“...increased female participation...(in sport)..is a form of incorporation into a structure... that remains, in fundamental ways, a bastion of male power.” (Hargreaves in Rojek (ed) 1989:131). Evaluate the contention put forward in this quotation.

 Nick Sherriff

The present century has embraced sport which has now become a social phenomenon of vast complexity and magnitude.  Although the gender struggle has a vastly different outlook depending on the side taken.   The male stance seems to be that of defending or upholding an existing establishment whilst the female could be seen as the intruder or by the feminist, the champion of such a cause.


In order to answer the question fully it is necessary to define the key terms within the quotation.   “...increased female participation...” hints that it is the quantitative participation that is or was the catalyst for such a statement by Hargreaves.   During this essay a historical comparative will show an increase in female participation that is a relatively recent  phenomenon.   “...incorporation into a structure...”  suggests an element of conformity or acceptance of such a ‘structure’ that only when adhered to allows for participation.   The ‘structure’ which is fashioned by society , is not only about administrators, officials and rules but it is an ideology or perception of individuals.   In this case groups of individuals (i.e. women)  “...bastion of male power.”  suggests a somewhat defensive stance taken by males at what may be considered an intrusion upon traditionally held male territory. Finally it is extremely important to note that sport is just a part of society and as such is a reflection of society.   Thus aspects of sport cannot be discussed without first identifying the society in which it exists.   This essay will go on to discuss the relative viewpoints of both genders through the sporting and sociological perspective.


Increased female participation is a relatively recent phenomenon.   That is to say, even the most famous athletic festivals that were the precursors to the Olympic games allowed only the men to compete.   Moreover females were not even permitted to spectate.   It is generally accepted that until the late 19th century women did not publicly participate in sports to any great extent. During the 19th century there was movement towards physical activity by women but this was governed by men who only allowed activities which they deemed appropriate for ladies.   Activities such as riding (side-saddle) and skating (on the arm of a gentleman).   The Victorian ideal of a woman was contrary to that of the athlete.   Victorians, presumably the males, believed that the woman should perform her patriotic duties of attracting a mate, bearing and rearing children and serving her husband. (McPherson.1985:221)   This ideal was born of a patriarchal society which had its sporting roots with in the public schools system where many of the sports had been codified.  Any activity that might interfere with the females duties was discouraged or prevented.   At this point in history women had very limited rights and therefore any opposition to this patriarchal view was often met with the back of the so called, gentlemen’s hand.   


Although the patriarchal system still lives on in modern society it has changed its guise.   Walby suggests that pre-industrial society was patriarchal but it was ‘private patriarchy.’(Walby,S.cited in Haralambos,M.1995:613)  In private patriarchy the male head of the household controlled the woman directly in the privacy of the home. Females were allowed little interest outside the home and their main aim was to serve their husband.   Walby is unclear as to whether this was a premeditated move by the male collective to dominate women.   At this stage in the cycle of gender abuse it was probably a pure strength issue.   Whereby, it was still legitimate to use physical force as a means to an end.   Physical force was used because males are physically stronger and therefore this guaranteed the male his upper hand.   Women during these times were kept oppressed by the prevention of them entering the ‘public sphere.’   This alone could not have kept the female in check and there could have been other patriarchal influences that excluded women.  


During this period other elements of society were purporting that sport or physical activity was bad for the woman.   Medical and journalistic opinions contained information that perpetuated the myth of the ‘frail female. There could be the suggestion that if you constantly tell people the same thing they will start to believe it.   Interestingly, many feminists of this period added credence to this notion by arguing that to toil and sweat was unfeminine.  At this time  there seems to be a great need to differentiate between men and women.   Physiological and biological tales that sport was harmful to women and a general feeling even by females that this physical activity was unlady-like.   Kenealy, a female doctor commented in 1899 on:


            “...the passing of a dainty, elusive quality in the face of the athletic         women, whose ‘bicycle face’ was characterised by muscular tension     where formerly there had been sympathy and tenderness.”


            (Lenskyj.1984. cited in McPherson,Curtis and Loy.1985:185)


Women of this time had been raised to attract a husband and appear beautiful.   It is clear that both sexes had a misguided agreement that sport was adverse to the women who tried to take part and off-putting to the perspective mate.


            “The men want the girls to stay beautiful, graceful and sightly...runners were usually flat chested, leather-limbed, horse like...and had as much        sex appeal as grandmothers old sewing machine.”


            (Lenskj.1984. cited in McPherson,Curtis and Loy.1985:158.)




This type of attitude and oppression continued up until the 1950s.   Women had been successfully working in the absence of their male counter-parts as result of  W.W.II.   Females took on their males working roles thus shattering the myth of the frail woman.   A knock-on effect was felt and this led to greater participation in society including sports which where played at a higher and more public level.   Add to this the women’s movement of the 1960s and the fitness boom of the 1970s and a greater number of visible female role models appears. (McPherson.1985:121) Whilst many of these ideas and quotes are from the past it is clear that they have affected present-day beliefs.   As McPherson suggests, earlier beliefs had done untold damage for the woman, resulting in a stereotyping that became part of the informal gender-role socialisation process of succeeding generations.(1985:221)


It is necessary to understand that as society moved through its various stages of change and reform, peoples ideals remained but with subtle differences and nuances.   Walby considers a change from ‘private patriarchy’ to that of ‘public patriarchy.’(Walby,S. cited in Haralambos.1985:612-614)   Here Walby accepts that women have moved out of the home and into the public domain (i.e. sport), suggesting a move from individual exploitation by the husband to a collective exploitation by the state via employment.   However it is difficult to believe that a covert collective are actively working against women.  Although some prevalence was observed during the recent debacle involving the Marleybone Cricket Club(MCC), head of cricket for the UK, who up until 1998 still did not allow female membership.   Although on the surface a win for the feminist, it could be argued that the real reason for female acceptance into a predominantly male fold was for financial reasons.   It should be remembered that the MCC were refused a lottery grant on the grounds that they discriminated against women.  Does this therefore see a change in patriarchal attitudes at the MCC or is it just a means to an end?   Again, reading between the lines there could appear to be ‘agents’ at work secretly bringing women to the male heel.   These minor inroads into the male dominion are seen by John Hargreaves as part of the ‘hegemonic project’ which sees the domination of one sector of society over another by denying the female control over her environment by making her subordinate to it.(1986)   That is to say, women will find themselves with greater access but not in the numbers to affect the position of the male majority.


Jenny Hargreaves has more radical views in suggesting that  sporting women are seen at worst as freaks and at best as odd  but it may be true to imply that women’s sport is not taken as seriously (by males).


            “ There is a very important thread in popular consciousness which sees          the very presence of women in sport as bizarre.”


            (Hargreaves, Jenny.1982:121)


 It could be argued that women’s sport has not yet been given a chance to excel or build its’ appeal.  Hargreaves argues that constant satirical remarks and the sexualisation of sporting women has to some extent filtered through to many sectors of society.  


            “ Dr Johnson’s hackneyed old phrase cries out to be released in new ways again and again, it’s like a dog standing on it’s hind legs.   It is            not well done - rather one is surprised to see it attempted at all.”

            (Hargreaves, Jenny. 1982:122)


The suggestion could be made that young girls would rather follow the exploits of the Spice Girls rather than top female athletes.   The reason for this in part could be extensive media coverage and the fact that the Spice Girls are more a part of popular culture for young girls than sporting women.   The question must be asked why with 50% share of numbers on the planet are they [women] denied equality in terms of sporting media representation?  It does seem odd that multi-national media corporations would not take up on what appears to be untapped profitable viewing.   The notion of ‘skulduggery and agents’ working at the detriment to women does not sit well in this scenario.   


Interestingly, According to McPherson 1985 there is little difference in sporting activity between boys and girls up to the age of twelve years.   After this a steady decline by females is seen, although the male decline does not surface until the age of sixteen or seventeen.   McPherson goes on to suggest that withdrawal from the sporting arena is due to factors outside of sport.   Girls move from the sphere of sport to other interests that are valued and encouraged by their peer group and parents.   Taking this idea still further schools could be considered as contributing to the gender stereotyping.   Athough it is the witers of the cirriculumn who could be considered as nurturing grass roots sport into a male/female divide.   By segregating sport into girls and boys games,  that is to say football, rugby and cricket for boys and netball and hockey for girls.   The male sports can be seen to bridge the divide from boyhood to manhood, with a plethora of opportunities to be involved in sports later in life.   However the female who wants to carry on her sporting interests into womanhood may find rather limited opportunities when compared to the men.    It therefore follows that males have something to gain by reinforcing genderstereotypes at such an early age.   In a research report surveying seven thousand female sports enthusiasts, one of the most interesting findings was that the most active sportswomen shared the childhood experience of playing mostly with boys or in mixed gender groups, rather than mostly with girls ("Miller Lite Report on Women in Sports," 1985). 


It could be argued that the greatest weapon for patriarchy in sport is the fragmentalising of the women’s position.   That is to say women who are already in the sport will be unlikely to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of compromising their position.   Others are turned off sports by their peers, with gender stereotyping, who feel it is ‘tomboyish.’  Furthermore, Duncan,M of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee suggests:


            “In order to avoid compromising their femininity, many girls drop out of             sports and physical activity altogether.” (1997)


The latter group may gradually lose interest in sport and therefore not pick up the feminist banner to campaign for sporting equality, thus denying the female what could be considered ‘the unity of cause.’



Despite this rather grim picture of sport for women there has been a major increase in female participation.   The 1984 Fitness Survey of Canada reported a sporting female increase from 46% in 1971 to 72% in 1981.   The number of female soccer teams registered with the US Soccer Association increased from 254 in 1971 to 2448 in 1981.


Historically the ‘playing field’ has not been level and continues to slant in favour of the men.  The evidence does show a gradual change, with greater female participation, that if carried on could eventually mean equality of sorts.   What though is equality?   Radical feminists see it as separate new female orientated events but what form they will be is unclear.   Liberal feminists appear more realistic requiring better treatment and greater equality in, for what is the most part, an unchanged arena.  It is clear that Patriarchy and hegemony have been tools that have kept women to heel but, ‘was this a purposeful goal engineered and sought by the male population?’ it is hard to say.   The notion of a male organisation engaged in a sort of skulduggery is a tenuous one at best.   Although the keeping of the social ‘status quo’ via hegemony is a commonly accepted idea.   It is important to reiterate the point that sport is a reflection of society and as such society will lead change not sport.   Although I suspect that it will take a collective effort from many sectors of society to drive the change sought.   However, considering the fragmentalising of just females in sport suggests this is far from a reality.   The domination of the female by males could be seen as ‘nature ‘not ‘nurture’, in that it is more a biological not social struggle.  However, it is generally accepted that humans have themselves stepped out of evolutionary race and now alter their environment to suit their needs.    Thus on stepping out of  evolution the males naturally came out with the upper hand or head start, a gap which has never been totally closed.  



























Hargreaves,Jenny.1982. Sport, Culture and Ideology. Routledge and Kegan Paul Plc: London.


Hargreaves,John. 1986. Sport,Power and Culture. Polity Press: Cambridge


Holt,R. 1989. Sport and the British - A Modern History. Clarendon Press: Oxford.


Guttman,A. 1991. Women’s Sports - A History. Columbia University Press: New York.


McPherson,B, Curtis,J and Loy,J. 1985. The Social Significance of Sport - an introduction to the sociology of sport. Human Kinetics Books: Illinois,USA.


Duncan,M. 1997.The Centre for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. [online]. Available from: http//www.kls.coled.umn.edu/crgws/pcpfs/sxn3.html# Learning_Gendered_Behaviour[accessed 28 March 1999].









Rogers,B.1988. Men 0nly - An investigation into men’s organisations . Pandora Press: London.


Haralambos,M and Holborn,M. 1995. Sociology - Themes and Perspectives. Collins Educational: London.



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