Today, at the Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games, tennis tournaments and a host of other sporting events, men and women can compete at elite levels. But this has not always been the case for sports and recreational physical pursuits.
The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. However, only men were permitted to compete. It was considered by Olympic organisers that the inclusion of women would be ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect’. Four years later, at the 1900 Paris Games, women were only permitted to compete in limited events: lawn tennis, golf, croquet and sailing. In subsequent games, the restrictions on women competitors have been progressively relaxed.
Despite laws saying that women couldn’t swim in mixed company—which means they couldn’t swim where men could see them—Fanny Durack became the first Australian to win a gold medal at an international swimming competition and the first woman to win a gold medal for swimming at an Olympic Games. She took gold at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics where she set a world record and, from 1910 to 1918, she was the record holder for all swimming events from 100 metres to the mile marathon.
To learn more about Fanny Durack and her Olympic Gold Medal look here.
In Australia, women also faced restrictions on how, where and when they could take part in sport, both as competitors and for fun. In colonial times, women were encouraged only to play sports that did not ‘challenge the gender stereotype’—sports like croquet and lawn bowls were popular during this time. From the late 1800s until the early twentieth century, swimming was especially restricted for women. They were not permitted to swim in male company, could access beaches and public pools only at designated times and were made to wear loose-fitting, heavy swimsuits to ‘protect them’ from men, who apparently considered swimming—when engaged in by women—a suggestive activity. During the 1920s and 1930s, more practical swimwear was allowed.
In 1900, the first female-only sporting groups were formed; most were lawn bowls or golf clubs but, by the 1930s, athletics and track and field clubs for women were also established. From the 1970s, male- and female-only sporting groups began to merge. In 2017, Cricket Australia (CA) and the Australian Cricketers' Association (ACA) reached a deal to ensure all Australian cricketers, regardless of gender, would receive equal pay on signing.
Despite the relaxing of rules segregating competitors by gender, inequality persists in the sporting world. As of 2012, there are still 39 events that are not open to women in the Olympic Games and inequality remains an issue in areas such as funding and media coverage. A study in 2010 showed that of all sport-related coverage in the Australian media, only 9% related to women’s sport. The lack of media coverage of women's sport in Australia has presented challenges to female participants in several areas, including providing few role models and making it hard to acquire money from sponsors.
As a class, hold a debate on the role of women in sport and the restrictions placed on women:
- Why are things still not equal?
- Are there sports that should be men-only/women-only?
- Is it important for young people to have role models?
- Do sports personalities have a responsibility to be/act as role models for their younger fans?
- Some sports are designated as women’s or men’s, even though they are very similar. Play a game of basketball; then play a game of netball.
- Compare the rules and skills needed to play both.
- Is it logical that one is considered a game for men and the other for women?