“Played like a man.” The Prevalence of Sexism in Sports

Women’s hockey pioneer Angela James fought for her right to play the male-dominated sport when she was no more than 8 years old in Flemingdon Park. Angela’s mother, Donna, tried to turn her onto other sports such as swimming because back then, “no girl went anywhere in hockey.” The only organized league around was the Flemingdon Boys Hockey Association. When Donna realized how strong her daughter’s devotion was for the game, she marched over to the league’s president and demanded a spot for Angela on the boys team. By the time Angela was 13, she was playing with senior teams consisting of players twice her age, the only option at the time considering her advanced skill set.

Senior hockey was an incredibly intense sport, and Angela helped erode the false notion that women didn’t enjoy playing tough:

“Girls’ hockey was criticized for players not having enough strength,” says Robin Brown, a former Brampton Canadette.  “Angela wasn’t like that. She was a really good bodychecker. Hitting her was like hitting steel.” – Angela James: The First Superstar of Women’s Hockey.

Angela also received many comparisons to noted male players: She was strong, like Mark Messier and she had the finesse of Wayne Gretzky, a telling sign of the substantial gap between the men’s and women’s game and their histories.

Angela was making a name for herself in a sport long reserved for male athletes. Her struggle for recognition was a battle many female hockey enthusiasts faced, including Fran Rider, one of the founders of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association:

“When we were moving towards the world tournament, we were told very clearly by many, ‘There will never be a world championship in your lifetime and women’s hockey will never be in the Olympics.” – Angela James: The First Superstar of Women’s Hockey.

Stereotypes surrounding gender performance can also ricochet into remarks about sexuality, as seen quite recently when the pro tennis player Dominika Cibulkova came under heat for construing opponent Samantha Stosur’s technique on the court as “man-like” — a cop out for her defeat. It makes you wonder, what exactly “playing like a man” means. Stosur is also an openly gay athlete, and as the blog After Atlanta stated, “What [Cibulkova] is really saying is ‘she’s a dyke.’ And because Stosur does not compensate/apologize enough for not being uberfeminine, Cibulkova attacks her.”

On the other end of the spectrum, a large number of female athletes are marketed as sex symbols; their competence as athletes merely an afterthought. With the lack of sponsorship and media coverage devoted to women’s sports—a Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) figure stating less than 5% of total sports coverage—female athletes have to deal with less than egalitarian media sources if they hope to stir up some much needed media interest in their sport.

In 1990, the first IIHF-sanctioned international tournament in women’s ice hockey became a hotspot for gender politics. In a bid to promote the tournament, sponsors suggested that the traditional red and white Team Canada jerseys be replaced with a shocking hot pink and blue design. The significance of this landmark tournament was trumped by news of the pink invasion:

Angela said the gear made the players look like “pink flamingoes,” but nobody was about to complain. “Well, we just did what we were told,” says Angela. “We just wanted to play hockey and play for our country. And if they told us to wear polka dots, we’d wear polka dots.” – Angela James: The First Superstar of Women’s Hockey.

Angela James is one of the first women to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. However, since her groundbreaking induction in 2010, no women have been elected since. New York Times sports columnist Jeff Z. Klein sees the lack of any women in the selection committee as part of the problem. The absence of a female voice on the committee leaves women’s sports without a strong advocate who can point out female players worthy of the honour. Women campaigners are calling on the IOC to meet a target set out in 1996 for females to hold at least 20% of positions in ruling bodies, with the current stats at only 10%. The WSFF has launched a social media campaign to raise awareness around the lack of investment and media attention given to women’s sports during the London Olympics. You can follow the WSFF twitter hashtag #gogirl to stay on top of all their updates.

Angela James: The First Superstar of Women’s Hockey will be released this month on August 25th. Check back soon for the final chapter of our blog series on discrimination in sports.

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