Gender Roles in Women's Sports

Gender Roles in Women’s Sports: The Evolution of Female Athletes

Throughout the past 100 years, gender roles of men and women have started to change greatly in our society, and especially in the world of sports. Recently, female athletes have made great strides in gaining equal representation, and media coverage, in comparison to the past, where there was little coverage of female athletics. In addition, women have begun to participate in many sports that have previously been male dominated. Some of these sports such as MMA, and hockey have been perceived as “manly” sports, and many feel that women should not participate in them due to their physically demanding nature. However, even though many female athletes have been discouraged from participating in male dominated sports, women have continued to break stereotypes and cultural barriers that have prevented them from participating in “manly” sports. Female athletes such as Danica Patrick, Michelle Wie, and Gina Corano have become role models for many younger female athletes, by proving that they too can compete and succeed in sports that have been dominated by men. This shows how women have considerably changed how they are viewed in the sporting world, by challenging stereotypes against them. With the evolution of gender roles in our society, we have started to see women participate in certain sports that were at one time only associated with one gender. 

Women in a Man's World

One of the first notable cases of a woman participating in a male dominated sport was during 1931, where 17 year old Jackie Mitchell became the 2nd woman in history to be signed to a professional baseball team. Mitchell as a pitcher, played for the AA Chattanooga Lookouts, which was an all male team. During her tenure on the team, she had the opportunity to play in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. At one point in the game, Mitchell was able to strike out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in succession while pitching. After Mitchell achieved this astonishing feat of ability, she was pulled from the game, with no reasoning or explanation. A couple of days after the game, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball at the time, decided to void Mitchell’s contract, preventing her from playing professional baseball. Landis stated that baseball was “too strenuous for a woman” (McDonagh 196).  This reasoning seemed to be backed by many male players and baseball analysts, who felt that women are too delicate, and that it would be extremely difficult for them to play baseball everyday. However, many not only saw a woman striking out two of baseball’s greatest players as an embarrassment to the MLB, but also as a display of the great athletic abilities and talents that women athletes possess. Even though women would eventually be banned from participating in professional baseball during 1952, Jackie Mitchell’s outstanding performance was never forgotten. Many female athletes viewed Mitchell as an inspiration, and numerous women baseball players continued to follow in her footsteps, eventually forming the All-American Girls Professional Baseball league.

Danica Patrick
There have been other recent examples of women directly competing against men in male dominated sports. A prominent example is professional auto racing driver Danica Patrick. Patrick, who holds many notable achievements, including being the first woman in history to win an indy car race. In addition to racing, Patrick has also participated in modeling and acting. Many feel that Danica Patrick’s involvement in auto racing has shown how much gender roles have evolved in our society. NASCAR is often seen as one of the most masculine sports in America due to its large male fan base, and the fact that almost all the drivers are men. However, Danica Patrick has left a large mark within the sport, as she has stepped into a sport completely dominated by all men, and has been able to succeed. Auto racing and cars are a large part of male culture in America, and by allowing a woman to compete and participate in professional auto racing; it has shown how females have started to gain more respect from men for their abilities as athletes, and are not stereotyped based on their gender.

LPGA Pro Michelle Wie

Golf is another sport that has started to see women competing against men in tournament play. In 2003, Ladies Professional Golfer Annika Sorenstam decided to enter a men’s golf tournament. Sorenstam faced a large deal of backlash from many male professional golfers, and golf analysts, who felt that she only belonged in the LPGA. Even with the large amount of negative attention, Sorenstam still decided to compete in the tournament. Although she was not able to win the tournament, Sorenstam still played well at the tournament, and was able to earn the respect from many male golfers. Women’s professional golfer Michelle Wie also experienced a similar incident when she decided to compete in a men’s golf tournament. Wie was able to shock may within the golf industry, due to her young age and impressive skill. This incident was discussed in the book, Beers, Babes, and Balls: Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio, where the author David Nylund, discusses the impact that female golfers have had on the sport. Nylund states in support of female golfers, “skill, not gender, should be the issue; if a woman can compete, she should not face discrimination on the basis of her gender” (Nylund 75). This shows how even though women golfers may have their own league to play in, they should still have the opportunity to compete against men, due to their increase in skill and athletic ability.

 Are Women "Tough Enough"?

With the evolution of gender roles over time, many male dominated sports organizations have decided to open up women’s divisions. Many of the women’s divisions are being created due to how perceptions of women have begun to change in our society, as women today have started to develop more athletic interest and independence in relation to sports. One notable women’s division that has been created in recent years is the WWE’s Divas division. The WWE is a professional wrestling company, which features physical and athletic action, mixed in with entertainment. Throughout the history of the WWE, most of the attention was focused on the male superstars, and hardly any coverage was given to the women in the company, who were mostly used as eye candy. However, as the company progressed, women within the company became more involved within the in ring action, and started to have more physical roles in the storylines. The WWE soon took notice of the increased athletic abilities of the women, and decided to create a division to accommodate them. The Divas of the WWE are promoted as being, “Sexy, Smart, and Powerful”, and are portrayed as being tough, athletic, and beautiful. One of the main focuses of the WWE is to present the divas as role models to younger women, so that they can see how female athletes can be both physically attractive, and aggressive as athletes.

A notable woman to recently be involved within the WWE is current Miss USA Rima Fakih. Rima was a contestant on the WWE reality TV show Tough Enough, which featured 14 contestants training and competing, to try and earn a contract with the WWE. Although Rima is no stranger to breaking barriers, as she is the first Arab American to win the Miss USA title, she felt that she needed to break cultural stereotypes that many beauty pageant contestants face. As a beauty queen, Rima felt that she was constantly being perceived as being petite and delicate, and was never taken seriously as an athlete. However, throughout the show Rima showed a completely different side of her personality, by being one of the hardest working contestants on the show, and trying to prove that even though she may be Miss USA, she can still be athletic and powerful as a woman. 

Gina Carano
Gina Carano in action
In the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, men with impressive physiques, and a wide range of fighting skills dominate the sport. However, with the extremely rapid growth of the sport, many MMA promotions have started to open women’s divisions for female fighters. Perhaps the most notable female division in all of MMA, belongs to the Strikeforce promotion, which currently hosts many of the top female fighters in the world, including Gina Carano, who is described as being the face of women’s MMA. Carano’s quick rise to fame comes not only for her impressive fighting skills, but also because of her distinctive beauty. In addition to being an MMA fighter, Carano has also ventured into acting and modeling, and was voted #16 on Maxim magazine’s Hot 100 List. While Carano has drew a large deal of media attention due to her attractiveness as a fighter, her fighting skills are equal to her beauty, as she has amassed an impressive 7-1 record in MMA. Carano also holds the distinctive achievement of being apart of the first women’s main event in history on a MMA card. Many women have been inspired by Gina Carano and other female MMA fighters, as they have shown that women can participate in one of the world’s most violent sports, and be beautiful at the same time.

Women's USA Hockey Team
Perceptions of Female Athletes 
            With the change in gender roles in our society, many female athletes have started to view themselves in a different manner. Even though women athletes have become more prominent in society, many wonder how these women feel about the evolution of gender roles, and how they have effected the perceptions of women athletes. A recent study was done by the Journal of Sports Behavior to determine the different gender perceptions female hockey players have about their sport, and other female athletes. This study is interesting due to the fact the hockey is a male dominated sport, and women have only recently started to participate in it. The study found that women ice hockey players do not consider themselves the same as male hockey players. Women in the study felt that they were inferior to male players, and could never be as good as them. This was supported by how many of the female players view hockey as a highly physical sport, and that women cannot match their physicality on the ice due to their smaller size, and lack of aggressiveness. However, the women hockey players in the study did agree that they enjoy challenging gender stereotypes against women. Many of the players felt that although they many be inferior to the male players, they still felt they were different than other female athletes. The article expresses their feelings by stating, “The players see themselves as different from other women, in a positive way. They do not want to be like ultra-feminine, unpractical women with long nails, high heels and sensitive (to criticism). In their opinion, female ice hockey players represent a version of femininity that is more like men” (Gilenstam 1). This shows how the stereotypical image of women has changed, and female hockey players choose to play a sport dominated by men because they feel more empowerment while playing. Some of the female players thought that other sports that are not entirely associated with men (Ex. soccer, volleyball) were more feminine, and that players within those sports would not feel the same sense of strength and physicality, then they would playing hockey.
The evolution of gender roles in our society has shown a significant change in how women are represented in sports. The growth of women’s sports has been shown by the creation of various professional sports leagues for women including the WNBA, and the LPGA. In addition, because of the change of equal representation in women’s sports, more female athletes have begun to participate in sports compared to those of the past. This is supported by a study done by the NCAA from 1970-2001, where female participation in athletics was shown to increase by 847% (O'Reilly ­340). The large increase of female participation in athletics seems to be related to the rapid growth of many professional women’s sports leagues, and the increased coverage and representation of women athletes in the world of sports.  In addition, women have started to completely change how they are viewed in the sports world by participating in male dominated sports. This shows how women have considerably changed how they are viewed in the sporting world, by challenging stereotypes against them. With the evolution of gender roles in our society, we have started to see women participate in certain sports that were at one time only associated with one gender. The definition of a female athlete has also changed. Women athletes today are not only seen in a feminine manner, but also as a more emotional and physically empowered individual that younger athletes can look up to. Looking into future, women’s sports look to become even more prominent in our society, based on how gender roles are considerably changing not only in sports, but in other areas of our culture.

By: Brandon Starr