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Female Athletes Who Defied The Rules: The struggle for equality in sports started a long time ago

Mar 24, 2021 | Women Athletes

By Iacovos Iacovides, APC Sports

When we think about women who fight for equality in sports, we tend to think of Megan Rapinoe or Nneka Ogwumike or other athletes of our generation. However, one can find numerous instances in history where women defied conventional wisdom and societal norms to demand their rightful place in the world of sports. As humans, we have short-term memories but the annals of history always come to our rescue. No matter how trivial the impact of these events might seem to the modern reader, they were major steps in encouraging and empowering women to demand more; they became the anchor, the linchpin of today’s activists.

Today women fight for equal pay, more media coverage and better working conditions, but not long ago they were merely fighting for the right to participate. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer also known as, The Girl Who Started It All, became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon. There are numerous inaccurate versions of her story and Switzer strives to set the record straight in her memoir by giving a thorough account of her journey to the marathon. During the marathon, Switzer was attacked—physically attacked—by a man while competing. She nonetheless, managed to finish the marathon, only to be ambushed by journalists bombarding her with aggressive and insulting questions.

 She recalls her thoughts the day after the marathon: “I’ve stepped into a different life, I thought. To the guys it was a one-off event. But I knew it was a lot more than that. A lot more.” Switzer’s story was, without a doubt, one of the most inspiring sport stories of the 20th century. Her story is so forceful because of the symbolism as well: The first woman to run in the Boston Marathon being physically attacked by a man in a suit who tries and fails to pull her down.

Switzer defied the (unwritten) rules, exploiting the fact that the marathon’s rulebook made no provision on participation based on gender. Shirley Muldowney, on the other hand, did not come out of nowhere to fight the status quo. She fought if for decades. She started her career in 1958 and competed in major competitions in 1969 and 1970. In 1971 she won her first major race—the IHRA Southern Nationals. She graduated to the “big boys league” in 1976 and won three NHRA Top Fuel Dragster championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982.

Muldowney was opposed by racers and associations every step of the way. She faced people who thought that drag racing was no place for a girl. In her own words: ‘the NHRA fought me every inch of the way, but when they saw how a girl could fill the stands; they saw I was good for the sport’. Sadly, she competed for the best part of her racing years without any sponsorships following her injury in the early 1980s up until the end of her career in 2003.

It is not just the outsiders, however, who changed the world of sport for the better. There are also those who had some sort of institutional backing, without implying that their paths were filled with roses. For example, Jennifer Welter who became the first female coaching intern in the NFL or, Violet Palmer, who in 1977 became the first woman to officiate an NBA game. We cannot do justice in a single article to all the women who defied the rules such as: Maree Lyndon, Manon Rheaume, Julie Krone, Nancy Lieberman, Hayley Wickenheiser and the list goes on.

Today women fight different battles and the sport industry is changing drastically. Of course, we are moving towards a more equal sports industry but we are by no means there and we won’t be for the foreseeable future. Made up myths about the physical and otherwise shortcomings of women in relation to their male counterparts are being torn down and eviscerated every day. If you let other people draw the framework of what they think you can or cannot do, then you are doomed to always be dominated by them. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgement concerning them.

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