Whilst England’s ladies took bronze in last year’s World Cup, viewing figures were significantly less than for the men’s rather dreary performance last year (2.4m viewers on average for the women’s matches whilst the England Italy opener in the men’s World Cup in 2014 attracted 14.2m). But it hasn’t always been like this. In 1920 a women’s football match on Boxing Day at Goodison Park drew a crowd of 53,000. Compare this to the maximum crowd for Everton in 2014/15: 39,000. Sadly, in 1921, the FA banned women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches. The reason? “…the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. The ban wasn’t lifted for 50 years.
And not only can we now see girls playing football, in 2015 the FA extended the age limit for mixed football from 16 to 18 (following previous increases in 2013 and 2014). Personally, I see no need for an age limit at all: if you’re good enough, you’re good enough. Denmark, for instance, has no age limit. Niamh McKevitt sets an excellent example for any aspiring girls – she explains how playing with boys bigger (6’3”+) and stronger than her has meant that she has focused on improving her positional play. Worrying about injuries because of the size disparity, one of the excuses put forward to suggest it shouldn’t happen, has been shown to be flawed. I can’t help wondering if anyone told Messi (5’7”) and Maradona (5’5”) that they were too small to play with the men! [Read Niamh’s story here.]
Why does it seem so difficult for women to engage with men in sports? In 2009, Marina Lambert, an American schoolgirl, was competing with, and beating, the boys in wrestling. From her perspective, it made her a better wrestler: “…the advantage is you get extra aggressiveness, you get extra tough”. But many of the boys didn’t like it: they felt they were in a double-bind where they didn’t want to be seen beating-up a girl, but also didn’t want to lose to them. Marina notes that in one match a boy’s mother was screaming at him for being beaten by a girl. In some cases boys forfeited the match rather than compete against a girl. And that’s not the only issue; in the Olympics the weight categories mean that heavier girls can’t compete, with FILA vice president Saltenig saying in 2009: “You must consider television. Aesthetically, you have to look good”.
And so here we have another double-bind, this time for the women themselves. To excel, they might need to be strong and fast, to build-up muscle mass. But sadly this isn’t seen as feminine. A recent New York Times article highlighted this issue and its impact on women’s tennis. Serena Williams gets stick for being muscular – even though to my mind she looks very womanly indeed. Meanwhile Radwanska’s coach is quoted as saying that she wants, first and foremost, to look like a woman. Ironically, this need to balance achieving one’s sporting goals whilst conforming to societal norms about what is feminine extends to body-building with research showing that even in a sport where having muscle definition is the goal, being too muscly is still eschewed by many participants.
 McGrath, S.A. & Chananie-Hill, R.A. (2009). “Big freaky looking women”: Normalizing gender transgression through bodybuilding. Sociology of Sport Journal, 26, 235-254.