Women have had to fight tooth and nail to gain entry into the male-dominated arena of sports. During the first modern Olympics, held in 1896 in Athens, no women were allowed to compete in the 43 offered for male competitors. During the next 24 years of competition (1916 Berlin Olympics suspended due to WWI) women were only allowed to compete in appropriately feminine sports: Archery, Diving, Figure Skating, Golf, Fencing, Swimming, and Tennis. The 1928 Games in Amsterdam represented a watershed when women were finally allowed to compete in Track and Field events.
The inclusion of talented women’s athlete led to historic performances, especially Canada’s track contingent of Bobbie Rosenfeld, Myrtle Cook, Ethel Smith, Jane Bell, Ethel Catherwood, and Jean Thompson. Dubbed the ‘Matchless Six’ they left Amsterdam with an impressive haul 2 gold, 2 silver, and 1 bronze helping Canada claim 4th overall at the Games. While these women proved their mettle in events like the 100yd dash, high jump, discus, and the 4x100yd dash, the final track and field event, the 800m race proved catastrophic for women’s advancement in sport. Anyone who has run an 800m race will tell you it’s one of the worst imaginable, essentially sprinting around a standard track twice.
Everyone who runs the race competitively looks like death when the cross the finish line, and these women in 1928 looked no different, collapsing, hunched over, heavy breathing, and intense perspiration. The images of these women going all out on the track led to a decision to ban women in participating in the 800m race until 1960. The reasoning, women couldn’t physically exert themselves as vigorously as men and if they did it led to negative health outcomes specific to women’s biology. Essentially, the argument for decades stretching back into the mid 19th century was that women were biological prisoners in bodies that were not made for sport, the way men’s bodies were.
In the 19th century, modern sports emerged specifically in Great Britain as a means to inculcate masculine values and moral character development in the burgeoning middle classes who sent their boys to prestigious and newly created Public Schools. Women were not afforded that same opportunity to participate in sport. There were some physicians and educators who went against the mainstream, but they had to do so in secret and in fear of social reprisal. A great example is US Congressman Eli Thayer who created the Oread Institute in Worcester MA and explicitly included physical activity in the educational routine of the Women students.
But the vast majority of physicians actively discouraged vigorous or even moderate physical activity for women. For men, sport and physical activity stimulated the body, trained it, disciplined it, and provided a sense of moral strength through physical courage and bravery. Women on the other hand, were physically incapable of exerting themselves without suffering negative health outcomes. In the mid 19th century, decades before the Germ Theory of disease emerged to explain how humans contract illnesses and how to use medicine to cure them, physicians used Vitalism Theory to diagnose and treat illnesses.
Essentially, Vitalism Theory, popularized by physiologist Johannes Pete Muller, suggests a vital energy, or the soul, provided the missing link that made inorganic matter into organic matter. Importantly, this vital energy was finite resources contained within the bodies of living organisms. Women’s physical capabilities were essentially imprisoned due to this medical theory. Because of the biological reality of menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth, women needed to reserve their vital fluids in order to be physically prepared for these physical rigours. Therefore, expending energy in physical activity and sports sapped the necessary energy needed to promulgate the species. In this fashion, biology and science were marshalled incorrectly against women to deny them access to sport participation.
However, social approval and an ability to merge these new scientific ideas with cultural values created the mix that ultimately denied women their place in sports. As new science emerged displacing the old theories, the social lessons wrought from these early medical theories remained in tact. The new social reality of the industrial urban environment, resultant from industrialization in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, created a large new middle class in an unfamiliar environment. For laboring and agricultural women, their lives had always been physically demanding and difficult. But for the new urban middle class woman, her life was defined by a sense of physical uselessness.
In the United States for example, the preferred image of femininity in the mid nineteenth was the “Steel Engraving Lady.” This standard was the model of physical uselessness, a small, slender, petite woman. Along with Vitalism, these social prescriptions unleashed tremendous damage upon women’s health, essentially creating a self fulfilling prophecy where women sought out ways to look and act frail which in turn cause real health problems for women. For example, women sough clothing to make them appear smaller and frail, the best illustration being the use of debilitating corsets to cinch tight waists.
These corsets restricted breathing ability, sometimes breaking ribs. As a consequence, new furniture was created to aid women through their daily lives, namely the fainting couch. After walking up only a half a flight of stairs, women would oftentimes collapse out of exhaustion due to restricted breath and thus needed couches to crumple upon. The fact women could not make it up stairs without fainting confirmed the medical theories of the day, thus creating the crucial link between women’s physical frailty and their actual health outcomes. Basically, the belief in biological determinism merged with social attitudes and resulted in active discrimination against women.
This even went so far as the cellular level. In 1889 Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thompson wrote The Evolution of Sex which argued that biology confirmed on every level men’s active nature and women’s submissive nature. They even argued that cells displayed these male and female attributes, with active cells described as male and passive cells as female. Biology was effectively wed to social attitudes and circumscribed proper female and male behaviour, the idea of separate spheres, and women’s natural domesticity. It’s this combination that still plagued women’s athletics in those 1928 games, and why women were not allowed to exert themselves physically to the same extent as men.
Fast forward to our current society and we see the same hallmarks of those mid 19th century arguments used to keep women out of sport participation rearing their ugly head yet again. However, rather than a biological determinism merged with social attitudes, it’s the opposite. Because science has historically been used to marginalize women in the sport world, our contemporary society rightfully attempts to limit the uses of science to dictate morally correct decisions concerning physiological reality.
But we’ve gone too far. Many in our society now disregard biology entirely, arguing that because women were kept down for too long because of science, it must not be marshalled for fear that it may once again be used to discriminate. Enter the debate over trans participation in sport. This debate has been ongoing for a while, but has recently exploded into the public consciousness due to a number of highly publicized events. No one example better encapsulates these contentious issues than the recent public spat between Women’s Tennis pioneer Martina Navratilova and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups over the inclusion of transwomen in athletic participation.
One way we can see the removal of biology from considerations of discrimination in sport is through the rise of gender ideology. This new idea posits that gender, and by extension biological sex, is a pure social construct. Basically, men and women are only different in the expectations placed upon them by society, there is no objective difference in terms of biology between genders. And if there were, it would solely be the result of social pressures and expectations that in turn directed women’s bodies to adapt differently because of those pressures. In essence, it’s the exact reversal of the biological determinism of the mid 19th century. And similar to that mix of biological distortion and social values, the current mix is actively harming women’s ability to participate in sport, this time in terms of fair competition as opposed to the ability to compete at all.
Gender ideology asks us to disregard biological reality, that is that humans are a dimorphic species with exceptions at the tail end of the distribution. Intersex individuals exist and deserve our respect, but they are a tiny fraction of the population, and if we let the exceptions make the rule, then we might as well blow up biology. The study of biology itself is a type of soft science because of these exception, but that shouldn’t preclude the necessity of biological categorization.
Indeed, without the categorization, women would never have been accepted into the sport world in the first place. Women differ from men in their levels of testosterone, ability to build muscle, lung capacity for respiratory performance, bone density, and other elements which predispose men to being stronger, faster, and thus more proficient at sports and physical activity.
Certainly there are women who can run faster than men and who are stronger, but the strongest man will always beat the strongest woman and the fastest man will always run faster than the fastest woman (except during extreme long distance running where women’s pain higher tolerance allows them to outcompete men, same with long distance swimming). What is not in question is the ability of women to exert themselves just as intensely and vigorously as them men. Vitalism has been disproved and women gain the exact same physical benefits that men receive when the engage in physical activity. At issue then becomes how do we as a society ensure women have the same opportunities to compete as men.
Trans competition also suffers from a misuse of science. On one hand there is no debate about transmen being able to compete against as men. The IOC has not rules against transmen participation, but does have certain biological requirements for transwomen. This fact alone should give us pause on fully accepting gender ideology, that biological sex is a social construct. If this were so, why then would transwomen have to meet testosterone requirements? But we are reaching the point where gender ideology is winning. The IOC has recently lessened its requirements on transwomen’s participation, indicating that surgery is not required and only one year of hormone therapy is required.
In Canada, a working group that advises the Federal Government has gone even further. They suggest that transwomen do not require any surgery, nor any hormone therapy, to be eligible for participation. They need only to have psychologically identified as a woman in order for them to be eligible to participate against biological females. This is what it looks like when science is marshalled towards a particular ideology, in this case the complete dismissal of biological reality. Just as physicians and educators used science to confirm their belief on the proper social roles of men and women, gender ideologues today argue for equity in outcomes and thus deny science when it points to differential outcomes.
The thread that binds these two seemingly opposite steams in the political ideology known as progressivism. Essentially, progressivism is an interventionist political ideology that marshals scientific knowledge into a system of bureaucratic managerial government executed by experts in social organization. At the heart of progressivism is a belief in the efficacy of science to solve the biggest problems facing human society. In the mid 19th Century, science determined that men and women were destined for separate social spheres. This morphed into the rigid gender order of Victorian society, specifically in England, the birthplace of modern sport. Yet, as new scientific evidence emerged that overturned Vitalism theory, progressives incorporated that into their ideology. It was this scientific knowledge, namely the germ theory of disease, that slowly emancipated women from their historically scientific shackles with respect to their ability to exercise as vigorously as men.
Clearly, the social impact was more difficult to overturn, as the 1928 Olympics evidenced. Modern progressivism still relies on interventionist government to order and manage society based on scientific realities, but the idea of what science reveals to progressive’s has radically changed. Specifically, since science was used to discriminate against women, many progressives have turned against science and argue that it in and of itself is a type of social construct. The fact that experts in gender theory promote this argument conforms to the progressive veneration of experts to order our society. The scientific experts of the past failed, therefore science must be disregarded due to its discriminatory legacy. Enter in gender ideology and the social construction of biological sex as a type of “consensus” among the leading experts in gender theory.
Thus, for contemporary progressives, science is disregarded today to exclude transwomen without cause, just as women were barred from competition in the 19th century because of science. In one sense, these arguments are correct. Science absolutely was used to confirm existing social attitudes and used to discriminate. However, they took the wrong lesson from this episode. Because science was marshalled incorrectly in the past, we shouldn’t disregard science completely in crafting our contemporary social attitudes.