Should We End Sex Segregation in War and Sports?

Any discussion of women's "place in society" surely ought to touch on the two places in society where women remain distinctly unequal.


The last few weeks we've heard a lot about women—their reproductive rights, their economic circumstances, whether Ann Romney ever worked a day in her life, whether Augusta National should drop its men-only policy, whether Republicans are waging war on anyone with two X chromosomes, etc.

Any discussion of women's place in society—the phrase reeks of sexism; we would never speak of "men's place in society"—surely ought to touch on the two places in society where women remain distinctly unequal: (a) war and (b) war's peaceful analogue, competitive sports.

In February the Pentagon eased some restrictions keeping women out of combat — or, more accurately, out of certain combat-related job specialties; women in the services already get put in harm's way. (More than 1,000 have been killed or injured in Iraq, for instance.) But women remain barred from ground combat units.

There are two arguments for the policy, and neither is terribly persuasive. The first says women are not up to the job. That might be true of the statistically average woman. But then it might also be true of the statistically average man. Anyway, statistical averages do not perform tasks; individuals do. And some individual women may be physically capable of the rigors of combat. If they are capable, then they should be allowed to serve. We would not say a gifted 9-year-old cannot study calculus simply because the average 9-year-old can't.

The other argument says male soldiers might be overprotective of females. So what? We train soldiers to overcome even more basic instincts—such as running from danger.

Both of these arguments rest on the premise that women should not be placed in combat because it would cost lives. But the U.S. rarely fights wars of survival. Usually it commences hostilities for the sake of a principle, such as defending democracy or thwarting communism. If the U.S. is willing to sacrifice lives for the sake of those aims, then it seems odd to balk at sacrificing the occasional life for the sake of another aim, women's equality.

It seems even harder to justify segregating the sexes in sports—where nothing remotely as important as human life is at stake. If a woman can compete in (say) the NBA, then surely she should be allowed to. Three years ago, NBA commissioner David Stern said it was a "good possibility" that a woman would play for the NBA within a decade. There has been talk of Baylor's Brittney Griner declaring for the NBA draft (though sports aficionados say she isn't NBA material). Ann Meyers signed a contract with the Pacers in 1980 but didn't make the final cut.

And there are plenty of sports besides hoops. Danica Patrick competes with men in auto racing. Nine years ago Annika Sorenstam acquitted herself well at the PGA's Bank of America Colonial, though she missed the cut in the second round. Many sports that require as much finesse as raw power — bowling, diving, archery, fencing and so on—would do well to let men and women go head to head. (The Swedish Bowling Federation is doing just that.)

But letting women compete in men's sports raises a complication. We can't very well say women should be allowed to participate in men's leagues but men should not be allowed to participate in women's. And if all the women's leagues are thrown open to men, then it's likely some of them soon would cease to be women's leagues at all—because men who narrowly missed the cut for men's teams would switch to the women's leagues and muscle most of the women aside.

One isn't supposed to say this, at least not publicly, but many people will readily admit it in private: Elite male athletes tend to outperform elite female athletes. (Just compare world records if you doubt.) So desegregating the leagues, or combining them, would lead to disproportionate representation of men.

Is this a problem? Disproportionate racial representation in sports doesn't seem to be. Example: The 10 fastest records for the 100-meter dash are held by 14 men (because of ties). There is not a single white, Asian or Hispanic among them. Yet no one has suggested segregating the short-distance races to account for this, and nobody in his right mind would dream of doing so.

The notion of proportional representation is a question of fairness, and sports have little to do with fairness in that sense. It is not fair that no woman could possibly go toe-to-toe with boxers like Evander Holyfield or Sugar Ray Leonard. But then, it is not fair that almost no man could possibly do so, either. Neither is it fair that no woman—and almost no man—could possibly outrun Carmelita Jeter, or beat Steffi Graf on the tennis court. Sports is about equal opportunities, not equal results.

But there is another issue. Ending sex segregation in sports could deprive many girls of sports idols, thereby discouraging them from playing. Women's sports may serve a different — a larger — social role than men's sports, just as women's universities, of which there are many, are thought to serve an important purpose different from that served by men's universities, which are almost extinct. That possibility invites us to ask why we have sports in the first place.

Big question. While you're chewing on it, keep in mind something Duke University president Richard Broadhead said in a rather different context, when he identified "the primal insult of the world we are trying to leave behind" as "the implication that persons can be known through a group identity that associates them with inferior powers." When is that implication justified—if ever?

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this column originally appeared.