There has been a dynamic and continuing growth of women's sports since the late 1960's. Triathlons, marathons, soccer, aerobics, weightlifting, rugby, skiing, two professional basketball leagues (although one folded in late 1998), athletic clubs, and even cheerleading are among the many sports available to women, none of which existed a century ago and few of which existed a generation earlier. The passing of the Educational Act of 1972, specifically Title IX has paved the way for women in sports. For today's young women role models are available and willing to promote not only their sport but also their gender. In the late 1960's the modern feminist movement, a youth culture, and other sources of social unrest unsettled both the nation as a whole and the sports world in particular. Billie Jean King defied international tennis tradition and authorities at Wimbledon in 1968, when she demanded an end to under-the-table payments; then she defeated another symbol of patriarchy, Bobby Riggs, on the court in 1973.
In between King's two strikes for honesty and women, she helped organize the first of several early 1970's professional leagues for women. King symbolized the commencement of contemporary women's revolution in sports. (1) In the early 1980's a talented young, Czech immigrant to the United States took the women's tennis world by storm. Martina Navratilova lost only six matches from 1982 to 1984, and by 1985 had accumulated 8.5 million dollars in winnings, more than any other player in sports history. Navratilova symbolized the advances women had made in the athletic world and in traditionally male activities involving money and power. (2) As Navratilova and other female athletes gained celebrity status, many observers heralded their accomplishments as proof that modern women had finally cast off the physical and psychological shackles of the past.
Others looked less favorably on these developments, perceiving women's entrance into sport as an unsettling and unwelcome intrusion into the realm of masculinity. Navratilova's stunning accomplishments could have been construed as an example of one athlete's successful attempt to use her natural talents, hard work, and state of the art training regimen to reach new levels of athletic excellence. (3) Yet many Americans could not separate the concept of athletic superiority from its cultural affiliation with masculine sport and the male body. Therefore generating such farfetched explanations as an extraordinary product of science or worse a chromosomal defect. Martina Navratilova's tarnished reputation suggests that even in this age of apparent progress, the historic association between athletic prowess and masculinity has endured. Forced to deal with a barrage of criticism from diehard defenders of male sporting tradition, generations of twentieth century female athletes and their advocates have successfully carved a niche for women in sporting culture.
Not without many trials and tribulations. The women in sports today should be thankful for the early pioneers who helped to forge the way to the Educational Act of 1972 and more importantly Title IX. Title IX of the Act stated: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. (4) While Title IX would have no official impact beyond federally funded educational institutions, its clearly stated stance against discrimination advanced a principle of equality throughout the women's sporting world.
In 1973 Sports Illustrated published a three part series on sexism in sport that acknowledged the need for change by presenting an unmistakably feminist indictment of the male dominated sports world. (5) Title IX is not without controversy, and sometimes blatant refusal to comply. As with any issue there were those who believed that they were immune to the requirements and those who attempted to have it reversed. Just like the women it enabled, Title IX endured the abusive years and now stands strong for the participants of women's sports. Many changes have taken place since the enactment of Title IX, some good and some not so good. The most dramatic set of changes in the world of women's sports is the tremendous increase in participation and the simultaneous decline of female leadership.
As a result of Title IX the vast majority of schools merged their separate women and men's athletic departments. In almost every case, they named men as department heads and administrative positions. Before Title IX, women coached more than 90 percent of women's collage teams; today more than 50 percent of these positions go to men. The simultaneous increase in participation and decrease in leadership suggests that women have struck an unintended bargain. Even without a forceful leadership, women's extensive involvement in highly competitive sport is posing a critical challenge to the "maleness" of sport. A strong female presence undermines the assumed masculinity of athletic skill.
Women are freer than ever to enter the athletic realm without jeopardizing their perceived "normal ness" as women. By eliminating the perception of abnormality, the floodgates were opened at all levels of women's sport. Schoolgirls report that athleticism is a source of popularity. Studies have proven that girls who are active in sports are more physically, academically, and emotionally fit than girls who do not. One of the best ways that sports help girls may be by improving their academic performance.
In addition to higher grade point averages and better SAT scores, girls who play sports are generally less intimidated in the classroom and therefore excel in subjects like math and science. Participation in sports creates a domino effect of positive outcomes including improved self-esteem. When girls feel confident, they are in turn more optimistic, which generates higher motivation and decreases the chances of teenage pregnancy, anxiety and depression, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, and development of an eating disorder. In addition, the physical health benefits that girls gain from sports participation include lowered risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis later in life. Most parents are fully aware that sports participation is as important for their daughters as their sons. The Women's Sports Foundation reports that 87 percent of today's parents feel sports are equally important for boys and girls, and 97 percent agree that sports activities provide important benefits for girls.
Title IX is providing the opportunities that these parents seek for their daughters by leveling the playing field and bringing girls into sports in growing numbers. Studies show that physically active children grow up to be physically active adults who experience significant lifelong health benefits and a love of sports. The evolution of women's sports can be likened to that of an oak tree. The seed was planted over a century ago. Title IX gave women's sport roots to stand firmly planted with no intention of going anywhere.
The hero's, the women who have triumphed, wave proudly in the wind providing shelter for the seedlings below them. The tree is here and growing but the ever-present human chainsaw, the male ego, could at any moment cut her down.