The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman
This Olympics, more women than ever have run, jumped, swam, shot, flipped, hit and pedaled their way to glory. Of the more than 11,000 athletes who came to compete in Rio this year, 45 percent are women. Many of them—Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky to name a few—have become household names. But 120 years ago, there might as well have been a “No Girls Allowed” sign painted on the entrance to the first modern Olympics, when 241 athletes, all men, from 14 countries gathered in Athens, Greece.
In the words of the founder of the Olympic movement, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Games were created for “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism” with “female applause as reward.” That women shouldn’t compete in the Games was self-explanatory, said Coubertin: “as no women participated in the Ancient Games, there obviously was to be no place for them in the modern ones.”
But that’s not exactly true—the ancient Greek women had their own Olympics-like contest. Rather, Coubertin’s belief that women had always been excluded played into the predominant theory that women (with “women” coded to mean well-to-do white women) were the weaker sex, unable to physically endure the strains of competitive sport.
One revealing statement by Coubertin best illustrates why he didn’t think women should participate:
"It is indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a woman being smashed before their eyes. Besides, no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks. Her nerves rule her muscles, nature wanted it that way."
Just as women competed in ancient times, women were showing very real physical prowess during Coubertin’s day. During the inaugural Olympics, one or two women (historical accounts differ) even informally competed in the most physically grueling of all Olympic events: the marathon. But it would be a long time before society and science acknowledged that women belonged in the sporting world.
The ideal Victorian woman was gentle, passive and frail—a figure, at least in part, inspired by bodies riddled with tuberculosis. These pale, wasting bodies became linked with feminine beauty. Exercise and sport worked in opposition to this ideal by causing muscles to grow and skin to tan.
“It's always been this criticism and this fear in women's sports [that] if you get too muscular, you're going to look like a man,” says Jaime Schultz, author of Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport.
To top off these concerns, female anatomy and reproduction baffled scientists of the day. A woman’s ovaries and uterus were believed to control her mental and physical health, according to historian Kathleen E. McCrone. “On the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever, they related biology to behavior,” she writes in her book Playing the Game: Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914. Women who behaved outside of society’s norm were kept in line and told, as McCrone writes, “physical effort, like running, jumping and climbing, might damage their reproductive organs and make them unattractive to men.”
Women were also thought to hold only a finite amount of vital energy. Activities including sports or higher education theoretically drained this energy from reproductive capabilities, says Schultz. Squandering your life force meant that “you couldn't have children or your offspring would be inferior because they couldn't get the energy they needed,” she says.
Of particular concern at the time was energy expenditure during menstruation. During the late 1800s, many experts cautioned against participating in any physical activity while bleeding. The “rest cure” was a common prescription, in which women surfed out the crimson wave from the confines of their beds—an unrealistic expectation for all but the most wealthy.
It was upper-class women, however, who helped push for women’s inclusion in Olympic competition, says Paula Welch, a sports history professor at the University of Florida. By participating in sports like tennis and golf at country clubs, they made these activities socially acceptable. And just four years after the launch of the modern Olympics, 22 women competed alongside men in sailing, croquet and equestrian competitions, and in the two women-only designated events, tennis and lawn golf. While the competition was small (and some didn’t even know they were competing in the Olympics), women had officially joined the competition.
Working-class women, meanwhile, pursued other means of getting exercise. Long-distance walking competitions, called Pedestrianism, was all the rage. The great bicycle fad of the 1890s showed women that they not only could be physically active, but also allowed them greater mobility, explains Schultz.
During this time, some medical researchers began to question the accepted ideas of what women were capable of. As a 28-year-old biology student at the University of Wisconsin, Clelia Duel Mosher started conducting the first-ever American study on female sexuality in 1892. She spent the next three decades surveying women's physiology in an effort to break down the assumptions that women were weaker than men. But her work proved an exception to the mainstream perspective, which stayed steadfastly mired in the Victorian era.
There were exceptions to the mainstream narrative. Women who swam, for instance, made early inroads. As no one could see them sweat, the sport didn’t look as strenuous. This likely was what allowed aquatics events for women to be introduced in the 1912 Olympic Games. But women had to work around gender norms of the day to train, Welch points out. As beaches required women wear stockings, members of the Women's Swimming Association would swim out to the jetties, where they’d take their stockings off and tie them to the rocks. At the end of their practice, the swimmers would return to the rocks, untie and put their stockings back on so they looked “presentable” when they resurfaced at shore.
“It was just something they had to deal with,” says Welch.
Shaking assumptions about what women were physically capable of took many forms in the early years of the Olympics. The swagger of early women athletes like Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias and Stanisława Walasiewicz “Stella Walsh” served as inspiration for others; both came away with gold hardware at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
But it was after the war, when the Soviet Union entered international sporting competitions, that the dogged, pervasive stereotypes of the Victorian era were finally forced out in the open. At the 1952 Helsinki Games, all Soviet athletes—men and women—arrived ready and trained to win. As the postwar Soviet Chairman of the Committee on Physical Culture and Sport, Nikolai Romanov, put it in his memoirs:
“… we were forced to guarantee victory, otherwise the ‘free’ bourgeois press would fling mud at the whole nation as well as our athletes … to gain permission to go to international tournaments I had to send a special note to Stalin guaranteeing the victory.”
The commanding presence of these Soviet women, whose wins counted just as much as the male athletes, left the United States little choice but to build up its own field of women contenders if it wanted to emerge victorious in the medal tally. By the 1960 Rome Games, the breakout performance of Wilma Rudolph, as well as those of her Tennessee State University colleagues, sent a clear message home, just as the women’s liberation movement was just taking seed.
As the number of women researchers and medical professionals grew, science began catching up with the expanding field of female athletes, says Karen Sutton, an orthopedic surgeon at Yale University and Head Team Physician for United States Women’s Lacrosse. And their research suggested that not only were women not the delicate waifs seen in popular culture, but that there were fewer physiologic barriers between men and women than previously thought.
“Whether or not there is a female response to exercise which is mediated solely by the factor of sex has not been determined,” wrote Barbara Drinkwater, a pioneer in the field, in her 1973 review on women’s physiologic response to exercise.
Though there appeared to be definite differences in the maximum capacities of men and women, several studies at the time documented that physical fitness could “override the effect of sex,” Drinkwater noted. One 1965 study found that oxygen uptake—a common measure of physical capacity—of female athletes could slightly exceed that of sedentary men.