Searching for Atalanta: an ethical look at women and sport

English: 1912 Fraulein Kussin and Mrs. Edwards...

Human movement is something special to each individual. No matter how active we are now or have ever been, we each carry with us our own compendium of our subjective experiences as movers. Such a joy of life and opportunity for self-expression should be equally available to all people, yet even today — forty years after the passing of Title IX — there exists a significant amount of debate on gender equality in sport.

Women should not ‘play’ sports

It is undeniable that women have historically been unwelcome in the masculine world of sports. Pausanias (5.6.7-8) described the Ancient Eleans law that required them to throw women who dared attend the Olympic games off Mt. Typaion. The type of segregation discussed in modern literature bears little resemblance in severity to such anecdotes from antiquity, however, the sentiment was shared by men (and women too) throughout history up until today. Bruce Kidd (1990) reminds us that male doctors (circa the era of the two boxing women above) warned women about ill-health and “race-suicide” if they engaged in athletics on the premise that athletic exertion would consume her reproductive energy.  (Note: Kidd wrote this prior to our discovery of the female athlete triad syndrome)

Before we go any further, we must remember the distinction between play, games and sport. Technically speaking, it is impossible for anybody to “play” sports. “Play” is an end unto itself in its most pure form. Sport is based on structured play, known as “games”, for a common prize or pursuit. The term “sport”, as it is used in the discussion of gender equality, conflates this evolved manifestation of play with the commercialized commodity that is collegiate athletics.

This is not to say that the economics surrounding the issue should not be discussed, however, for the sake of clarity, I find it necessary to make this distinction at the outset.

Anti-androgynism in sport

B.C. Postow (1980) notes that sport has traditionally been regarded as masculine in nature. She explains that the anti-androgynism evident in sport is motivated by a desire to “maintain a distinction between the masculine and the feminine either to conform to some good natural order or to foster and preserve distinct gender identities for reasons of mental health or societal welfare.” I think she is fairly accurate though I take issue with the language and what it implies. Her usage of words like, “conform” and “good natural order” within the context of the rest of her essay, seem to force the anti-androgynist in to  an is-ought problem. That there is hesitation to abandon gender distinctions in sport does not mean there is a systematic attempt to keep men and women confined to their socially constructed boxes. The gender distinctions in sport are not relics of our patriarchal past; they are part of the many constitutive rules upon which the various sporting competitions are constructed.  In sport, we place absurd obstacles in front of the athlete while controlling for as much variability in ability as possible. To that end, many sports have weight classes, training restrictions, equipment regulations and salary caps; all for the sake of preserving fairness. Many, like Postow, who seek to chip away at gender distinctions in sport, fail to recognize that though there may be immoral societal barriers against women outside of sport, those perceived “barriers” in sport may serve to frame and enhance the essential competitive aspect of sport.

The move towards equality

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in union with Christ Jesus.” Gallatians 3:28

The policies and arguments set forth for the sake of gender equality in sports are all well intended. Ever since St. Paul wrote to the Gallatians, we have felt a moral imperative to make equal in society all that is not. Segregation in society based on race, creed, gender or class is objectively immoral in the world today. It is immoral because the segregation could lead to disenfranchisement, persecution and genocide if not opposed. Since the latter two are not probable conclusions in the context of sport, the push for gender equality seems to be motivated out of provision of equal opportunity regardless of gender.

Title IX attempts to provide that equality of opportunity. As Francis argues (1993-1994), in order to fully arrive at an equitable result, we must question whether or not universities should be the domain of these athletic endeavors. Much of the reason Title IX has not fully succeeded at creating gender equity in federally funded sports is that some sports are more of a commodity than others. It seems the virtuous aim of equal opportunity falls short of overcoming the market-based value of so-called “vanity sports” like football and basketball. Derek Levoit suggests that perhaps our American universities could avoid this problem entirely if all collegiate sports were extricated from the university and modeled after the football clubs of Europe.

Hope from antiquity

Despite my earlier example of women’s status in Ancient Greece, there is hope to be found in antiquity. Perhaps one of the few exceptions to “boy’s club” myth of Ancient Greek athletics, can help bring about some change in our own perception of female sports. Atalanta was born to a father who had wanted a son. He trained her in hunting, wrestling and running as if she were a boy. She encountered many physical challenges from beasts to men and she overcame them all. Even when she was pressured to marry, she avoided the situation by announcing she would only marry the man who could beat her in a footrace. (she killed the losers) After defeating (and killing) many men, she was finally tricked by a ruse that exploited her femine appreciation for the aesthetic, and lost the race.

There are many women who would self-identify with Atalanta. These are females who reject the traditional feminine construct of being a “girly-girl” in favor of an athletic life. There is nothing wrong with this however, it would be wrong to assume that such a rejection of gender norms is statistically proportional to the number of males who adhere to their gender norms (as athletes).  I was unable to find any solid research done on the percentage of female athletes who sought out sport. My criterion of “sought out sport” is crucial because simply measuring the percentage of women in sport would not account for the existing disparity of opportunity. I want to see if an equal proportion of young girls to young boys aspire to be athletes and, but for access limitations, would pursue athletics beyond high school. My suspicion is that if resources in sport (teams, leagues, scholarships, etc) ever truly reached 50/50 distribution amongst the genders, the male market would become saturated while the female market would be overly-available. If we assume far more males would vie for the finite number of places on a team than women would, mandating equality in numbers would reduce competition (creating more spaces than are demanded) giving female athletes far more opportunity, in terms of scholarships specifically, to participate in sport at an elite level.

We need to stop looking at the disparity of gender representation in collegiate sports as a manifestation of our patriarchal society.  The fame, endorsements, big crowds and adulation we see primarily in male-dominated sports is a function of a free-market response to a product put forth. Granted, the unequal market share is probably a remnant from our historically male-dominated society however, the fact that so many consumers (predominantly men) choose to spend their discretionary money on sport is not indicative of some pervading sexism or misogyny.

There are many benefits to participation in sport. It seems the self-expression, character building, teamwork, and other life-skills can be attained without some equal status or recognition of the sport. We should be encouraging cultivation of intrinsic motivation to move rather than highlighting perceived material inequity in collegiate athletics. Spelman college, an all female HBCU in Atlanta, recently opted to end all athletics in favor of diverting their funding towards wellness initiatives (read about it here). The school adnimistrators decision came at a time when interest in sport is dwindling while onset of chronic diseases amongst African-Americans continues to occur earlier in life.

There are many moving parts at work in these “big-time” programs. Unlike intramural sports, many others aside from the athletes are “at play”. Spectators divert their resources towards advancement of the games while administrators and executives scurry to maintain some semblance of amateurism. Addressing the problem of gender equality in sport first requires careful definition of the term “sport” followed by removal of as much outside economics as possible.


  • Kidd, B. (1990) The Men’s Cultural Centre: Sports and the Dynamic of Women’s Opression/Men’s Repression, Sport, Men and the Gender Order, 31-43

  • Postow, B.C., (1980) Women and Masculine Sports, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, VII: 51-58

  • Francis, L.P., (1993-1994)Title IX: Equality for Woen’s Sports?, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XX-XXI: 32-47


One thought on “Searching for Atalanta: an ethical look at women and sport

  1. Pingback: Big-time college athletics and the mind-body problem | A Mover's Blog

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