Women in Sports: The Struggle for Equality

Shattering Stereotypes

Try and imagine the scene. It's 1892. The game of basketball has been in existence for less than a year. Female students at Smith College in Massachusetts have just been introduced to the game. Their gymnastics instructor, Senda Berenson Abbott, has adapted the rules to make the sport less physically taxing for women. To ensure that her students maintain proper decorum, she has forbidden snatching the ball and dribbling it more than three times in row.

Females will not be considered strong enough to play a full-court basketball game until 1971. American women have struggled to be taken seriously as athletes for more than two centuries. How would you rate their progress?

How do you think people from earlier times would react to watching this video clip from the Women's National Basketball Association? (Requires QuickTime or MediaPlayer.) 

Remaining Hurdles
Critics of Title IX say that the law hurts the ability of men's athletics programs to recruit (and pay for) the best athletes. They say women play mostly "non-revenue" sports, such as golf, that do not attract many fans or sell a lot of merchandise. Some people say sports such as men's football "pay their way," meaning that more attention--and funds--should be funneled into them because they make more money. 
  • How do people at your school view various sports? Do some seem to attract more attention than others?
  • What do you think the purpose of college-level athletics is?
Some female athletes still face a difficult road, according to a recent study by the Women's Sports Foundation, an organization that promotes lifelong female participation in sports. While basketball and soccer have achieved a certain level of exposure and funding, other sports are not receiving adequate promotion. The study found that some female athletes must work two jobs to support themselves--all the while trying to maintain peak physical condition.
  • The Women's Sports Foundation found that girls enter organized sports two years later than boys. Why might this be a problem for females who wish to pursue an athletic career?
  • For what reasons might it be important for women's sports to receive media attention?

Over the years, females have competed against the stereotype of being too fragile to play strenuous sports. During the 1920s, many people believed that girls couldn't handle the stress of interscholastic competition. In the 1930s, some doctors warned that high-stress sports might harm a woman's reproductive system. If you watched the movie "A League of Their Own," you know that players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of 1943 to 1954 had to attend charm school. There, they studied etiquette and beauty routines, including how to arrange their hair in a manner that would "best retain its natural style despite vigorous play." 

The Olympics did not admit women athletes until 1912. Women could not compete in the marathon competition until 1984, partially because some medical experts thought that women could injure their organs by participating. Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first Olympic marathon for women in 1984 helping to shatter the myth that women couldn't run 26 miles (42 km) in a competitive time. 

A turning point for women's sports occurred when President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972, which states that any educational program receiving Federal assistance can lose its funding if it discriminates on the basis of sex. This legislation was a great opportunity for women because it gave female athletes access to better equipment, coaches, playing fields, and travel budgets. Before Title IX, Interscholastic competition for females had been declining over the years. In 1970, only one out of 27 girls played high school varsity sports. Now, due in part to Title IX, that number is one in three. 

Playing the Percentages
Joan Benoit Samuelson won the 1984 Olympic marathon with a time of two hours, 24 minutes, and 52 seconds (2:24:52). Fatuma Roba won the women's division of the 1999 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:23:25. 

  • Using a percentage, express how much faster Roba ran her marathon as compared to Samuelson. 
  • There were 11,307 people who finished the 1999 Boston Marathon. Of these, 7,505 were men; 3,802 were women. What percentage of runners were women?
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Smile for the Camera
Media coverage of women's sports is considered important because it increases the level of participation among girls some of America's future athletes. More than 658,000 fans and 1 billion worldwide television viewers watched the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championships, the most successful women's sporting event ever. This incredible publicity is expected to cause an explosion of female interest in soccer--already the most popular sport among college-age females, according to a recent study by the National College Athletic Association. Members of the U.S. women's soccer team say they are relying on future generations to keep their team supplied with talent. 

To take advantage of its time in the limelight, the team launched a 12-city tour against a team of world all-stars in the months following its win. They wanted to demonstrate to the U.S. Soccer Federation that a woman's professional league would attract crowds and be financially viable. Players say a league is needed to maintain the growth of women's soccer.

Show Me the Money!
2nd place in income Female athletes also want to earn more equitable salaries. Currently, a considerable gulf exists between the sexes. According to a recent survey by Forbes magazine, Tiger Woods earned $47 million in 1999. The highest-paid female athlete, Swiss tennis player Martina Hingis, earned $12 million. Only $3.3 million was prize money; she made the rest through product endorsements. 

Tennis player Billie Jean King was one of the trailblazers for women receiving equal prize money. Appalled at the disparity between men's and women's prizes at major tournaments, this frequent Wimbledon winner helped establish the Virginia Slims professional tennis tour for women in 1970. She would become the first woman athlete to earn more than $100,000 in annual prize money. Her belief that women were not yet accepted as athletes also led her to compete in a "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match. She played against former Wimbledon winner, Bobby Riggs, who had been making constant belittling remarks about women's tennis. The 29-year-old King beat the 55-year-old Riggs soundly during a match that attracted nearly 50 million television viewers. 

  • Compare the prize earnings of Hingis and King. By what percentage has prize earnings among women athletes grown?
History's Heroines
Many people have heard of Babe Ruth; fewer know about Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1914-1956), even though she was one of the greatest female athletes of all time. In high school, this tomboy wore masculine clothes and kept her hair short. She believed it was more important to work on her basketball game than to fuss over her femininity. From 1930 to 1932, Zaharias was a member of the women's All-America basketball team and held American, Olympic, or world records in five different track-and-field events. During a national amateur track meet in 1932, she broke four world records in one afternoon. At the 1932 Olympics, she won two gold medals (the javelin event and the 80-meter hurdles) and a silver medal (high jump), set a world's record, and became the co-holder of two others. 

By 1933, Babe turned to golf. She became obsessed, hitting more than 1,000 balls a day until her hands bled. Her standard 250-yard drives were proof of her dedication. The Associated Press named her Women Athlete of the Year six times. Despite her success, Zaharias was regularly criticized by those who felt she should convey a more ladylike image. 

Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) was another sports heroine. Ironically, the future Olympic gold medallist was born with polio and could barely use her left leg in early childhood. She became the first woman to win three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics for her performance in the 100- and 200-meter events and in the 4x100-meter relay. 

  • Analyze data for winning sprint times for women Olympic athletes in the online support materials for the Destination MATH activity: Mastering Algebra I: Course 2: Describing Data: Graphical Displays: Stem-and-Leaf Plots and Box Plots. This activity is available on the Destination MATH Algebra I CD-ROM.
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