Feminism in Sports

Feminism is a movement to end oppression, especially  as  it  relates  to  sexism.  Feminism  can  be taken up in many contexts such as sport and exercise, where theorists and practitioners engage with feminist theory, feminist activism, feminist politics, feminist education, feminist class, race, or gender struggle,  and  global  feminism  to  varying  degrees. In  this  entry,  common  myths  about  feminists  are explored. This is followed by a discussion of feminist  history,  theory,  and  advocacy  and  some  concluding remarks.

Common Myths Surrounding Feminists

Several  myths  abound  related  to  those  who  take up  feminism  and  feminist  theory.  These  include (a)  feminists  are  aggressive;  (b)  feminists  hate men;  (c)  feminists  do  not  wear  make-up,  are  not feminine,  are  manly,  or  are  ugly;  (d)  all  feminists are lesbian; (e) feminists have no sense of humor; (f) feminists want to take over the world; (g) feminists are obsessed with gender; and (h) we live in a postfeminist age now—we don’t need feminism anymore.

In  terms  of  the  myth  that  feminists  are  aggressive,  since  the  late  1800s,  feminists—including some men—have been advocating for equal rights for  women  in  a  peaceful  and  nonviolent  way.  In fact, the feminist movement is one of the few social movements where there is virtually no documented violence related to protests calling for this type of social  change.  Regarding  the  myth  that  feminists hate men, there are plenty of men who stand side-by-side with women who are involved in feminist movements  because  they  are  also  disturbed  by patriarchy’s  effect  on  their  lives  and  on  the  lives of  their  mothers,  sisters,  daughters,  wives,  female best friends, cousins, and so on. When people say that they think feminists do not wear make-up, are not feminine, are manly or are ugly, what they are referring  to  is  traditional  notions  of  heterosexual beauty  in  a  society,  which  includes  (for  women) applying  foundation,  eye  shadow,  eye  liner,  mascara,  rouge,  and  other  cosmetics,  in  an  effort  to fit  what  is  defined  as  heterosexually  beautiful  or sexy for women. Those who do not want to wear make-up are seen as ugly; the next leap that most people make is that because they are not interested in wearing make-up or looking feminine, they are not  heterosexual.  The  myth  that  all  feminists  are lesbian is related to this leap; however, not all feminists are lesbian just like not all women (regardless of sexual orientation) are political. While it is true that many lesbian and bisexual women were a part of  the  early  feminist  movement,  it  was  partially because they themselves had already wrestled with pushing  against  rigid  sexual,  gender,  class,  race, and  political  categories.  There  is  also  the  belief that  feminists  have  no  sense  of  humor.  This  may be  because  those  who  advocate  feminism  do  not laugh  at  jokes  made  at  the  expense  of  women.  If they are not laughing when others are, they may be perceived as having no sense of humor; in reality, however,  they  probably  do  not  find  it  humorous when  women  are  made  fun  of.  The  notion  that feminists want to take over the world often comes from the fear (by some) that men will be replaced in positions of power, including in the economic, educational, governmental, and political sectors. While it  is  true  that  liberal  feminists  fight  for  an  equal percentage  of  men  and  women  in  these  contexts, according to recent research, it is also true that successful  corporations  must  have  at  least  one  third of  their  management  (e.g.,  those  in  power)  represented by minority workers, including women. The perception that feminists are obsessed with gender appears  related  to  the  fact  that  feminists  are  concerned with gender oppression. This is because, in most  societies,  males  are  valued  over  females  and masculine  interests  are  privileged  over  feminine interests. Those who are in the marginalized positions in society are acutely aware of the differences that are highlighted in often taken-for-granted daily encounters. Finally, the myth that we live in a postfeminist age now and we don’t need feminism anymore appears most prevalent in young women who have grown up in a post–Title IX era. Interestingly, these women are usually college age and may not have experienced sexism in the workplace because they have not yet entered the workforce full time.

Brief History of Feminism, Feminist Theory, and Advocacy

Most researchers agree that there are at least three major  waves  of  feminist  movement:  (1)  from  the mid-1800s  through  1930;  (2)  during  the  1960s and 1970s; and (3) post-1970s. Feminism actually began  as  a  campaign  for  women  to  get  the  vote. During the first wave in mid-1800s, women advocated  for  the  right  to  vote  first  in  England,  then in  France,  and  then  in  the  United  States.  In  the United States in 1837, Mount Holyoke—the first of  the  seven  sister  colleges—was  founded.  This was followed in 1850 by the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom. However, neither England nor the United States was one of the first countries to grant women voting rights; it was New Zealand in  1893,  Australia  in  1902,  the  United  States  in 1920, and the United Kingdom in 1928.

There  was  a  lull  in  feminist  movement  in  the United States between the first two waves (between 1930 and 1960). This was because men were coming  home  from  World  War  II  in  the  1940s  and taking  back  the  jobs  they  once  held  in  factories and  other  work  settings.  During  the  war,  these jobs were filled by women participating in the war effort  (e.g.,  working  in  factories  which  manufactured  parts  for  the  war).  However,  once  the  men returned,  women  were  expected  to  go  back  into the home, become housewives, and start families.

During the second wave (roughly 1960–1980), the  focus  was  on  women  taking  control  of  their own  bodies,  relationships,  sexuality,  health,  and vitality  and  gaining  equality  in  the  workforce. Researchers   utilized   major   feminist   theories, including liberal, critical, Marxist, radical, socialist, and ecofeminism, as well as feminist epistemology, empiricism,  standpoint  theory,  and  postmodernism. In 1963, Betty Friedan—a wife and mother— wrote a groundbreaking book called The Feminine Mystique,  which  described  how  “unfulfilled”  she was,  limited  to  just  those  two  roles.  Friedan  and 27  others  founded  the  National  Organization for  Women  (N.O.W.)  in  1966.  Major  theoretical debates were framed around Marxism (e.g., social class  issues).  In  1970,  Shulamith  Firestone’s  The Dialectic  of  Sex  was  published  at  the  same  time that organized marches, demonstrations, bra burnings, and consciousness-raising sessions began. In 1972, Gloria Steinem started Ms. Magazine. Third-wave  feminism  began  post-1980.  The focus  during  this  wave  was  on  redefining  the  feminist  movement,  especially  to  include  younger women  and  direct  advocacy.  While  researchers continued  to  utilize  major  feminist  theories  (e.g., liberal, critical, Marxist, radical, socialist, and ecofeminism),  many  incorporated  a  hybrid  of  theorizing  that  reflected  their  beliefs  about  the  ways women know what they know (feminist epistemology), how to include women more fully in the scientific process (feminist empiricism), the fact that each woman—particularly those women who have multiple marginal identities—has a unique story to tell (feminist standpoint theory), and a shattering of what was once taken-for-granted notions about truth and the structure of gendered identity (feminist postmodernism).


Feminism has had at least three distinct waves and has  been  described  as  a  movement  to  end  sexist oppression. While myths about feminists abound, those  who  advocate  feminism  have  succeeded  in calling  attention  to  gender  inequity  in  the  workplace as well as in other contexts such as sport and exercise.


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