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The inequalities are rooted in systemic issues within sports culture
For centuries, women were perceived as fragile beings in constant need of protection from any physical exertion. It was America in the 19th century that idealized a special definition of modesty — one where the livelihoods of women would supposedly be threatened by otherwise common practices such as entering the workforce and engaging in sports activities.
These practices persisted for a long time and it was the norm for elite women to have their (female) servants do everything that was in violation of the supposed modesty they had to uphold.
A few racially restricted sports were made acceptable, which included tennis, archery, croquet and bathing-beauty swimming (whatever that means). Of course, nothing too harsh that would allegedly threaten the fertility and feministic qualities of a woman were allowed.
These sports activities for women, if you could even call them that, were handpicked to be acceptable, largely due to the elaborate outfits that accompanied them.
It stamped on the assurance of femininity, creating a female sport culture that was only interesting if the women were beautiful and delicate. Heaven forbid they were aggressive or even had a desire to be competitive . . . in competition.
I think this is a good place to pause just to appreciate all the irony we’ve encountered in our history lesson so far.
During the very same 19th century, America promoted white male masculinity in capitalism, warfare, baseball, beer and basketball. Once again in an effort to preserve femininity, these activities were restricted for women, masked under false claims of women's inability to endure as much pain, injury and overall labour.
No one questioned the physical effort and endurance it took to carry a child and give birth, but athletic performances were quickly condemned as immodest and degrading.
That was back then and a few may find it silly that I’m going on about something that has evolved so much since then. While in many ways, it has, in numerous other ways, it hasn’t.
With the debut of “Women’s Olympics” in 1920, and the slow but steady modernization of female sports since then, you could raise a claim that women don’t face these issues anymore.
It’s easy to say that from an outside perspective, but 40 per cent of women in the sports industry would tell you something different. They’d tell you how the athletic world still belongs to men and the constant discrimination they face at every possible gateway into the industry — whether it’s at the level of a professional athlete or getting ridiculed for wanting to play middle school girls’ basketball.
Like all kinds of discrimination, it's very important to acknowledge the intersectionality of gender discrimination. Race, culture, economic status and personal identities play significant roles in the differing experiences faced by women.
The reason I gave you a brief history lesson in the beginning was to show where these ideologies are rooted from. The idea of placing men’s sports on a pedestal while ignoring women’s sports comes from previous ideas of the sports industry belonging exclusively to men.
When issues about equal pay come to light, people are quick to point out the media and entertainment gap between men’s and women’s sports. Though this is very true, no one has bothered to take a look at why.
Sure, you can probably count on one hand how many WNBA players can dunk a basketball, but no efforts are made to appreciate the talent and hard work the players put in to get to the level they’re at. Where females may lack in physical strength and endurance (when compared to equally trained males), they make up for in technique, passion and resilience.
Yes, sports will innately look different when it's played by different sexes, but failing to put forth an effort to appreciate these differences is certainly not out of society’s control. For so long, the male-dominated society ruled women by their reproductive systems, believing that they must save and expend all their energy in reproduction.
Today, imagine if women athletes didn’t have to expend so much of their energy fighting for legitimacy and equal treatment and be able to focus solely on playing their sport.
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After dissolving for a year, WALC has officially been brought back
The Women’s Athletic Leadership Committee was originally formed during the 2017-2018 season. However, during the pandemic season, the committee unfortunately dissolved. This year, it has been revamped, spearheaded by fifth-year basketball player Sarah Gates.
“My coach [Theresa Burns] has been a huge advocate for women's sports ever since I was in first year. She's always kind of encouraged us to find our voices and stand up for things we believe in and as I'm now in fifth year I kind of realized that I'm super passionate about women in sport,” said Gates.
WALC is made up of several teams that focus on initiatives such as education panels, fundraising, special events and community outreach. WALC also includes team representatives. The goal of WALC is to create a platform that empowers women athletes and encourages them to find their voice. During her past four years as a female student-athlete, Gates realized an opportunity to step up as a leader, and aid female student-athletes to find greater success by utilizing the community around them.
Mia Spadafora is also a member of WALC and she sits on the educational panel's executive team. She, like Gates, stressed the importance of the committee going forward.
“There are a lot of women in sport, especially women in Canadian sport, that don't really get the light shed on them that they need and deserve. So it's really important that we can kind of form and start this in our own community before hopefully getting more of an outreach and growing that towards other people and other communities,” explained Spadafora.
For Spadafora and Gates, WALC is just the first step in generating a larger spotlight on female sports. They focus on women supporting women as they advocate for themselves and their own well-deserved recognition.
For example, they hope to begin with women's teams going out to support other women's teams at their games. Spadafora explained that the stadium only starts to get full near the end of the game as spectators come out to watch the men’s game that happens right after. As such, simply putting women's sports on the map and building awareness is a high priority and challenge for the committee.
However, simply empowering female McMaster athletes is not enough for this team. Gates wants to be able to reach out into the community as role models and mentors to people of all ages and experiences, from alumni to those who are no longer actively competing.
In addition to encouraging awareness, WALC has many events planned on the horizon. In October, they recently completed their first workshop, the WALC Empower Hour designed to support female student-athletes in all aspects of their life including nutrition, sleep habits and networking.
In November, they are planning an alumni panel with a coaches panel in December. They are also starting community outreach virtually by conversing with community and club teams about goals, goal setting and balancing a student-athlete lifestyle. There are many more events in the works, including a women’s athletic leadership event for International Women’s Day in the second semester with continuous workshops and panel discussions.
WALC is back and here to stay. Be sure to keep an eye out for their events. Tickets for the women’s basketball and volleyball games are now available at https://mcmaster.universitytickets.com/.