Women's sports

Women get set to run for an awareness event in Netherlands, 2014

Women's sports, both amateur and professional, have existed throughout the world for centuries in all varieties of sports. Female participation and popularity in sports increased dramatically in the twentieth century, especially in the last quarter-century, reflecting changes in modern societies that emphasize gender parity. Although the level of participation and performance still varies greatly by country and by sport, women's sports are generally accepted throughout the world today.

However, despite a rise in women's participation in sports, a large disparity in participation rates between women and men still remains.[1] These disparities are prevalent globally and continue to hinder equality in sports. Many institutions and programs still remain conservative and do not contribute to gender equity in sports.[2]

Women who play sports face many obstacles today, such as lower pay, less media coverage, and different injuries compared to their male counterparts. Many female athletes have engaged in peaceful protests, such as playing strikes, social media campaigns, and even federal lawsuits to address these inequalities.


Ancient civilizations

Roman women engaged in sports. Mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina in Sicily
A statue of a victress of the Heraean Games, represented near the start of a race

Before each ancient Olympic Games there was a separate women's athletic event held at the same stadium in Olympia, the Heraean Games, dedicated to the goddess Hera. Myth held that the Heraea was founded by Hippodameia, the wife of the king who founded the Olympics.[3] According to E. Norman Gardiner:

At the festival there were races for maidens of various ages. Their course was 500 feet, or one-sixth less than the men's stadium. The maidens ran with their hair down their backs, a short tunic reaching just below the knee, and their right shoulder bare to the breast. The victors received crowns of olive and a share of the heifer sacrificed to Hera. They had, too, the right of setting up their statues in the Heraeum.[4]

Although married women were excluded from the Olympics even as spectators, Cynisca won an Olympic game as owner of a chariot (champions of chariot races were owners not riders), as did Euryleonis, Belistiche, Zeuxo, Encrateia and Hermione, Timareta, Theodota and Cassia.

After the classical period, there was some participation by women in men's athletic festivals.[3] Women in Sparta began to practice the same athletic exercises that men did, exhibiting the qualities of Spartan soldiers. Plato even supported women in sports by advocating running and sword-fighting for women.[5]

Notably, cultural representations of a pronounced female physicality were not limited to sport in Ancient Greece and can also be found in representations of a group of warrioresses known as the Amazons.

Early modern

During the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, women played in professional Cuju teams.[6][7]

Chinese ladies playing cuju, by the Ming Dynasty painter Du Jin

The first Olympic games in the modern era, which were in 1896 were not open to women, but since then the number of women who have participated in the Olympic games have increased dramatically.[8]

19th and early 20th centuries

The educational committees of the French Revolution (1789) included intellectual, moral, and physical education for both girls and boys. With the victory of Napoleon less than twenty years later, physical education was reduced to military preparedness for boys and men. In Germany, the physical education of GutsMuths (1793) included girl's education. This included the measurement of performances of girls. This led to women's sport being more actively pursued in Germany than in most other countries.[9] When the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale was formed as an all women's international organization it had a German male vice-president in addition to German international success in elite sports.

Women's sports in the late 1800s focused on correct posture, facial and bodily beauty, muscles, and health.[10]

Prior to 1870, activities for women were recreational rather than sport-specific in nature. They were noncompetitive, informal, rule-less; they emphasized physical activity rather than competition.[11] Sports for women before the 20th century placed more emphasis on fitness rather than the competitive aspects we now associate with all sports.[12]

In 1916 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held its first national championship for women (in swimming),[citation needed][13] In 1923 the AAU also sponsored the First American Track & Field championships for women. Earlier that year the Women's Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA) held the first WAAA Championships.

Few women competed in sports in Europe and North America before the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as social changes favored increased female participation in society as equals with men. Although women were technically permitted to participate in many sports, relatively few did. There was often disapproval of those who did.

"Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." Susan B. Anthony said "I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance."

The modern Olympics had female competitors from 1900 onward, though women at first participated in considerably fewer events than men. Women first made their appearance in the Olympic Games in Paris in 1900. That year, 22 women competed in tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian, and golf.[14] As of the IOC-Congress in Paris 1914 a woman's medal had formally the same weight as a man's in the official medal table. This left the decisions about women's participation to the individual international sports federations.[15] Concern over 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.

In response to the lack of support for women's international sport the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale was founded in France by Alice Milliat. This organization initiated the Women's Olympiad (held 1921, 1922 and 1923) and the Women's World Games, which attracted participation of nearly 20 countries and was held four times (1922, 1926, 1930 and 1934).[16] In 1924 the 1924 Women's Olympiad was held at Stamford Bridge in London. The International Olympic Committee began to incorporate greater participation of women at the Olympics in response. The number of Olympic women athletes increased over five-fold in the period, going from 65 at the 1920 Summer Olympics to 331 at the 1936 Summer Olympics.[17][18]

Most early women's professional sports leagues foundered. This is often attributed to a lack of spectator support. 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.

United States

Women's sports is given very high priority in U.S. from school itself.[19] Picture on left shows a U.S. high school girls' water polo team (with their male coaches in background) posing with their trophy. Picture on right shows a U.S. university girl practising a difficult gymnastics manoeuvre under the watchful eyes of her coach.
Implementation and regulation of Title IX

In 1972 the United States Congress passed the Title IX legislation as a part of the additional Amendment Act to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.[20] Title IX states that: "no person shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance...";[21] in other words, Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in schools that receive federal funds through grants, scholarships, or other support for students. The law states that federal funds can be withdrawn from a school engaging in intentional gender discrimination in the provision of curriculum, counseling, academic support, or general educational opportunities; this includes interscholastic or varsity sports.[22] This law from the Education Act requires that both male and female athletes have equal facilities and equal benefits. The equal benefits are the necessities such as equal equipment, uniforms, supplies, training, practice, quality in coaches and opponents, awards, cheerleaders and bands at the game.[21] In 1979, there was a policy interpretation that offered three ways in which schools could be compliant with Title IX; it became known as the "three-part test".

  1. Providing athletic participation opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the student enrollment. This prong of the test is satisfied when participation opportunities for men and women are "substantially proportionate" to their respective undergraduate enrollment.
  2. Demonstrating a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex. This prong of the test is satisfied when an institution has a history and continuing practice of program expansion that is responsive to the developing interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex (typically female).
  3. Accommodating the interest and ability of the underrepresented sex. This prong of the test is satisfied when an institution is meeting the interests and abilities of its female students even where there are disproportionately fewer females than males participating in sports.
Room for improvement

Although schools only have to be compliant with one of the three prongs, a 1999 study by Sigelman and Wahlbeck found that many schools are "nowhere near compliance".[23] Many schools attempt to achieve compliance through the first prong; however, in order to achieve that compliance schools cut men's programs, which is not the way the OCR wanted compliance achieved.[24] Equity is not the only way to be compliant with Title IX; athletic departments need to show that they are making efforts to achieve parity in participation, treatment, and athletic financial assistance.[25]

According to research done by National Women's Law Center in 2011, 4500 public high schools across the nation have extremely high gender inequality and are violating the Title IX laws.[26] According to further research done by the Women's Law Center, schools with a high number of minority students and a greater number of people of color mainly in southern states had a much higher rate of gender disparity. There is also a huge disparity regarding sport related scholarships for men and women, with men getting 190 million more in funding than women.[27] This pattern has persisted over a long period of time as, most colleges focus on their male athletics team and plow more money into them. This disparity shows the link between race and gender, and how it plays a significant role in the hierarchy of sports.[26]

Effect of Title IX on women's sports
Participation in sports

The main objective of Title IX is to make sure there is equal treatment in sports and school, regardless of sex, in a federally funded program. It was also used to provide protection to those who are being discriminated due to their gender.[28] However, Title IX is most commonly associated with its impact on athletics and more specifically the impact it has had on women's participation in athletics at every age. Title IX has allowed women and girls in educational institutions to increase their opportunity in different sports they are able to play now.[29] Today[when?] there are more females participating in athletics than ever before. As of the 2007–2008 school year, females made up 41% of the participants in college athletics.[30] To see the growth of women's sports, consider the difference in participation before the passing of Title IX and today. In 1971–1972 there were 294,015 females participating in high school athletics and in 2007–2008 there were over three million females participating, meaning there has been a 940% increase in female participation in high school athletics.[30]

In 1971–1972 there were 29,972 females participating in college athletics and in 2007–2008 there were 166,728 females participating, a 456% increase in female participation in college athletics.[30] In 1971, less than 300,000 females played in high school sports. After the law was passed many females started to get involved in sports. By 1990, eighteen years later, 1.9 million female high school students were playing sports.[20] Increased participation in sports has had a direct impact on other areas of women's lives; these effects can be seen in women's education and employment later on in life; a 2010 study found that the changes set in motion by Title IX explained about 20 percent of the increase in women's education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women.[31] This is not to say that all women who are successful later on in life played sports, but it is saying that women who did participate in athletics received benefits in their education and employment later on in life.[31]

In 1971, fewer than 295,000 girls participated in high school varsity athletics, accounting for just 7 percent of all varsity athletes; in 2001, that number leaped to 2.8 million, or 41.5 percent of all varsity athletes, according to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education.[32] In 1966, 16,000 females competed in intercollegiate athletics. By 2001, that number jumped to more than 150,000, accounting for 43 percent of all college athletes. In addition, a 2008 study of intercollegiate athletics showed that women's collegiate sports had grown to 9,101 teams, or 8.65 per school. The five most frequently offered college sports for women are, in order: (1) basketball, 98.8% of schools have a team, (2) volleyball, 95.7%, (3) soccer, 92.0%, (4) cross country, 90.8%, and (5) softball, 89.2%. Since 1972, women have also competed in the traditional male sports of wrestling, weightlifting, rugby, and boxing. An article in the New York Times found that there are lasting benefits for women from Title IX: participation in sports increased education as well as employment opportunities for girls.[33] Furthermore, the athletic participation by girls and women spurred by Title IX was associated with lower obesity rates. No other public health program can claim similar success.[34]

Participation in leadership roles

Although female participation in sports has increased due to Title IX, there has not been a similar effect in terms of women holding coaching or other managerial positions in sports. Most sport teams or institutions, regardless of gender, are managed by male coaches and managers.[35] For example, according to 2016 data, 33% of WNBA teams are led by women coaches or managers.[36] The International Olympic Committee also consists of 20% female members.[36] The data presented also showed that 15% of athletic directors in colleges nationwide were females, and that number is much less in the southern states.[36] There are various reasons that have been suggested to account for this trend. Messner and Bozada-Deas (2009) suggest traditional gender roles may play a role and that society's historical division of labor leads to men volunteering as team coaches and women volunteering as team "moms".[37] Everhart and Chelladurai (1998) show that this phenomenon may be part of a larger cycle --- girls who are coached by men growing up are less likely to view themselves as coaches when they are adults, and so the number of female coaches decreases, meaning more girls are coached by men.[38]


Women's volleyball at Canada Summer Games, 2017.

Sports are a high priority in Canadian culture, but women were long relegated to second-class status. There were also regional differences, with the eastern provinces emphasizing a more feminine "girls rule" game of basketball, while the Western provinces preferred identical rules. Girls' and women's sport have traditionally been slowed down by a series of factors: both historically have low levels of interest and participation. There were very few women in leadership positions in academic administration, student affairs or athletics and not many female coaches. The media strongly emphasized men's sports as a demonstration of masculinity, suggesting that women seriously interested in sports were crossing gender lines with the male sports establishment actively hostile. Staunch feminists dismissed sports and thought of them as unworthy of their support. Women's progress was uphill; they first had to counter the common notion that women's bodies were restricted and delicate and that vigorous physical activity was dangerous. These notions where first challenged by the "new women" around 1900. These women started with bicycling; they rode into new gender spaces in education, work, and suffrage. The 1920s marked a breakthrough for women, including working-class young women in addition to the pioneering middle class sportswomen.[39]

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has produced a range of major international sports including: association football, rugby (union and league), cricket, netball, darts, golf, tennis, table tennis, badminton, squash, bowls, rounders, modern rowing, hockey, boxing, snooker, billiards, and curling.[40] In the 19th century, women primarily participated in the "new games" which included golf, lawn tennis, cycling, and hockey. Now, women also participate at a professional/international level in football, rugby, cricket, and netball.

Since the late 1980s, Women In Sport,[41] a non-profit organization, has hoped to transform sport for the benefit of women and girls in the UK. Based in London, the organization's mission is to "champion the right of every woman and girl in the UK to take part in, and benefit from, sport: from the field of play to the boardroom, from early years and throughout her life".

The Henley Royal Regatta, just recently allowed women to compete at this prestigious rowing race. Although, the benefits that men receive at this race versus what women receive is still drastically different, there is progress within allowing women to compete competitively.[42]

1960s to 2010s

Before the 1960s, in the early 1800s women romped, skated, played ball games and some even boxed. It wasn't until the late 1900s when women started participating in organized sports. After the civil war wealthy women started playing country club sports such as golf.[43]

Over the last fifty years, women's sports have developed substantially and made significant progress.

Tennis was a 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, which King won, thus enhancing the profile of female athletics.[44]

Despite the success of women's professional tennis in the 1970s, women's professional team sports did not achieve prominence until the 1990s, particularly in basketball and football (soccer), when the WNBA was formed and the first Women's World Cups and women's Olympic soccer matches were held.[45]

The United States Women's National Soccer Team celebrating their 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers Tournament championship.

In 1999, at the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup Final in Pasadena, California, after scoring the fifth kick in the penalty shootout to give the United States the win over China in the final game, Brandi Chastain celebrated by spontaneously taking off her jersey and falling to her knees in a sports bra.[46] While removing a jersey in celebration of a goal was common in men's soccer, it was highly unusual in women's football at the international level.[47] The image of her celebration has been considered one of the more famous and controversial photographs of a woman celebrating an athletic victory.[48][49][50] In 2019, it was announced that a statue of Chastain's celebration would be displayed at the Rose Bowl to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the team's win.[51]

Today, women and girls compete professionally and as amateurs in virtually every major sport, though girls' participation in sports may be higher in the United States than in other places like Western Europe and Latin America.[52] Additionally, the level of girls' participation typically decreases when it comes to the more violent contact sports in which boys overwhelmingly outnumber girls, particularly football,[53] wrestling,[54] and boxing.[citation needed] (Some leagues for girls do exist, however, such as the Utah Girls Football League and Professional Girl Wrestling Association.) These typical non-participation habits may slowly be evolving as more women participate in stereotypical male sports; for example, Katie Hnida became the first woman ever to score points in a Division I NCAA American football game when she kicked two extra-points for the University of New Mexico in 2003.[55]

Heather Watson and Fu Yuanhui broke one of the last taboos in women's sport when both openly admitted they were menstruating, Watson after a self-described poor performance in a tennis match in 2015, and Yuanhui at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.[56][57]

Muslim women in sports

The Muslim religion mostly beholds that women should be preserved with their identity and their customs. It was believed that women were not meant to be participating in sports that required short clothes and masculine power. Later the era of modernization took place and the gender inequality within the religion started disappearing (though it still happens) and women from all castes, races, religion came forward to participate. For example; the women's kabaddi team from Iran participates wearing hijab, preserving their religion and fulfilling their passion. Moreover, in countries like India the mindset has changed and a number of world class players like Sania Mirza for tennis, and Areeba Khan for shooting have chosen sports as their destination and have come forward to make the nation proud. Today, they are an idol for many aspiring females who chose to pursue career in sports but are not able to put the foot forward due to the prejudice set up by the society.

Adding to the fact that Muslim women have been involved in sport since Islam's beginning in the early 7th century and Muhammad's races with his wife Aisha. Modern Muslim female athletes have achieved success in a variety of sports, including volleyball, tennis, association football, fencing, and basketball. In the 2016 Olympics, fourteen Muslim women won medals, participating in a wide range of sports.

Still, Muslim women are underrepresented in athletic arenas, from school and amateur sports to international competitions. Causes may include cultural or familial pressures, the lack of suitable facilities and programs, and bans on the hijab, the Islamic headscarf. Muslim women have used sports as a means to empowerment, working towards health and wellbeing, women's rights, and education.

In October 2018 Iran announced that, after 40 years, it will allow women to enter sport arenas.[58]

Other Languages
العربية: رياضة نسوية
فارسی: ورزش زنان
français: Sport féminin
italiano: Sport femminile
português: Desporto feminino
svenska: Damidrott