Gender Games

Women athletes are challenging stereotypes by competing against men -- and winning. So are males and females really so different?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Laura Pappano
September 28, 2003

All summer long, Mount Greylock Regional High School sophomore Nikki Darrow has received e-mails from guys with the same question: How much does she weigh? Or, more accurately, how much will she weigh come wrestling season?

The importance of the question from prospective opponents is made clear when Darrow, blond ponytail pulled tight, bounces up the carpeted stairs of the family's Lanesborough home to her room, decorated in her favorite colors, purple and intense pink. Female-cut wrestling uniforms are looped over a bedpost, and a long shelf boasts trophies and medals from years of Little League and seasons as a member of the otherwise all-male high school wrestling team.

Tacked to the wall are three invitational wrestling tournament brackets with her name on the champion's line. A notation on the 2003 Mount Greylock Invitational says she pinned her male opponent in 51 seconds.

No wonder guys want a heads-up before Darrow, 15, enters the 110-pound weight class.

Such respect has not been universal. "There have been some people who didn't take me seriously," says Darrow, who began wrestling in seventh grade. She has faced teasing and male opponents who refused to compete. "Some cry when she beats them," says Sandi Darrow, Nikki's mom. One quit the sport after a match. "I pinned him in 15 seconds," Darrow recalls. While Darrow is dedicated -- she lifts weights daily, runs cross-country in the fall, trains several times a week at the TNT Wrestling Center an hour from her home north of Pittsfield, and attends national and international girls' wrestling tournaments -- she has been dogged by the perception that wrestling is for boys.

The idea of girls wrestling or, worse, girls wrestling against boys jars the sensibilities of those who find such physical competition inappropriate. Nonetheless, the sport is growing nationally among girls, and female freestyle wrestling will be a new sport in the 2004 Olympics. For girls like Darrow, ranked fourth in her weight class nationally by the United States Girls' Wrestling Association, competing on a boys' team is the only choice at the high school level. But it so bothers some that a state representative in Minnesota last year filed a bill that would have banned mixed-sex school wrestling there. The measure died, but it ignited debate over long-held beliefs about femininity, masculinity, and the difference between them.

At the heart of the matter is the presumption of vast "natural" differences between males and females. Guys, we're conditioned to believe, are bigger, faster, and stronger than girls. The physical differences, we've been told, are so great that the sexes need their own teams and, often, their own rules. Football, wrestling, and boxing are too rough for females. Even in non-contact sports like golf, sailing, running, swimming, tennis, recreational softball, target shooting, rock climbing -- name your sport -- the conventional wisdom goes, whatever a woman can do, a man can do better.

But increasingly, female athletes -- from high schoolers like Darrow to professionals like golfer Annika Sorenstam -- are challenging stereotypes of female physical inferiority. Women are driving from the men's tees, breaking records, and turning heads. The US women's national soccer team, which won the World Cup in 1999 and is now seeking a repeat, has captured the imagination of soccer-playing girls with its team members' self-confidence and passion. Talk today to girls like Darrow, who has her sights on the 2008 Olympics, and you hear a new generation of female athletes less bound by mores about what girls should or shouldn't be able to do.

Golf prodigy Michelle Wie, who at 13 and 6 feet tall already outdrives many male professionals, wants to win the Masters, a tournament no woman has yet played in. Last summer's Manhattan Island Marathon Swim was won by Emily Watts, whose opponents in the 28.5-mile event included two men's relay teams. In the past year, a woman has scored a goal in a men's professional hockey game and another attempted an extra point in a Division I-A college football game. In August, a squad of three women sailors won the Yngling World Championships in Warnemund, Germany, the first all-female team to do so. Team Challenge US, as they call themselves, is aiming for the Olympics, where women's small-keelboat racing will be a new sport in 2004.

For years, women were assumed to be physically incapable of breaking a 2:20 marathon, but the record was shattered three times in 18 months and again in April when British marathoner Paula Radcliffe broke her own record, finishing in 2:15:25. The time is 9:47 off the men's record but within seconds of the men's 1960 world record. While men have shaved three minutes off record marathon times in the past 35 years, women have improved by 31 minutes.

The rising profile of the female athlete prompts a question: How different are males and females, really?

MANY IDEAS ABOUT MEN AND WOMEN ARE LITTLE MORE than cultural inventions. Blame the Victorians for some modern images of strong men and weak women. The ideal man of the era possessed muscles and character and was an avid sportsman, described by writers as "perennially vigorous" or "sound and solid."

Women, in contrast, were ordered by medical experts to limit exertion. Too much activity, one doctor warned, could "dislodge" the uterus, "robbing future generations." Even female doctors told women to take it easy. Dr. Elizabeth Scovil, in her popular Preparation for Motherhood Manual, advised that "most women are able to get enough exercise just moving around the household, and a long walk doesn't bring sufficient compensation for the fatigue it causes." An 1879 medical text tells girls to "spend the year before and two years after puberty at rest" and endure menstrual periods "in the recumbent position."

The dogma of limiting women's exertion kept them from sports as well as higher education, work outside the home, and positions of responsibility. Women were barred from colleges because medical experts warned that rigorous academics would divert blood from reproductive organs to the brain, rendering women barren. Weakness was a status symbol, as affluent women sought to distinguish themselves from poor women whose lives of cooking, cleaning, and child care were physically demanding. Physical work or sport was not ladylike.

"It was not just the physicality and possibility of physical contact," observes Mary Jo Festle, associate professor of history at Elon University in North Carolina and author of Playing Nice: Politics and Apologies in Women's Sports. "It was also the posture and attitude you have in sports: You have to be assertive and aggressive to succeed, and those were considered unfeminine."

Even after society accepted physical strength as a help in bearing children and caring for them, institutions continued to "protect" women through rules limiting exertion. In 1902, the US Lawn Tennis Association cut women's matches to two out of three sets instead of three out of five, a rule still in effect today. In basketball, "girls' rules" divided the court into thirds (later halves), with females prohibited from playing outside assigned zones. Well into the 1970s, girls were excused from gym class when menstruating -- a myth of incapacitation publicly countered in 1996 when Uta Pippig won the 100th Boston Marathon, crossing the finish line with menstrual blood streaming down her legs. Even today in less strenuous sports, the pattern persists: Women are often asked to race shorter distances, play shorter periods, or score fewer points. International Badminton Federation rules, used by USA Badminton, call for men's singles to go to 15 points, while women's games end at 11 points.

Despite the prevalent social taboo against women playing sports, the 1880s saw the "walking craze." Women walked hundreds of miles, drew crowds, attracted bettors -- and outperformed men, prompting one humorist to report an event as "a time that tried men's soles." Walking grew so popular and some women so famous, one writer quipped that "today it is the walking match; next it will be the coveted entrance to the Bar. After that, who shall tell how soon the ballot will come?"

The walking craze soon collapsed. News reports questioned the women's feats, and the walks were portrayed as unhealthy, immoral, and disgusting. By century's end, many institutions had banned women's endurance events. Women were prohibited from entering Olympic running events until 1928 and could not compete in the Olympic marathon until 1984, when Joan Benoit -- now Joan Benoit Samuelson -- took the top prize for women.

Well into the 20th century, girls worried that too much exercise would produce large muscles and a mannish appearance. The belief was so widely held that in the 1960s, Festle observes, when the government tried to draw girls to sports in a Cold War move to win more Olympic medals, it launched a campaign stressing that exercise would not build muscles but make girls more glamorous to boys. As late as 1960, one historian notes, a New York Times Magazine headline asked, "Do Men Make Passes at Athletic Lasses?"

The cause of women's sport has also been hurt by the portrayal of talented female athletes as homosexuals. This has minimized athletic accomplishments by insinuating that lesbians are not "real women," while feeding a dynamic in which straight women, and sponsors, steer clear of participation or make play more feminine. Women's basketball tournaments in the 1950s often paused at halftime for a beauty pageant, crowning one player "Queen of the Court."

Even today, Festle says, women athletes must verify their femininity. "Men don't have to talk about their wives all the time; they don't have to prove they are normal," she says. "Female athletes are constantly having to prove they are not abnormal in some way."

A host of factors -- from the advent of Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds, to the fact that society now finds well-muscled female bodies more socially acceptable -- have fueled a sea change in attitudes toward women and sport. But sport still often feels like male territory protected by a pack of tradition-bound hounds. When Annika Sorenstam in May became the first woman in 58 years to compete in a Professional Golfers' Association event, golfer Vijay Singh asserted that she had no business there. And he wasn't alone. Many talk-radio callers and online chatters trashed Sorenstam for daring to compete. Even Sorenstam herself, who didn't make the cut but played respectably, took an apologetic stance, saying she would "go back to my [Ladies Professional Golfers Association] tour, where I belong" -- implying she was inferior despite outplaying some top golfers under a white-hot public spotlight.

LATE ON A MID-AUGUST DAY, THREE GIANT MEN ENTERthe waiting room of Dr. Bertram Zarins, chief of Massachusetts General Hospital's sports medicine service. One of the men, wearing mirrored sunglasses, a silver hoop in each ear, and a large bejeweled cross dangling from a chain, is so large, he crouches to fit through the door. Zarins, team doctor for the New England Patriots, Boston Bruins, and New England Revolution, is giving physical examinations to three prospective linemen for the Patriots. The slender physician, who played soccer at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, from 1959 to 1963, says, were he a kid today, he'd never make his old team. "People are much bigger today," says Zarins. "If you look at the NFL, the size of the players is much, much bigger than it used to be."

One analysis shows that the 1936 Green Bay Packers offensive line averaged 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, puny compared with the 1996 Dallas Cowboys offensive line, 6-4 and 319. The National Basketball Association has also seen size, particularly weight, rise.

Experts credit nutrition, including diet supplements, training, and conditioning. Controversy over the illegal use of steroids may muddy some achievements, but there are other performances that show stunning athletic progress. Where is the limit? The question is particularly relevant to women athletes, whose late access to athletics has them making huge strides on a compressed timetable. Women set records, break them, and set new ones.

In the process, women are closing the gender gap. If you think of the athletic performance of both sexes as bell-shaped curves, "as women have gained access to better facilities and better training, the bell curves have moved closer together," observes Lynda Ransdell, associate professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Like the old myth that female brains aren't wired to excel at math even though test scores show that most girls and most boys earn roughly the same scores, the ironclad belief that men are better athletes now looks suspect.

"There is a significant level of overlap between the average female competitor and the average male competitor," says Ransdell. "When you get to the higher-level male and higher-level female, there are few who can compete with them." Top female athletes outperform average males, something spectators along the Boston Marathon route can readily see. The very top men, Ransdell says, still outperform the very top women.

Differences in performance, many argue, are rooted in an immutable fact: Males and females are physically different. On average, according to government statistics, American males are 5.4 inches taller and 28 pounds heavier than American females. Men average 39.6 to 48.4 pounds more lean body mass and 6.6 to 13.2 pounds less fat than women and have wider upper body frames.

Many who follow women's sports also note women getting a disproportionate number of anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, injuries. These debilitating knee injuries plague women in basketball and soccer. The unspoken message is that women are doing something they shouldn't -- men's sports -- and are paying for it. A flurry of research is underway to find out why women are more susceptible to such injuries. Zarins, an orthopedic surgeon, thinks it's structural: Men and women are built differently. Women have lighter bones and a different relationship of the pelvis to the knee, a key problem for women in sports, he says.

To demonstrate, he stands in his office and leaps, landing on his feet. "When a man lands, he lands straight," he says. When a woman lands, he says, leaping again and showing a wobble of his leg, "there is an inward thrust of the knee." Zarins says research shows women trained to land straight, like men, suffer fewer ACL injuries. Dr. Arthur Boland, head physician for the Harvard University athletic department, agrees. "These are learned things," says Boland. "With these exercises, we reduce their injuries and give them greater vertical height jump. They become essentially better basketball players."

Boland, who has worked with Harvard teams since 1969, says female athletes today bear little resemblance to those of the recent past. "What I have seen more than anything over the last decade is the level of training and conditioning," he says.

Conditioning and access to training and facilities, many argue, is key to improving female performance. But for years, men have been the paradigm into which women were forced to fit. From the design of athletic shoes to medical matters, women have been treated as small men. Sports medicine is just now focusing on their particular needs. For years, female athletes who stopped menstruating were considered in top shape, not as suffering from a severe energy imbalance. Carol L. Otis, nationally renowned women's sports doctor, coauthor of The Athletic Woman's Survival Guide, and Women's Tennis Association Tour consultant, says doctors now know amenorrhea "is a sign that you are overtraining or have an underlying medical problem."

Menstruating is a sign of fitness for women and part of their larger hormonal picture. Because a woman's body is flooded with estrogen, she will also maintain more body fat than a man at the same weight. A man has more testosterone, which allows more development of muscle. Studies suggest that women possess, on average, 40 to 60 percent of men's upper-body strength and 70 to 75 percent of men's lower body strength. This varies among individuals and with training. Male athletes' body-fat proportions may range from 7 percent for decathlon athletes to 20 percent among shot-putters, while elite female runners have body fat as low as 9 percent.

Estrogen is a disadvantage in muscle development but offers women an edge in endurance. Research suggests estrogen has a protective effect on muscles, making women less prone to soreness. It may also delay fatigue, in part by spurring production of serotonin, which increases energy and elevates mood. This may be why you see women winning ultramarathon events. In July, 42-year-old Pam Reed from Arizona was the overall winner in the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, a foot race beginning in California's Death Valley and finishing halfway up Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Reed also won in 2002 and beat the second-place finisher by almost five hours. Three of the top five finishers in 2003 were women.

A key measure of athletic function relates to how an individual takes oxygen from the air, feeds it into the bloodstream, and, in turn, to muscles. The volume and speed of this process is called "aerobic power" or VO2max. A man's VO2max is typically 50 percent greater than a woman's but ranges with training. Men's larger heart and lungs and higher hemoglobin levels are a boon, but research suggests women have more efficient ways to shunt oxygen-rich blood to help power active muscles.

Women may also, ironically, receive a benefit from their body fat. Research shows women's subcutaneous fat layer helps regulate body temperature in heat and cold. No wonder women excel at the Iditarod, the grueling 1,200-mile dogsled race across Alaska's frozen terrain. Cambridge native Susan Butcher won four times.

Women's fat layer may also help in swimming. Greater body fat may increase buoyancy, reduce drag, and, in ultra-long-distance swims, slow heat loss during cold-water exposure. Consider women's swim performances, including the Catalina Swim, comparable to the English Channel. Of the four course records for one-way and two-way crossings of the 22 miles between Santa Catalina Island and the California mainland, women hold three. Even in other distance events, females outperform males. For example, United States Masters Swimming statistics show that in records for seven races, from the one-hour swim to the 2-mile race, among 19-to-24-year-olds, males hold records in four events and females in three. Emily Watts, the 36-year-old mother of two who finished first in the 2002 Manhattan Island Marathon swim, says people were surprised she won.

"One gentleman came up and was bowing to me. A woman came up with her daughter and said, "Look at that! A woman won!' " she recalls. "I don't think it shocked me. I do consider myself as equal. Even in practice, even in other races, if I am swimming next to [men], I am just another competitor."

A female athlete may see herself as "just another competitor," but society is keenly attuned to her sex. It is our ideas of what is "male" and what is "female" that colors our understanding of gender differences. Science is revered, but it is only as reliable as our interpretation, and in popular culture that can be a problem.

Kurt Fischer, the Charles Bigelow Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, has studied gender differences in brain development and aggression. He says common misperceptions multiply because people too quickly translate scientifically rooted "tendencies" into hard-and-fast sex-based traits. "Males tend to be taller, but lots of women are taller than lots of men," says Fischer. "My wife is actually an inch taller than me."

The habit of viewing men and women in black-and-white terms has made us prisoners of generalizations, eager to attribute characteristics to one sex or the other -- "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus." Blame some of this on the way we construct ideas. Fischer notes a shift in recent decades from the practice of using definitions -- looking at something to be sorted as sharing any number of characteristics, allowing room for variability -- to a reliance on archetypes, Fischer says. We generate an ideal image and compare items or ideas with it to see if they fit. Archetypal "male" and "female" images reflect a sliver of the population yet are reinforced in movies and media.

Even categories as seemingly clear as human biological sex labels are, some argue, not science, but social creations. "European and American culture is deeply devoted to the idea that there are only two sexes," writes Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at Brown University and author of Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. "But if the state and legal system has an interest in maintaining only two sexes, our collective biological bodies do not."

Fausto-Sterling argues that babies born with mixed or nonmatching sex organs or chromosomes of one sex and genitals of another are common enough -- 1.7 per 1,000 births, according to her research -- to suggest that where society sees a male-female dichotomy, nature exhibits a sexual continuum. And a 2001 Institute of Medicine report observes that while XX female chromosomes and XY male chromosomes yield typical sex features, "exceptions are more common than most people realize."

Instead of seeing sex as a spectrum, we portray it as fixed, with male and female opposites. This biological rigidity spills into cultural gender expectations. Some people, including children, struggle when they don't fit socially imagined archetypes. Grade school girls wrangle with mixed messages about athleticism and femininity. Second-graders ask: Are you a "girly-girl" or a "sport-girl"?

Otis, who works with elite junior tennis players, says that when she asked girls to name their athletic role model, they picked glamour girl Anna Kournikova, not more muscular players like Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, or Kim Clijsters. Otis blames cultural pressures, even on top female athletes, to fit narrow definitions of femininity that have girls in training pursuing unrealistic and unhealthy thinness. "The biggest issue for women is fitting in with the cultural notion of attractiveness," says Otis, who says girls still believe being an athlete is socially risky.

Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to pursue sports as a sign of masculinity. This bias has been so pervasive that even in fitness tests for school-age children, there have been lower standards for girls than for boys the same age. Research on children shows little physical difference before puberty, but a 1996 study showed the popular "Physical Best" battery developed by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance requiring 10-to-13-year-old girls to do less than boys to pass, even though girls' performances on the 1-mile walk/run, pullups, and sit-ups were no different from boys'.

Even the popular insult that someone "throws like a girl" reflects a cultural bias. We may assume boys are genetically programmed to be better overarm throwers. Yet a study in which boys and girls in different age groups -- 7 to 8 years; 9 to 10; and 11 to 12 -- threw with their nondominant arms, revealed age differences but no gender differences in the force of throws. When lefties threw with right arms and righties threw left, the field was level. The reason boys appear better "natural" throwers seems more related to backyard tosses into a leather glove from a young age than a throwing gene on the Y chromosome.

Venus and Serena Williams have accomplished something noteworthy: Good recreational tennis-playing men no longer assume they could beat top-ranked women. The speed of the William sisters' serves and the muscle in their play marks an advance in women's athletic performance.

And they are but one example.

The notion that men are always better is constantly being tested. Take the USA Track and Field Championships in March at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury. Sure, the men were faster. But not all men outpaced all women.

If you watched the women's 60-meter hurdle events, you saw Gail Devers finish one heat in 7.74 seconds, setting a new American record. During the initial men's 60-meter hurdle heats, only three out of 23 ran times that were faster than Devers's. In the 2003 USA Masters Indoor Track and Field championships a few weeks later, Joan Benoit Samuelson ran the 3,000 meters more than a second faster than legend Bill Rodgers. Last year, British free diver Tanya Streeter descended 525 feet into the water while holding her breath, breaking the existing men's and women's depth records.

Such performances prompt the question: How much better can and will women get? Women's late start in sports, and continuing social pressures on girls not to play too hard, may keep potential athletes from trying a sport, much less pursuing it with the rigor needed to succeed. Experts debate where, if you were to graph the trajectory of women's potential athletics performance, you would place the dot. "We have just one or two generations of women who have had coaching, mentoring, and enough competition," argues Otis. "We are really just starting."

Women are constantly breaking records, whether Radcliffe's marathon in the spring, Devers's in the 60-meter hurdles, or -- at the same event -- Stacy Dragila's new women's world record in the pole vault. Men, most concede, will always be stronger, pound for pound. They may also be faster in shorter events. But women are clearly excelling in sports requiring upper body strength, like swimming. And it is a woman, 5-foot, 100-pound Lynn Hill, who was the first human to free climb the treacherous "Nose" of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, using finger strength to scale the face, with ropes only for safety. Will a woman ever beat a man in the marathon? It's hard to know. Every year they edge closer.

Some believe such comparisons aren't important, that gals should do their thing and guys should do theirs. But that's too simple. The truth is that winning matters, and sports are about more than play. They are is about political, social, and economic power. When Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, when Annika Sorenstam drove from the men's tees, it was a statement of progress in the battle for gender equality. But for a new generation of female athletes, that may be too much to think about right now.

Darrow, the teenage wrestler who also happens to hold her high school's record for most chin-ups, male or female, just thinks girls "should be able to do whatever they want to do." For now, the girl with the pink plush sweats and bulging biceps is working out with a vengeance. And the boys are sweating.

Laura Pappano is coauthor with Eileen McDonagh of "Playing With the Boys: Why Sports Equality Matters to American Women," to be published next year by Oxford University Press.

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