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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
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Women, Sport and Film: The Merger of Men's and Women's Sports

Katherine Montgomery

The history of women’s sports is a rocky one with some many obstacles against the establishment of a competitive league for women. It is somewhat unusual to think of a time period where women were not allowed to play sports or have any say in which sports they were to play. However, one must only look back about a century to find a period in history where men believed that women were physically and socially unable to play sports. Men believed that a woman would damage her reproductive organs by playing any type of sport and would damage her image of being a lady if she was found to be physically exerting herself. Thankfully, these thoughts did not persist and the establishment of all women athletic associations was seen. Yet, once again men tried to intervene and eventually were able to cause a merger of the two genders under one heading, primarily the NCAA. This merger eliminated many of the leadership roles women had previously held and therefore causing women to play under the shadow of men.

The beginning of women in competitive sports can be traced back to the 1890’s and the introduction of basketball to women at Smith College. However this initial involvement was linked to medical reasoning more than anything else. Women physical educator’s mission was to “balance the rigors of intellectual life with healthful and ‘appropriate’ sporting activities.” In order to maintain the appropriateness of sports, there were only female physical educators and only specific sports where practiced. These sports included swimming, tennis, golf, dance, and basketball. During the 1890’s the Committee of Women’s Athletics was begun and was responsible for setting regulations that educators needed to follow when in came to sports and women. This was the first example of women in a leadership role within the sports sphere. The CWA believed that women should not be included within the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) due to the practices they had witnessed by the AAU in terms of men’s sports. The CWA was able to claim “legitimate jurisdiction over all females in educational sports and tried to control athletics in the public sector as well.” This control was something that women tried to hold on to during the beginning of the following century, however this grasp would be harder and harder to maintain.

As the twentieth century continued women sports were in a constant battle with the AAU and other organizations pertaining to the merger of the two spheres. The women educators were completely against this merger due to the fact that less control would be given to women and the future of their sports would be less easily predicted. The 1922 Women’s Olympic Games in Paris, France was one insistence where the AAU tried to invading the women’s separate sphere, however did not succeed. Through the 1940s and ‘50s women were losing less and less control over the running of their own sports. This lose came to a peak during the 1960’s when the NCAA formally joined the competition. The NCAA began to discuss taking over women sports to help increase their membership and therefore have more control over all sports in general.

Following the passing of Title IX in 1972, women’s and men’s sports were required by laws to have equal conditions and opportunities. This increased the NCAA’s drive to acquire jurisdiction over both genders in sports. The bitter battle continued between the NCAA and the AIAW. However due to the still sexism beliefs held by men, any new jobs that open in institutions within athletic departments were given to men. All of a sudden men were coaching female athletes. The battle almost eliminated the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports. The decline in the control women had over their sports began and never slowed.

By 1980, “motions were passed at the [NCAA] convention to start women’s championships ad the NCAA began preparations to get into the women’s championship business in earnest.” The moment the NCAA decided to direct some of their time to women’s sports, the battle had been won. The NCAA was a long establish committee with thousands of members and a large sum of money. Therefore, they were able to literally outbid any of the previous women’s institutions.

The merger of women’s and men’s sports eliminated many positions originally filled by women. As previously stated the NCAA was long established and was all male for many years. Therefore they were less then willing to allow a woman to have a leadership position. This caused all of the decisions pertaining to women’s sports to be made by men. The many committees originally established by women to regulated sports were run well and organized by women. After the merger these institutions were all but forgotten. They had such limited power that they usefulness was near nothing compared to the NCAA.

The merger of sports did not only create negative aspects; several positive actions came of the merger. The NCAA had more money to help women’s sports with equipment and coaches then women institutes ever had before. With the NCAA reputation, women’s sports were taken perhaps more seriously and championships were actually shown on TV. Women athletes were given more opportunities after college with the establishment of more professional leagues. Prior to the merger, women had been given more opportunities then had previously been available; however, the NCAA is such a larger institution that these opportunities can come more quickly.

It is possible that without the merger women’s sports could have come to the same place they are today with the help of their own institutions, however this is less likely. The all-women institutions in the early part of the twentieth century allowed for the place that women sports are now. It is upsetting that through the merger the structure of these institutions were lost, however the return of women to leadership roles are now being seen once again. This return gives one the impression that women will be able to finally conquer the stereotypes and sexism evident in the United States.

The troubled history of women’s sports is one that all female athletes need to be aware of. By learning everything that women had to go through to compete and to be considered athletes; today’s athletes see that they are not only fulfilling their dream but also the athletes before them. The merger seen within the two realms of sports, male and female, changed history drastically both for the good and the bad. Many women’s institutions were lost or at least their structure were; on the other hand, the NCAA was able to help women better financially. In conclusion, the merger and then events leading up to it, defined women’s sports and sports today in general.


Hult, J. “The Story of Women’s Athletics: Manipulating a Dream 1890-1985,” in Costa, M. & Guthrie S. (1994). Women and Sport: Interdisciplinary Studies.

Title IX Athletics Q & A. Vol. 1, Issue 5, May 2001

Title IX: Middlebury College Women’s Culture Series; Speech by Jean Rowlands, Director of Athletics, Northeastern University, October 13, 1988.

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