Women In Sport

Through out the history of the advancement of sport, women have had to strive twice as hard to gain the same status and recognition as their counterparts – men. There have been many factors, which have prevented women from participating in sport and reaching their full potential (for example, lack of finance, time or education). Perhaps the biggest factor has been prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.

The Changing Face Of Women’s Sport The changing face of sport has always been influenced by the stereotypical discrimination that women have always faced. In the beginning of the 19th century, the view of women typically characterised them as emotional passive people who were unable to take part in energetic activities where as men were seen as naturally aggressive, so were therefore more suited to sport. To defend and justify this view, the Victorian’s and Edwardians maximised on the physiological differences between women and men, (i.e. women having wider hips, higher fat distributions and breasts) to further ‘prove’ that women were unsuited to sports.

Numerous scientists, medical practitioners and social theorists developed the theory of ‘social Darwinism’. This drew from Darwin’s ‘theory of evolution’ in which the common view of women’s role in society was to ‘produce healthy offspring’ and so increase the population and ‘further the evolution of the human race’. The theory of ‘social Darwinism’ and the general belief of women’s incapacity played a key role in the development of the theory of ‘constitutional overstrain’.

The Theory Of Constitutional Overstrain The medical profession in Britain and throughout Europe applied the theory of ‘constitutional overstrain’ to prevent mainly middle-class women from participating in sport and gaining an equal education in comparison to what was available to men. The theory argued that after women went through basic biological processes (e.g. puberty, breast feeding and menopause) there would not be sufficient energy left for other processes such as physical and intellectual processes.

Their argument was that if women were to participate in sport and other vigorous activity, it would ‘use up’ the limited energy women had which would result in women bearing disabled children, harming the population as a whole. For this reason the main view of the medical establishment was that women should remain inactive at all times. In 1887, the chairman of the British Medical Association suggested that: “In the interests of social progress, national efficiency and progressive improvement of the human race, women should be denied education and other activities which would cause constitutional overstrain and the inability to produce healthy offspring”.

Feminists of that time found it hard to protest because the explanation of women’s ‘inferior nature’ was defended by their biological make up. This reduced the effectiveness of their argument. The idea of naturally weak women was ingrained in to every social aspect of the 19th century. Women themselves believed in their own inferiority. Many middle-class women wore very restrictive clothing, ate little and participated in very little sport. This made it very common for women to faint and become weak, which further strengthened the idea of women being inferior because there were no healthy role models around to disprove the theory.

The theory of ‘Constitutional Overstrain’ had a massive effect on the social aspects of life in the 19th century. Relationships in the 19th century, between men and women were seen as reciprocal partnerships, in which each sex had a definite, defined role. Men were seen as providers, whilst women were seen to be too weak to help to provide so their main role was domesticity. However this ‘ideal’ was rarely in practice, particularly among the working classes, where women had to work in order to survive, since men’s working-class wages were often not enough to support a family. The general image of a woman was that their role as a mother preceded all other roles.

This image was integrated in to the ‘psyche’ of the population and was rarely, if ever, challenged. The problem for feminists of the time was that towards the middle of the 19th century they were not excluded from all sporting activity, but that they were excluded from more diverse and energetic forms of physical activities. The Introduction Of Swedish Gymnastics In the middle of the 19th century a slight shift in medical opinion believed that forms of exercise were beneficial to women’s health and general well being. Gymnastics then became extremely popular because it was not too straining. Swedish gymnastics (invented by Per Henrik Ling) became very popular as the ideal form of gentle exercise and as a medicinal aid. Per Henrik Ling argued that:

“Women need health as men do, nay still more since within her own life she is to nourish another. Women’s anatomical characteristics are analogous (similar) with men, but her physiological predisposition demands less vigorous treatment. The rounded forms of woman must not be transformed in to angularity as such in a man” Swedish gymnastics became the popular form of exercise for women because it was believed that it would not encourage masculinity in women. Swedish gymnastics (comprised of a set of standing exercises) was still based on the physiological principles of women being naturally weaker than men. This meant that in effect, although women were permitted to take exercise, they were still being discriminated against because the exercise they were allowed to take was based on the theory of constitutional overstrain.

Gradually, medical gymnastics became more of a fashionable idea rather than being viewed as a medicinal aid. In 1857 a Mrs Mathias Roth (whose husband was a doctor who specialised in Swedish gymnastics as a medicinal aid) created the ‘Ladies Sanitary Association’. They held daily classes in Swedish gymnastics and in 1887 special classes in for women became popular at the London Orion gym and many other places.

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