"Only those who risk failing greatly can ever succeed greatly." –RFK
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Is there really a level playing field for women?
Cherie brought up this excellent subject on the Ultralist. I am sure she will not mind that I post her question here with reference to her blog. She says:
I work at a women's nonprofit that focuses on women's workplace equality. I wrote a blog post about inequality in sports, after thinking after placing first for women in an ultra, how I didn't really win.
There were lots of responses, mostly about the difference in biology between the sexes, some about the cultural differences, especially in relation to sports.
In case you're interested, here is my reply:
I’ve been busy these days. Starting a new practice has taken too much of free time. I just now got around to reading this thread that Cherie started about a level playing field for women. Thanks, Cherie! And the responses have been great. I really, really liked everybody’s input. I am passionate about this topic, and have given presentations on the subject of the history of women in athletics. I have a very long response below. I was going to put it on my blog and just post a link here, but decided, what the heck, you will read it if you want and delete it if you wish.
I have my own opinions on the topic that Cherie brought up, and they are just that, opinions. What is below is a long and perhaps boring-to-some stream of thought as well as list of events that have influenced women in sport in recent years. As others have mentioned, it is so important to remember that women have been allowed to participate in sports on a very limited level for such a short time compared to men. I strongly believe that the gender culture significantly impacts the level playing field between the sexes.
Of course, I cannot deny (can anyone?) the physical differences between the sexes. Yes, of course men are stronger, faster, and more muscular. That is our biology, period. And that is the reason for the difference in sport performance for sure. BUT… women have only been competing in sport for such a relatively short time, so much shorter than we may even care to realize. So, how do we know how much that gap will close in time? There is so much more that influences competition than just biology. For now, we usually have a women's winner and a men's winner. I think that is good (though in recent years I have not gone to races with the goal of being the first woman; I have gone to races to be first. I have only succeeded a couple of times, but that it not the point.)
I am 44. I was raised in a time when there was no question that girls could participate in sports. I was in sports in high school, mostly solo sports like gymnastics, but it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. But funny thing is, somehow from somewhere or someone, I picked up this “feminine” influence that I didn’t even know I had. I didn’t know it until 2007, 8 years after running my first ultra. I learned I had it DURING the Badwater 2007 race. It was my friend Dori who was pacing me, who was also a high school girls’ running coach, who pointed it out to me. She said during the race that I had to stop feeling bad when passing people, that passing people was the whole point of my being there in the first place. And she told me I had to stop giving the other runners hugs when I did pass, no matter what I felt. Ha! She called me out, spot on, and it was my first “coaching” experience in how to compete. It was also my first insight into my own experiences and thoughts about competition. The story is a long and funny one and I’ll spare you the details. But I gotta say, it was darn hard for me to learn to pass people without feeling a twinge of guilt, or maybe even a lot of guilt. How strange. That feeling of guilt just doesn’t belong on the race track, right? Where the heck did that come from? Maybe it’s not a girl thing, and maybe there are guys that have felt that way, but the women (usually around my age or older) with whom I have discussed this seem to really get it; they know what I mean. The guys, not so much.
I *believe* there are still cultural influences that keep women, in general, from being bad-ass competitors. Now, I know every one of us knows a bad-ass chick who can kick his or her ass at the opportunity, but I’m talking about in general. I *believe* the stereotypes and misinformation of the dark ages still lurks in sports.
I think we think we are longer over it, but I strongly believe we are not.
And I wonder how narrow the gap between the sexes will become when and if we finally are.
Enough of my thoughts and opinions. Here are some facts about the past.
All jokes aside, girls were not allowed to run or participate in sports because she had one of these - a damn uterus. It wasn’t a good thing to have “back then.” Even the source of the word is a curse.
“The word uterus ultimately comes from the Indo-Europena udero, meaning womb or abdomen. This Indo=European word also developed into the Greek hustera, meaning womb, from whence English gets the word hysteria. This supposed psychoneurotic disorder was once through to be a woman’s disease, somehow caused by a disturbed uterus, and thus the adjective hysterical, meaning deranged by a faulty womb, was invented in the early seventeenth century. The Greek root of these words is also evident in hysterectomy, denoting the surgical removal of the uterus, a procedure that was employed in the late nineteenth century to treat women suffering from hysterical neuroses.” (From The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex, By Mark Morton)
Oh boy. Uterus = Hysteria. We're not off to a good start from birth. Like I said, all jokes aside.... :)
In the early 1900s:
When six women collapsed after the 800-meter race at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, an alarmist account in The New York Times said that "even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength." The London Daily Mail carried admonitions from doctors that women who participated in such "feats of endurance" would "become old too soon." The 800-meter race was discontinued. For 32 years, until the 1960 Rome Olympics, women would run no race longer than 200 meters.
Ok, so 30+ years go by….
Does anybody know or remember the name Julia Chase? She was born in the 40’s when women weren't allowed to compete in events with men. These are Julia's words: “You rarely heard about women runners in those days. Women weren't allowed to compete in events with men. And they weren't allowed to enter races longer than 880 yards. If a woman ran too much her uterus would fall out. That was the thinking. You never heard of an actual case, but it was just in the air.”
But Julia wanted to compete in a ½ mile race in MA in 1961. It was a long haul for her to even get to the start line, but she ran the race and she finished in 33:40, ahead of 12 men. Her time was not considered official because she was a woman.
Everybody knows Bobbi Gibb. She is recognized as the first woman to run the entire Boston Marathon in 1966, of course without a number because women were not allowed to run marathons. I wonder why not. You’d think by the 60s that we would have extinguished the fable of the uterus falling out. But that is not the reality. Women were still held back.
Of course, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run Boston with a race number, and she was allowed into the race only because she used her initials instead of name to enter, so it was presumed that she was a man. We all have seen the famous picture of the attempt by the official to physically remove her from the course.
And all that discriminatory nonsense was EONS ago many of the younger people here must imagine, but it wasn’t. Kathrine at the Boston Marathon was 1967. Not so long ago for us 40+ year olds!
And just when you think that the notion of falling uteri were a thing of the “dark ages” of the 60s and 70s for women athletes ...
It was in 2008 that Gian-Franco Kasper, head of the International Ski Federation said, "Ski jumping is just too dangerous for women. Don't forget, [the landing] it's like jumping down from, let's say, about two meters to the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view" A few years earlier, he told reporters that a woman's uterus might burst during landing.
Huh? 2008? Surely this can’t be for real….
Or how about, what year was the first year in Olympic history that all 205 participating countries sent at least one female competitor? Yes, this should be a crisp memory in all our minds.
Why? Why did it take until *last year* for all countries to have representation of the female sex?
The answer lies in the Olympic Committee allowing the athlete’s “uniform” to be altered, that is, allowing women to cover their arms in clothing if that is what their religion requires of them. 2012!
Who cares what they wear? Let them compete! Let them be athletes. Let them run their hearts out and sweat and puke and stumble and fail. Maybe one of them will win. But we will never know until we give them the same opportunities that men have been granted seemingly forever and without question.
So, my point is, and of course it could have been said in just one sentence: We have a loooong way to go culturally before we declare that women will always be the lesser (slower, weaker, etc.) athlete in a competition, all things being equal.
I believe women have a competitive strength that is yet untapped because maybe many (most?) of us don’t even know it’s there. I so hope we can draw on the inspiration of the women who paved this path for us. I believe the best way to honor them is to keep the momentum rolling. I hope that more and more women will start their races with the intent of being the first person to cross the finish line. Who cares what happens in the end; it’s the intent that is super cool.
Lisa Bliss (okay, back to work now)
I am an ultra runner, physician and have been medical director of some of the toughest ultras. I tend to be a mover and a shaker and louder than my size suggests. However, my Gemini twin is gentler and contemplative, an artist, a writer, and a poet. I am a dog lover, a believer in souls, and have a special affinity for those who struggle because I have been there.
This is my crazy lovable huggable Weimaraner, Steely Dan. I call him Steely. He left us in January of this year at only 6 years from lymphoma that did not respond to chemotherapy treatments. Steely was a total goof. He loved trail running, road running, treadmill running, new experiences, making eye contact, sleeping on his back, me, kids, and liver treats. He was Zappa's best friend. We miss him dearly.
This is Stella. A rescue from the shelter. She's about 6 months old and a Border Collie. She is a joyous bundle of energy and curiosity and now also Zappa best friend. She will make a nice running partner when she grows up.
This is the now the big brother of my family - a rescued Greyhound. His name is Frank Zappa. I call him Zappa. He's 7 years old and has learned all about life beyond the track and crate from Steely when he was with us. It was very rewarding to watch his personality bloom as he settled into the family. And yes, he runs like the wind!
This is Natasha, my dearest friend. She was with me through college, medical school, residency, and she moved with me from Chicago to Spokane several years ago. She was my best running partner for 10 years. My sweet Natasha died from bone cancer in 2006. I miss her still. I hung a windchimes over the deck outside. When it chimes, I smile and think she has finally -- wherever she is now -- caught a squirrel!