Matt Handley discusses gender and sport with Women’s Blues football captain Kim Kilmartin
I’m a Liverpool fan. If asked, I’d be able to name the vast majority of players who’d turned out for Liverpool FC since the turn of the millennium, a skill honed through hours of Sporcle procrastination. However, if asked to provide the name of a single Liverpool Ladies footballer, I’d be completely stumped. This highlights two problems; first, the lack of profile which much of women’s sport still suffers from, and second, the very fact that we automatically assume that the men’s side is the ‘proper’ FC (or RFC, or CC…).
On the question of profile, there are obviously many women who are amongst the nation’s greatest sporting heroes, especially after this summer; Jessica Ennis, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey are amongst the favourites for the Sports Personality of the Year award. However, if you drop below the very elite level, many female athletes are practically anonymous; the majority of players in the top flight of women’s football juggle their training with a full time job. Kilmartin, who is from the US, has noticed that “in Britain, the support for and belief in female athletes is appalling compared to rest of the English-speaking world.”
That said there have been improvements. The creation of the Women’s Super League, played in the summer so as to minimise clash with the Men’s league, has given a greater glitz to the competition and ensured more TV coverage, whilst over 75,000 people packed out Wembley to watch the GB women’s side this summer. Perhaps most crucially, the recent opening of St George’s Park provides the England national side with first-class facilities. Moreover, some of the stars of that side are on the cusp of becoming fully-fledged household names, with manager Hope Powell and players Rachel Yankey and Kelly Smith gaining increased prominence over the last few years.
Inherent biological limitations will prevent some women’s sports from ever being as fast, or as physically robust, as those of their male counterparts. Kilmartin agrees: “I’ve played with men, and I don’t think women have the physicality for a high paced men’s match.”
However, in a sport like football, which is just as much about trickery as brute strength (Kilmartin finds that Blues women “are typically better readers of the game than some men”), focused investment and training from an early age could feasibly raise the game to a similar level the men’s game, whilst media attention akin to that seen during the Olympics encourages young girls to get involved; see the massive upsurge in participation in the ladies’ game in Japan, after their shock 2011 victory in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The second and more pernicious problem is that we assume that a sporting competition is a men’s one (unless told otherwise). There is no gender noun contained in the men’s top flight in football; it’s just the Premier League. Meanwhile the women play in the ‘Women’s Super League’. with names such as the ‘Doncaster Belles’ and ‘Millwall Lionesses’.
Similarly, in America, the WNBA doesn’t have a specifically male counterpart, it’s just assumed that the National Basketball League would have to be the men’s one. At least the NFL’s female-counterpart doesn’t feel the need to distinguish itself by gender. No, that’s just the ‘Lingerie Football League’, in which participants compete in their underwear… Not exactly a victory over the patriarchy. This phenomenon even extends to Oxford University. On their official website, Oxford University AFC speaks of the ‘Blues’ and of the ‘Women’s Blues’. The Rugby Union sides are similarly distinguished, as are the cricket sides. The implication of this is that the Women’s Blues are somehow less valuable, skilled or impressive than the men’s, that the male Blues are sufficiently important not to need to be distinguished by their gender and if we’re talking about the Blues, then there are obviously no women involved. This serves to subtly denigrate the status and the achievements of this University’s sporting women, and should be ended.
Whilst many still view, or are encouraged to view, women’s sport as an amateurish, less serious counterpoint to men’s, it will continue to fail to achieve the parity it deserves. “Football is shunned as a women’s sport in Britain,” concludes Kilmartin. “This needs to be sorted at a cultural level and the University can’t be responsible for this culture.” However, perhaps the change to that culture could start with a high profile decision to mirror OUWAFC with OUMAFC. Increased integration of teams and facilities, along with ending this silly tradition of not distinguishing the men’s side by gender if we continue to do so the women’s, can and should be used to improve the situation, both in Oxford and in general.
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