Where are the Women Athletes?

By Rachel Wishnie-Edwards

Women role models come in all shapes and sizes, and from a variety of fields. One arena in which women are still trailing far behind, however, is sports. There are certainly many amazing female athletes to inspire younger generations, but young girls both in the U.S. and the international community have a harder time trying to be like the women athletes they idolize. Sports are a way to empower women and girls everywhere, and people are starting to notice.

The 2012 London Olympics were the first Olympics in which every participating country had at least one female representative—although some had just the one. There are two problems preventing women from participating in professional and Olympic sports in many developing countries. The first are legal prohibitions, but the last of those that prevented women from playing Olympic sports have been amended. Yet even without those legal restrictions, many women face living conditions that render training impossible. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women can legally play sports but are effectively unable to do so, because of restrictions on their attire and mobility. Women in Saudi Arabia and other nations that impede female athletes need a more deep-rooted, systemic change to overcome the obstacles in their paths.

While the U.S. does not face the same degree of gender discrimination as many developing countries, men dominate professional sports. The major professional sports leagues in the U.S. are men’s football, baseball, basketball, and hockey leagues. Less well known or popular are the equivalent women’s leagues, such as the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which only lasted for the duration of World War II until male soldiers returned from the war and Major League Baseball could continue. Although there are women’s national sports teams and leagues, they are simply not as popular as their male counterparts.

At the 2015 Own It Summit, one of the breakout sessions I attended was called “Global Women’s Rights.” Bonnie Morris, an author and a Women’s Studies professor at GW, and Melissa Otterbein, a writer, triathlete, and activist, led the discussion. Bonnie and Melissa emphasized the importance of sports for women and girls, particularly in countries with vast gender inequality. Bonnie told a story about gender inequality in sports, but in an arena much closer to home. She had once attended a GW men’s basketball game that was followed by a women’s game. Bill Clinton, president at the time, and his daughter Chelsea, also watched the men’s game. Once it ended, he stood up to leave. Bonnie said that she instinctively stood up and called to him, asking him to stay for the women’s game. At first he said that he had an appointment and could not stay, but Bonnie insisted that he stay for the first five minutes to show support for the women’s team. Her anecdote stuck with me, not only because I couldn’t believe that she scolded the president, but because of what both her actions and those of President Clinton must have meant for the women’s team.

During the questions and discussion at the end of Bonnie and Melissa’s presentation, one young woman made a particularly poignant comment. She explained that she was on the swim team at Georgetown, and felt that swimming was unique in that the men’s and women’s teams always practiced together. Even if the boys could bench a little more than she could, they did it side by side and respected each other as equals. In that sense, she said, her sport empowered her as a woman. Whether thinking about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who is not allowed to go to gym class, or a female athlete at Georgetown who works out alongside male teammates, sports can give women the energy and confidence to succeed in other aspects of life. A U.N. report on sports and gender says that sport “offers opportunities to challenge and gradually shift gender norms that underpin and reinforce the social exclusion of girls and women.” I think we should all play sports a little more like a girl.