As a young woman in America, seeing state after state propose oppressive abortion bans that are being approved by old white men, I find myself losing hope in the future. However, I turn to stories like the athletes of the NWHL taking a stand against unfair working conditions and I see people fighting for progression beyond backwards views and I am reminded of the empowered women that will enact change.

Abortion rights supporters protest outside the Louisiana House chamber, objecting to the advancement of a bill that would ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected, on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

The Past

The connection between these two issues may seem like a reach, but it’s more clear-cut when looking at the historical subjugation of women. Governors don’t know much about women’s body, with some citing completely inaccurate facts. However, they still feel the need to pass legislation to control how people with uteruses use their own body. In the beginning of the study of women’s’ bodies, or gynecology, male doctors called themselves experts of the female body and projected opinions that greatly prevented a greater female involvement in athletics.

The industrial revolution began the hierarchal structure of gender roles. Men became workers in the public sphere and earning money to be the breadwinners while women took on the role of the mother and wife. This trend mainly reflects higher class, nuclear families, but this ideology prevailed in the mainstream. Much like the pseudo-science used to justify the subjugation of Africans in slavery, doctors clamored for biological evidence that women were the weaker sex. The (male) doctors at the time created the binary of male activity and female passivity and explained it through a variety of questionable evidence like the different positions sex organs and size of skulls. Doctors relied on biology to completely define a woman, often reducing a woman strictly to her ability to reproduce.

Women’s involvement in sports was greatly affected by these doctors using biology to project their own opinions. Doctors would recommend against sports that require too much muscle not only because it would give women a more “masculine” shape but because they believed it would be harder for women to give birth. In 1880, one doctor believed that simply jumping would cause harm to a woman’s body and disrupt her ability to have children, “every exercise which requires sudden and jerking movements is to be avoided on the account of the particular position of the female reproductive organs. One should not overlook the fact that the female body, because of its particular function, is open at the lower end so that vigorous physical exercise might cause a prolapse to occur” (Journal of Sport History, Vol. 17, No. 2, 188).

Althea Gibson

The Present

There is an argument that women’s sports are not as fast, not as tough, and not as fun to watch as men’s sports, but this argument is founded in an outdated ideology. Throughout history, people projected their own opinions on women’s bodies in order to perpetuate the narrative that women are the weaker sex with the sole function of procreation. In reality, women are weaker but not because it is biologically inevitable, but because women have been relegated to the home sphere and prevented from engaging in physical tasks throughout history. Now, more than ever is a chance to become aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy that has been placed on women and support women’s sports.

The Future

Similar to the doctors in the past, media has the power to direct the narrative about women in sports. However, in the male-dominated sphere of sports journalism, women’s sports coverage is an afterthought. The majority of hockey writers did not talk about the CWHL until its demise, only promoting the image of the failing business of women in sports. The public consume this media, only being given negative images of leagues like the CWHL, furthering the destructive narrative that women’s sports are not viable. The media must uplift the stories of successful women, covered by intelligent women, instead of congratulating themselves on simply acknowledging the fact that women play sports.

Kelsey Koelzer with young hockey players at the Inaugural BGHC meetup in Washington DC, December 2018

Seeing the power of women’s agency whether in the political sphere against oppressive abortion bans or fighting for fair treatment in hockey is not only inspiring but necessary in order to combat the portrayal of women as the weaker sex.

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