Women in sport are changing the world: but the job’s not finished yet

By: Olivia (Lily) Campbell-Lamerton

It is certainly not the political activist, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, the scientist or the Business woman who has changed the world any more than the female professional athlete. Female athletes, in particular female professional tennis players (including my own personal experience) have empowered women beyond their previously conceived idea of being second-to-man or indeed ‘the second sex’ .. Female professional tennis has had significant ramifications both on and off the court in developing and developed nations. I add to this argument that more progress needs to be made along this journey. It is important to note here that despite believing in total gender equality, I am not a feminist – the very word and the movement create the exact problem it sets out to prevent: exclusivity and / or marginalisation. To me, feminism does not equate to equality. Rather, it purports to the megalith of negativity that the gender equality debate is trying to eschew.
The catalyst to the female professional athlete taking centre stage was pioneering American tennis player and founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, Billie Jean King who, with twenty Wimbledon titles to her name, beat Bobby Riggs in a three set match in 1973 after he made the claim that men were superior athletes. This milestone in gender prejudices set the ball rolling for a plethora of further changes both on and off the court, including the widespread shift in attitude towards gender equality pay, resulting in equal pay cheques at professional tennis tournaments today. On the whole, men are physically stronger than women having greater muscle mass which is just the result of testosterone-induced muscular hypertrophy. Yet to premise that the different genetic makeup of a man and a woman is an argument for a different pay cheque is absurd. It is these small illogical arguments that have tried to catapult a man’s worth further than that of a woman’s – with it going well beyond the remits of sports pay cheques – women also remain disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation.
Well over half a billion girls are growing up in developing countries today. The majority of International authorities, including the World Bank and United Nations, are united in stating that the most effective way to fight poverty in the world is to help girls and women. Sport has been increasingly respected as a valuable tool for empowering youth in developing countries. However, opportunities to participate in sport are more often than not catered for boys rather than girls. When provided with the opportunity, girls can benefit from the economic, emotional and physical self-determination that a particular sport requires. But it is this opportunity that is the key.
Female professional tennis players are being used as platforms to provide this opportunity and to further increase awareness of similar issues in developing countries. Russian world number 5 Maria Sharapova donated $250,000 to expand a UNDP-supported programme that provides sports and physical activities for youth in the area affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This interest and voluntary aid from a female professional tennis player helps to return women back to their deserved stage, equipping them with the facilities to achieve their own sporting goals and dreams. Such opportunities for sport are life changing: acting as an accelerator to achieve a child’s full potential. Similarly, world number 1 Serena Williams was appointed UNICEF’s newest Goodwill Ambassador in 2011, and joined both UNICEF and the Global Goals campaign to launch the World’s Largest Lesson in 2015 focusing on ensuring that children globally receive an education and tennis facilities; and educating them about the challenges that are shaping their futures – encouraging them to drive change in their own communities. It is through these means, that sport, and specifically tennis, can continue to emancipate girls from their society stereotypes and oppressed position therein.
The global international organisation ‘UN Women’ believes that gender equality significantly contributes to advancing economies and sustainable development. There are many organisations and charities that work to support women in sport, understanding sport’s key role as a vehicle for merging the gender equality poles that currently stand unreconciled. UK Organisation ‘Women in Sport’ realises the importance of increasing the impact of women in sport and draws on their unique insight to champion the right of every woman and girl in the UK to take part in, and benefit from, sport. Similarly, ‘Women Sport International’ was formed to meet the challenge of ensuring that sport and physical activity receive the attention and priority they deserve in the lives of girls and women, meeting the need to bring about positive change for girls and women in these important areas of their lives.
Sport is a medium through which people, specifically women, can be noticed for their true worth: where their actions speak for themselves; where the physical finesse and hard work creates results. Having been inspired by professional tennis players, wheelchair bound Iraqi Zeinab Kadhum has picked up wheelchair tennis which is giving hope to young men and women learning to live with the physical and emotional trauma of years of fighting in their country.
It is at this point that I’d like to paint the picture of what life is like for a semi professional tennis player in the UK. Coaches are both male and female, but predominantly male; gyms and training areas are unisex; female tennis attracts the largest number of spectators of both sexes; men and women are paid the same; society’s view of professional sportsmen and women gives you another push in the right direction. These experiences prove how tennis is becoming a vehicle for gender equality in the Western World – and how with continued efforts and using our female sports stars as a platform for furthering this change, will continue to change the world.
Yet amongst this positivity it is important to mention that for a young boy and girl with the same dream – becoming a professional athlete – the images they are bombarded with through the media are impossibly different. The portrayal of top male tennis players focuses on their performance achievements and skills. In contrast, the focus for top female tennis players predominantly concerns their attractiveness and outfits. Canadian professional tennis player Eugenie Bouchard was famously asked by a sexist journalist if she could ‘give us a twirl’ in her new outfit during a post-match interview. This attitude results in blurred lines about how women see the issue of sexism in sport. This is why the route to women in sport is still laden with obstacles. Clearly, how society sees women continues to be an issue. But women remain part and parcel of the issue; that is, there are women who enjoy the sexualisation, and there are others who entertain the feminist label and pigeonholing. Focus should be on the level of excellence achieved rather than short circuiting a woman’s worth into a bracket of attractiveness and sexuality.
I have argued how female sport, and specifically tennis, is changing the world through the following mediums: empowering women and aiding positive advances in the struggle towards gender equality; using top tennis players as an inspiration and role model; helping young children beat poverty and reach their potential. However, by and large it is only until society’s view of women coupled with the consistency of women’s attitude towards their sexist counterparts shift, that the attitude towards women’s participation in sports will totally change. And this is an accumulative, collaborative effort. It will be achieved by increasing the number of women who partake in such sports. The more women who partake in sport, the more the movement continues to grow.

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