Battle of the Sexes

The power and the paradox of women's sports


In the past few years summer has become, among other things, the season of women's sports. The women's national basketball association is now in its fifth year, despite some decline in attendance (which has been the lot of all professional sports in the past couple of years), it is drawing far larger crowds than its creators ever anticipated. And this year has witnessed the debut of the women's united soccer association, the offspring of the phenomenally successful women's world cup of 1999.

The cultural implications are tantalizing.

This isn't just about equity for girls, who can now dream of a professional career in sports, but about a vision of womanhood that includes sweat and strength, competitiveness and even ferocity. Individual female athletes, such as tennis players or runners, have been popular for some time. However, team sports, and especially contact sports, are much more of a metaphor for warfare. There's a unique thrill in watching women collide in a dive for the soccer ball or battle for a rebound under the basket, get smashed up, and go on despite the pain and exuberantly celebrate a successful play.

The rise of women in sports is often hailed as the conquest of yet another male bastion—a victory for feminism at its best, the kind that revels in female power and accomplishment instead of wallowing in victimhood.

Yet it is also rife with paradoxes that call into question traditional and feminist assumptions alike. Take just one irony. While women athletes thrive in a male domain, they can do so only in an all-female environment. With a few exceptions—equestrian sports, sharpshooting—sports are virtually the only remaining sex-segregated activity.

In last year's book "The Frailty Myth: Women Competing for Physical Equality," journalist Colette Dowling argues that physical strength and ability are the last frontier in women's pursuit of full equality with men, and that the patriarchy has kept women from conquering this frontier by discouraging them from fulfilling their athletic potential. Dowling claims that women can perform just as well when adjustments are made for differences in body size.

But even if that assertion is true (and many experts dispute it), those size differences would still leave women unable to hold their own in direct competition with men. Despite a lot of hype about the closing gap between the performance of male and female runners—which, actually, has widened again in recent years—the female winners of the New York Marathon invariably come in behind more than 40 men.

Billie Jean King may have trashed Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes a quarter-century ago, but all she proved was that a woman tennis player at the top of her game could beat a guy way past his prime. Venus Williams wouldn't last long against Pete Sampras; it's safe to say that none of the top five female players could beat any man in the top 25.

The Battle of the Sexes may have raised consciousness, but it also set a misguided standard for women's athletic achievement. If men's performance is the yardstick, women are doomed to inferiority.

Luckily, the women's game can be enjoyed on its own terms: take women's tennis, which now exceeds its male counterpart in popularity. Many male soccer fans have been greatly impressed by the technical skill, finesse, and aggressiveness displayed by the women players. Women's basketball will never thrill those who require slam-dunks to enjoy a game, but contrary to the claims of its detractors, it hardly lacks in athleticism or even flamboyance.

Yet there are some provocative lessons here for feminists. Women's sports are clearly incompatible with the notion, popular with some academic gender theorists, that the two sexes are not distinct biological categories but merely points on a continuum. (On a continuum, the women will be stuck in the basement. Another paradox is that in sports like basketball, where women are still battling for a place in the sun, long-term success may require distressing compromises—such as relatively paltry salaries and a truncated season.

Still, the encouraging news is that millions of Americans of all ages and both sexes are now watching the girls of summer without giving a thought to sexual politics. It's too early to tell whether women's basketball can ever duplicate the ascendancy of women's tennis or whether women can ever make soccer truly popular in the United States. For now, these sports have been normalized as a part of mainstream American culture. For all the compromises, that's truly revolutionary.