The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman

Scenes from the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. (National Postal Museum)

Scenes from the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. (National Postal Museum)

[Article co-written with Jackie Mansky]

This Olympics, more women than ever have run, jumped, swam, shot, flipped, hit and pedaled their way to glory. Of the more than 11,000 athletes who came to compete in Rio this year, 45 percent are women. Many of them—Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky to name a few—have become household names. But 120 years ago, there might as well have been a “No Girls Allowed” sign painted on the entrance to the first modern Olympics, when 241 athletes, all men, from 14 countries gathered in Athens, Greece.

In the words of the founder of the Olympic movement, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Games were created for “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism” with “female applause as reward.” That women shouldn’t compete in the Games was self-explanatory, said Coubertin: “as no women participated in the Ancient Games, there obviously was to be no place for them in the modern ones.”

But that’s not exactly true—the ancient Greek women had their own Olympics-like contest. Rather, Coubertin’s belief that women had always been excluded played into the predominant theory that women (with “women” coded to mean well-to-do white women) were the weaker sex, unable to physically endure the strains of competitive sport.

One revealing statement by Coubertin best illustrates why he didn’t think women should participate:

“It is indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a women being smashed before their eyes. Besides, no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks. Her nerves rule her muscles, nature wanted it that way.”

Just as women competed in ancient times, women were showing very real physical prowess during Coubertin’s day. During the inaugural Olympics, one or two women (historical accounts differ) even informally competed in the most physically grueling of all Olympic events: the marathon. But it would be a long time before society and science acknowledged that women belonged in the sporting world.

The Weaker Sex

The ideal Victorian woman was gentle, passive and frail—a figure, at least in part, inspired by bodies riddled with tuberculosis. These pale, wasting bodies became linked with feminine beauty. Exercise and sport worked in opposition to this ideal by causing muscles to grow and skin to tan.

“It's always been this criticism and this fear in women's sports [that] if you get too muscular, you're going to look like a man,” says Jaime Schultz, author of Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport.

To top off these concerns, female anatomy and reproduction baffled scientists of the day. A woman’s ovaries and uterus were believed to control her mental and physical health, according to historian Kathleen E. McCrone. “On the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever, they related biology to behavior,” she writes in her book Playing the Game: Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914. Women who behaved outside of society’s norm were kept in line and told, as McCrone writes, “physical effort, like running, jumping and climbing, might damage their reproductive organs and make them unattractive to men.”

Women were also thought to hold only a finite amount of vital energy. Activities including sports or higher education theoretically drained this energy from reproductive capabilities, says Schultz. Squandering your life force meant that “you couldn't have children or your offspring would be inferior because they couldn't get the energy they needed,” she says.

Of particular concern at the time was energy expenditure during menstruation. During the late 1800s, many experts cautioned against participating in any physical activity while bleeding. The “rest cure” was a common prescription, in which women surfed out the crimson wave from the confines of their beds—an unrealistic expectation for all but the most wealthy.

It was upper-class women, however, who helped push for women’s inclusion in Olympic competition, says Paula Welch, a sports history professor at the University of Florida. By participating in sports like tennis and golf at country clubs, they made these activities socially acceptable. And just four years after the launch of the modern Olympics, 22 women competed alongside men in sailing, croquet and equestrian competitions, and in the two women-only designated events, tennis and lawn golf. While the competition was small (and some didn’t even know they were competing in the Olympics), women had officially joined the competition.

Working-class women, meanwhile, pursued other means of getting exercise. Long-distance walking competitions, called Pedestrianism, was all the rage. The great bicycle fad of the 1890s showed women that they not only could be physically active, but also allowed them greater mobility, explains Schultz.

During this time, some medical researchers began to question the accepted ideas of what women were capable of. As a 28-year-old biology student at the University of Wisconsin, Clelia Duel Mosher started conducting the first-ever American study on female sexuality in 1892. She spent the next three decades surveying women's physiology in an effort to break down the assumptions that women were weaker than men. But her work proved an exception to the mainstream perspective, which stayed steadfastly mired in the Victorian era.

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HistoryMaya Wei-Haas