What Do Sports and Reproductive Rights Have in Common?

10:59 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Amanda Marcotte for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

See all our 2012 Title IX coverage here.

Two high school-age women play basketball.

Photo: K.M. Klemencic / Flickr.

Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of what turned out to be one of the most important pieces of feminist legislation, Title IX. Title IX was a wide-ranging reform to educational standards in the U.S., one that required schools from kindergarten through doctoral programs to cease sex discrimination. It ended the traditions of barring boys from home economics and typing class while helping usher more women into STEM fields. But what most people think of first and often only when they think of Title IX is athletics. The requirement that schools invest as much in female athletics as male athletics has by far been the most controversial aspect to this amendment. People who wouldn’t dare suggest that only women should learn to cook or that unequal pay is fair often have no compunction about diminishing female athletes by claiming that their accomplishments simply can’t matter as much as do men’s. In the year 2012, female athleticism still causes overt anxieties.

Why is that? I propose it’s for the same reason that a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy — or even prevent one — is still controversial in our society. As with reproductive rights, female athleticism brings forth social anxieties about women exerting mastery over their own bodies. The female body has been positioned for so long as an object that exists for other people’s use that contemplating a woman using her own body for her own purposes unsettles, whether it’s a woman controlling her fertility or a woman using her body to compete in an arena, sports, which was previously considered only the domain of men.

The way this anxiety is expressed has changed over the years. In the past, women’s reproductive abilities were framed against their athletic aspirations, in much the same way the right still tends to see tensions between women’s reproductive control and capacity. (Look, for instance, at the ready assumption on the right that a woman being pro-choice means she’s intrinsically anti-motherhood.) While fears that athletic women aren’t “real” women have faded somewhat, there are still traces of that belief in modern athletics, from the overly defensive femininity displays of the WNBA to the risible and outdated practice of gender-testing female athletes competing in the Olympics. It seems the fear of stereotypes about women and athletics cause the powers that be in athletic competitions to feel like they have to prove that their athletes are “real” women in the way that men competing in athletics never feel they have to prove their maleness.

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