though the level of participation decreases in contests of brute strength or "contact" sports. Few schools have women's programs in American football, boxing or wrestling. This practical recognition of gender differences in physiology has not impeded the development of a higher profile for female athletes in other historically male sports, such as golf, marathoning, and ice hockey.

See also

Further reading

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