Feminist perspectives on women in sport

I’m starting this post off with the assumption that you, gentle reader, are a feminist. Because of course you are. What’s a feminist? Just somebody who supports the idea that men and women are equal, and thus should have the same legal and social rights. Of course that’s you.

But of course, feminists are not a monolith. Lots of feminists disagree about lots of things! Let’s talk about three mainstream feminist perspectives.

Cultural feminism: Cultural feminists support the idea of gender essentialism, which is basically the idea that men and women are simply different. They might say, for instance, that women are just naturally more nurturing and men are just naturally more aggressive. While cultural feminists still support choice (i.e., if women want to go be CEOs rather than kindergarten teachers, that’s fine), their main focus is on the mainstream undervaluation of women’s traits and work. So whenever a general trend of difference is spotted between men and women, a cultural feminist advocates the equal importance of both sides. A gather is just as important as a hunter. A homemaker is just as important as a CEO. Ballerinas are just as important as football players. Being nurturing is not a sign of weakness.

Liberal feminism: A liberal feminist says, sure, we see those differences in the behaviours of men and women, but they’re not due to natural differences. Rather, we construct gender socially starting from the time we give dolls to baby girls and trucks to baby boys, continuing on to when we tell girls to be gentle and not get their clothes dirty but when boys are rowdy we shrug and say “boys will be boys”. Then high school guidance counsellors talk young women out of going into engineering while high school boys are made fun of for joining the school musical.

A liberal feminist thinks equality can be achieved when we abolish any legislation that is unfair to women. So this means that we should have laws that allow women to vote and hold property, that you shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate based on gender when hiring a new employee or when deciding what you pay current employees, that we should have paid materials leave so that women are never forced to choose between having a job and being a mother, and that that leave should actually be a parental leave, so that women and men play an equal role in caring for their children, etc. A liberal feminist’s goal is to make sure there are no legal restrictions holding  a woman back from being able to choose her own way in life.

A quick note on the idea that gender is socially constructed (i.e., gender constructivism). To assert that the gender concepts “masculine” and “feminine” are not inherent to the biology concepts “man” and “woman” is NOT to assert that gender differences don’t exist. Gender constructivists are not ignoring empirical evidence that shows many instances of many women tending to a certain behaviour and many men tending to another. They’re just saying that these differences are due to nurture rather than nature. To quote Simone de Beauvoir, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Socialist feminism: A socialist feminist, like a liberal feminists, supports the theory of gender constructivism. Unlike a liberal feminist, a socialist feminist thinks that inequalities cannot be solved simply through legislation, since sources of women’s oppression can also be social and cultural. In socialist feminism there is also more of a focus on the intersectionality of oppressions, e.g., racism and class conflict.

Of course, there are many other types of feminism: radical, Marxist, eco, anarchist, postmodern, postcolonial, French structuralism, transnational, trans… and they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. You can take parts of some perspectives and parts of others and build your own feminist perspective. You do you, gentle reader!

I tend to identify most strongly with the socialist feminist perspective. I’ve done a lot of work with women in engineering, so let’s use that as an example. There are not a lot of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers and undergraduate programs, why is that? As a female engineer, I’ll start by firmly rejecting the idea that women are just worse than men at math and physics, so goodbye cultural feminism. But I also don’t think that there are any legal paths to fix the problem; what law could help? Maybe in the 80s there were rooms full of men refusing to hire a female engineer, but I know first-hand that there are plenty of engineering firms who wish they could hire more women, if only there were more women with engineering degrees! So where is the problem… is it because more parents enroll their sons in science summer camps than daughters? Or because around grade 7 there’s this idea that boys won’t like girls who are smart in math? Or because when girls do poorly in math but well in other subjects, they are often told that’s perfectly okay? Do lowered expectations come into play, building a weird self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it because of the way we market science toys to girls? It’s hard to say.

But something to consider is that most (truly more than half!) of women in engineering undergraduate programs have a parent or close family member who is an engineer, when those numbers are way lower for men. What’s that about? From my involvement at my undergraduate school, I know that most women who apply to engineering get accepted, not because of a selection committee biased towards women or trying to hit some benchmarks, but because women tend to apply only when they have the grades whereas men will apply with GPAs much below the cut off. What’s the root of that?

Julie Foucher finishing the Crossfit Games triathlon in 2012, beating all but 8 of the men

Julie Foucher finishing the Crossfit Games triathlon in 2012, beating all but 8 of the men

I take a more purely gender constructivist position when talking about intelligence (or desires, behaviours, and mental ability, etc) than when talking about physical traits. When talking about gender, I’m referring to personality traits, but when talking about sex, I’m referring to bodies. The bodies that we call “male” and the bodies we call “female” do tend to have some statistical differences. I mean obviously genitals, chromosomes, and pelvic cavities or whatever, but let’s think about differences that effect athletic performances. For example, male bodies are sometimes (though of course not always) taller, heavier, and larger framed than female bodies. We can talk about differences in bone density and testosterone levels and lung capacity and red blood cell counts. So, there are quite a number of ways that a male body confers athletic advantage. I acknowledge them.

So what are we talking about when we talk about sex-based differences in athletic performance? A cultural feminist says no biggie, it’s just not in women’s nature to enjoy lifting weights or competing. Men are just stronger and faster. Liberal and socialist feminists say no, of course much of this is socialized! While being a boy might come with some physiological advantages in sports, being a boy most certainly comes with social advantages as well! Think about young girls being punished for rowdy or high energy behaviour. Dads taking only their sons to baseball games. A near dearth of media coverage of female professional athletes to serve as role models. Gym teachers going easy on female students. Social pressure on teen girls to quit organized sports. Women avoiding the weight room for fear of becoming bulky. The weird idea that feminine beauty must be small and frail.

When girls are not given the same access as boys to athletic support, facilities, training, encouragement, recreational programming, and role models, it is unfair to say than men’s athletic results are due solely to physiological differences.

A liberal feminist says “hey, title IX!” while a socialist feminist says “we’ve got our work cut out for us!”

Okay, we’ve got a lot of ideas floating around! We’ve talked about the differences between sex and gender, the concepts of gender essentialism and gender constructivism, and the perspectives of cultural, liberal, and socialist feminism!

With all of this in mind, I leave you with a question: should Crossfit.com provide a women’s RX weight?


2 thoughts on “Feminist perspectives on women in sport

  1. Good post, Lise! I did not know there were so many types of feminists!

    I think crossfit.com should provide a women’s rx weight. It’s such a hassle not having one. Everybody kind of knows that 135 lbs men’s rx = 95 lbs for women, 95lbs = 65lbs, etc, but it’s just a pain not having it written down. Plus, rx is supposed to be a guideline anyway, so who cares? (And when it’s not a guideline, like in a competition, then they have a women’s rx.)

  2. Lisa- I’ve found my way to your blog and like your thoughtful descriptions of different types of feminism; I only wish that the academic articles I read could simplify these terms and similarities/differences so well!

    Since I don’t know that much about crossfit (beyond what you’ve written) I don’t really know about the weight thing specifically, but I do think considering whether equality or equity in a gendered physical activity context is important.

    Thanks for your important insights into women’s experiences of sport (and muscles)!

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