Can women win?

Historian Bonnie Morris neatly sums up longtime attitudes toward women athletes. For centuries, "Public athletic performance by women and girls was considered as immodest, selfish, and attention seeking--the trinity of bad-girl behaviors (Morris, 2016)."

It wasn't until after World War II that society in the U.S. and elsewhere gradually opened up to women athletes. Even then, popular athletes like the players of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were required to obey "absurd standards of femininity in dress, hairstyles, and curfews." These standards were strictly enforced to ensure that female athletes were perceived as conforming to conventional standards of femininity--including being heterosexual/straight (Morris, 2016).

In spite of these efforts, negative attitudes and suspicion toward female athletes persisted, with many people believing that women's bodies were simply unsuited to the rigors of athletic training and performance. It might surprise the thousands of women training successfully for marathons today to know that as recently as 1967, Boston Marathon officials banned female athletes from competing, declaring that no woman was physiologically capable of running 26 miles. The stereotype that all women athletes were lesbians--or had to "prove" that they were straight--also persisted (Morris, 2016).

Since the passage of Title IX, the world of women's sports has expanded dramatically, and women's teams have become far more inclusive of openly gay athletes--in stark contrast to the world of male sports, which is still strongly heteronormative. This has led to an interesting paradox, as Frankie de la Cretaz points out in a recent article for the Washington Post, "For many years, women's sports has struggled against the stereotype that all women athletes are lesbians, while also facing the reality that many of them are (Cretaz, 2022)."

As Cretaz notes, women's sports teams have become a key public arena where not only lesbians but also lesbian relationships--and lesbian culture--are visible to the general public. This visibility serves to "normalize queerness on a large, public scale . . . But the benefits of [openly] queer existence should not just serve as moments for straight fans." Openly gay athletes--and their relationships--"are, first and foremost, a beacon to queer fans . . . [They] signal to queer fans that the space is for them (Cretaz, 2022)."

Featured Content:

Explore longstanding efforts to police female athletes' femininity in this article by historian Bonnie Morris.

Women's Sports History: A Heritage of Mixed Messages

Read the full Washington Post article to learn about the impact of a more inclusive female sports culture, including highly visible lesbian relationships among professional female athletes.

Behind the visible queerness in women's sports--and why it matters


de la Cretaz, Frankie (2022). Behind the visible queerness in women's sports--and why it matters. Washington Post.

Morris, Bonnie (2016). Women's sports history: A heritage of mixed messages. National Women's History Museum.

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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