Tracing the challenging history of women’s participation in sport
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Celebrate Women’s History Month at sportanddev by taking a quick look at the history of women’s participation in sports through time.

March is celebrated as Women’s History Month, celebrating the achievements and contributions of women in history. The journey of women’s achievements has been characterised by struggle that they have had to experience because of the societal status assigned to their gender.

Though men have tended to dominate the sporting field, it would be erroneous to assume that women’s participation in sport is a new phenomenon. Indeed, tracing the history of women’s participation in sport, one can see that women have been active sportspeople for centuries.

Origins of women’s sport

The earliest hints of women’s involvement in sport can be found in the arts and artefacts of ancient civilizations. The Egyptian and Greek civilizations boasted of a prominent tradition wherein women actively participated in athletics. Carvings on Egyptian tombs and paintings indicate that women participated in ball games as well as swimming. Though none of the sports were competitive, women of that period were physically active. Evidence suggests women in the Greek state of Sparta were also engaged in horse-riding, racing and wrestling.

During the ancient period, women were not stigmatised for their involvement in sport and physical activity. It was the Medieval Age that witnessed the decline of their presence in sport. The rise in Christianity in Europe fueled the patriarchal stereotype of women being the weaker sex and thus not being fit for sport. The reflections of this can still be seen in the hurdles women face in making their way to the field of sport.

Fighting against stigma

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, there was a gradual approval of women’s involvement in sports like golf, croquet and archery, as these did not require much physical strength. This was mostly observed among the upper-class women of Europe and North America, wherein sport was considered more of a leisure activity for women.

The first Modern Olympics held in 1896 barred women from participating. However, a Greek woman protested by participating as an unofficial competitor in the marathon. After four years, there were around 22 women competing with men in sports like croquet and sailing. Tennis and lawn golf could only have two women participants due to the cap imposed by the authorities. This marked women officially joining in competitive games and sport. However, many believed that physical activity could adversely affect women’s reproductive health and make them look unattractive to men so it was looked down upon.

Women’s competitive sport

Women’s competitive sport was formalised through the efforts of the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale, a platform started by women’s sport advocates in 1921, to facilitate their participation in international sport. It played an instrumental role in the initiation of the first Women’s Olympic Games in 1922.

The increased representation of women in sport was aligned with the emergence of the first wave of the feminist movement, which advocated for equal property and voting rights. The suffragists, in fact, used bicycles as a tool to promote equality for women, as riding a bicycle was liberating and became a symbol of women’s freedom. This was largely the case for women in the US and Western Europe, as much of the Global South was colonised and women in the colonies enjoyed yet fewer freedoms.

Decolonisation and the second wave of feminism

As the decolonisation of the Global South began, women started gaining more prominence in sport. In the 1950s and 60s, at the Asian Games and All Africa Games, the newly independent countries sent women to represent and demonstrate their freedom from their oppressive colonizers.

As the second wave of feminism began, the diversity in women’s participation in sport was enhanced. This was influential in endorsing the core ideals of the second wave, i.e. questioning the prejudices and gender roles prescribed by domineering social structures.

In 1972, the United States implemented a legislative provision, the Education Act, which made sport more accessible to women through the introduction of physical education in school curriculums. This had a global impact as more countries started creating sport-related opportunities for women.

Even though the journey of women in sport was progressing, there were many challenges that persisted. One such challenge was the gender test women were subjected to. Such tests were rooted in a biological understanding of sex rather than in gender, setting an arbitrary benchmark for femininity in women and targeting trans women, denying them the opportunity to participate in sport. Complaints against the humiliating tests resulted in the end of gender verifications at the Olympics in 1996, yet these standards remain in many other sporting federations.   

The third wave of feminism

Starting in the 1990s, the third wave of feminism saw the institutionalisation of women’s participation in sport. All new events at the Olympics mandated women’s participation, and sport also became a source of economic empowerment for many women. The inclusion of sexual and gender minorities has also been a major concern of this wave of feminism, but success in this regard is yet to be achieved in the sporting realm.  

The 2012 Olympics were a benchmark for women’s achievement in international sport, as all represented countries sent women participants for all sporting events. Even as the numbers get better, misogyny and endocentric systems continue to hinder sportswomen, as is visible in the lack of television coverage and sponsorship given to them. Further, antiquated understandings of biology persist, as many continue to assume that menstruation limits women’s athletic capabilities.

Despite the challenges, women have managed to pave their way in sport and are attempting to gain further control in the operation of the sporting realm. Women’s access to sport has significantly improved over the decades, as sport is now part of most of the school curriculums. This also explains why women have been involved in sport as trainers and coaches. The current situation is on the path to equality, but the world needs to move beyond token representation and achieve a holistic change in this regard.


Operating Team