It was hugely disappointing last week to read reports of the decision of the Muirfield Golf Club to continue to exclude women members from joining their ironically named ‘Honourable Company’. Admittedly, a majority of the members did vote in favour of overruling this hugely outmoded law, but the fact that a strong core of old members resisted (and actively campaigned against the change) is symptomatic of the deep misogyny embedded in the sport, at least in some quarters.
One of the more senior figures in the world of golf, Peter Alliss, did little to remedy the situation, with a casually sexist comment that women who wished to play there had “better get married to someone who’s a member”. I don’t feel a need to expand further on how exclusionary, small-minded and even incidentally homophobic this is.
The cost to Muirfield in the longer term has actually been quite severe, which is encouraging to see from the wider gold community. The club has had the right to host the Open, one of golf’s most prominent and prestigious events, taken away from it, as well as having received censure from a number of prominent players in the golfing rankings, including world number 3 and highly successful British golfer Rory McIlroy. Despite this, a quick search of the internet uncovered a large number of opinion articles from club members defending their decision to exclude women.
These individuals are not only openly prejudiced and deluded as to people’s perceptions of them (or perhaps simply don’t care). They are actively harming their sport and its popular perception. This is particularly disappointing given the sport has just recently been admitted to the Olympic Games, and is due to feature for the first time this summer.
Recently years have also seen a huge increase in the amount of sponsorship, publicity and prominence of women’s golf, and, alongside cricket, this has been one of the most successful sports at levelling the playing field for people of all background, genders and funding levels. Decisions such as the one taken by these members of the Edinburgh club could knock the sport back decades.
I was recently linked to this interview with US Governor Kate Brown, who has some important perspectives on being out in US political circles. She also references some sport personalities near the end of the article. Being visible and even prominent as well as out can be really challenging, but it does slowly erode prejudice and normalise LGBT+ sexualities.
It’s been a very busy week, but there will be a Saturday main post as normal!
People who know me and enjoy spending time with me quickly get used to losing me for a large proportion of the weekend; like many keen sportspeople I maximise the time when a majority of the population is free to pursue the activities I love, namely team sports. This is especially true in the summer, when cricket commitments can take up several midweek evenings as well as both weekend daytimes.
Last weekend was a good example of this, when I played a lengthy game as wicketkeeper on the Saturday, and then umpired for the County U13 Girls all afternoon on Sunday. Although the perspectives are very different between these two positions, the wicketkeeper and an umpire both get a very good view of the action all over the pitch. In the case of the wicketkeeper, they are the primary motivators of the fielding team, encouraging high standards and setting the tone, while the umpire obviously holds an impartial position viewing all the play as much as humanly possible.
It was from these two central positions that I observed something quite telling over the two days of cricket. Without criticism, given they’re all trying very hard, my Saturday team aren’t all that good at stopping the ball. They are people who play the sport for the love of it, the original meaning of the word ‘amateur’ (one who loves). They fumble, stumble and fall in the vicinity of the ball, but they do it very enthusiastically, and I try to do the same as their keeper.
The 11- and 12-year-old girls I umpired the next day were younger, less physically well-built and shorter than the majority of the players on Saturday. On paper, you’d expect them to be less able in the field. Yet, as predicted by the Like A Girl video (in the comment on my post about gendered phrases), these girls are naturally sporty, they love what they do and they do it a lot, without preconceptions. As a result, they are actually very good, quick at chasing, impressive at throwing (most of them better than me) and nearly all the team can bowl as well.
It was this observation that makes a mockery of the assumptions many people make about gender and even age when it comes to participation in sports. If these young, physically slight players could compete with and often beat their adult counterparts in competitive sport, why do we make such distinctions between them in adult team sports? Admittedly, these were specially selected outliers, but not on such a large scale that this would make them a tiny minority. I continue to believe that mixed team sports are not only possible, but desirable to encourage.
The decision to make women’s cricket in England professional (as outlined in this excellent article in which Charlotte is interviewed along with other professional sportswomen) along with the ECB’s Chance to Shine initiative have massively boosted the profile of women’s cricket already. Edwards is a shining example of what is possible.
It has always been my intention when writing BfBT to open up the conversation to voices from all sorts of backgrounds, genders, sexualities, and sporting levels. Though I am focusing on people’s sports alongside their identity, it’s crucial to consider both those involved in active pursuits and also those who feel excluded or isolated from it.
As such, it is my pleasure to introduce our first guest columnist, going under the name Fledgling. Beyond that, she will introduce herself:
I’m a straight, cis, 30-year-old woman and I don’t play any sport. I don’t run. I don’t swim. I have never held a gym membership or attended a fitness class. The limit of my physical exertion is the odd bicycle ride to @Batting4BTeams HQ, and I’ve been known to have joggers overtake me.
So, at this point you may be wondering why Duke has let me anywhere near their column, let alone write something for it…
The simple answer to this is ‘sweat’. As you can imagine, I don’t really break out into a sweat very often given my virtually sloth-like existence. I go out my way to avoid it, and carry a small can of antiperspirant with me at all times. I dread anyone else seeing me with a sweaty red face, or having the tell-tale signs of being a normal human spreading moistly under my arms.
Sweat is the reason I don’t play sports. At some point in my teens, I was made to feel that to sweat and smell is to be unclean, unfeminine. I’m aware I sound like I’ve stepped out of a Regency novel right now, but during those years I learned that girls weren’t supposed to sweat. I used to be quite happy tearing round the playing field with my friends and being a kid with a sweaty shiny face. But then secondary school happened…
I went to a decidedly average state school where we had PE lessons twice a week. We played the usual sports prescribed for teenage girls: hockey, netball and tennis. I dreaded these lessons. I wasn’t particularly bad at sports but it was in these 2 hours each week that I learned to avoid playing sports.
The main reason behind this was the name calling inflicted by the ‘popular girls’ on anyone who looked remotely sweaty during a PE lesson. “Tramp”, “you f**king reek”, “sweaty bitch” and “dyke” is a just a selection of the phrases I heard.
I remember one girl getting a particularly brutal attack after a fairly active tennis lesson; unfortunately, as PE was only the second lesson of the day the names stuck until the end of school that day, with the boys joining in the name calling too. Sadly, this gender divide in how we experienced sports mostly went unnoticed by overworked teachers.
Of course, the boys in my year would come in off the sports field dripping in sweat and the remaining lessons would be spent under a cloud of Lynx Africa, even though the teachers had banned it. There were also one friend in my year for whom sweating was considered ok, but she was one of the best athletes in our year and a member of the local gymnastics club so was already viewed as a tomboy. Whilst we had showers, they were a no-go area. In 5 years I never saw them get used; even getting changed into our PE kits was super awkward due the joys of puberty!
So it was really hard to get involved in PE lessons when you were worried if anyone would notice your leg hair, or if people could tell you were on your period, or that you’d get sweat patches! The rules became apparent very quickly and the end result was a sterilised view of what a young woman should look like, and bodily functions were not part of the game. Boys got sweaty, and were dirty and hairy. Girls were smooth-skinned and smelt amazing all the time. PE meant running the risk of not fitting into this model and then the name calling would start….
I recently chatted to a friend who had attended the same school as me. I was dismayed to hear that she had the same negative memories of PE, but it reassured me that this wasn’t all ‘just in my head’. So on a hot (and sweaty!) tube journey we swapped PE horror stories and laughed at the ridiculous ‘life lessons’ we were exposed to; my friend told me of a time when she kept her coat on for an entire date because she was worried about visible sweat patches!.
Whilst my friend and I can laugh at the past, there is no escaping the fact that being told sweat was disgusting and unfeminine left an imprint on our minds. I haven’t really exercised in 14 years and whilst I don’t class myself as overweight, I know that my lack of exercise means I will probably suffer in the long run. The biggest impact, of course, is self-confidence: I worry about what I would look like as a sweaty, red-face human being with wobbly bits so I avoid it.
Secondary school and puberty is tough, for all genders. It’s a time where we really start to become aware of the skin we live in, and where the external pressures to ‘fit it’ can take hold. This is hard enough for girls with the printed media, the internet and films telling them how their bodies should look. When women start to police other women’s use of their bodies, this creeps towards the impossible. It is micro-aggressions like this, factors which some deride as insignificant, which need tackling to prevent long-term harm and assumptions from slipping into our society.
Following on from Tuesday’s mini post, I recently signed a petition asking the British government to consider greater rights for individuals to define their own gender. This updated me last week on the work of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, who can be found on Twitter: @Commonswomequ
It seems as though there is some resistence to this proposal within the government, but it is being considered at the moment. If you feel strongly about this issue, you may wish to consider contacting your MP or submitting evidence to the Committee about this. You can find the link for this here.
This article, sent to me earlier this week by one of my readers, eloquently and helpfully considers the literary and linguistic bases for the contemporary use of the word ‘they’ to refer to a person of unspecified gender. As discussed in my post on gendered terms in sports, language is a crucial force in codifying gender and expectations. The article helpfully considers a range of linguistic contexts for gendered phrases and pronoun use.
Britain has a long-standing tradition of groups of people standing around in fields wearing bright white shirts and trousers and occasionally running a little. There is sometimes – but not always – a bat and ball involved, and some sticks stuck in the ground. This is the fine sport of cricket, the only game I know of where there are scheduled breaks for lunch, tea and drinks, all codified into the MCC Laws.
On many Saturdays over the summer, including today’s first match of the season, my incredibly amateur team plays on an extraordinarily haphazard village pitch (half an hour is spent before the start of every game filling in the rabbit holes – usually with the nearest mole hills). I, like many very enthusiastic but fundamentally skill-free players, have a go at lots of different roles on the field of play.
One particular role I fill well is that of wicketkeeper, whose main job is to stop the very hard and fast-moving ball from flying past them after it passes the batter. The sole requirement for the position is a bloody-minded attitude to pain and discomfort, which I possess in droves.
Jesting aside, there are a number of attributes which a good wicketkeeper possesses – quick reflexes, focus, flexibility, quad strength, etc. One particularly powerful one, though is leadership.
The best wicketkeepers will not only lead by example in their enthusiasm and efforts, but will also assist the captain in motivating, praising and guiding their teammates. They typically do this through a confident, gobby attitude, and keepers are famously eccentric in a loud way.
One aspect of a keeper’s play which can prove particularly powerful is their proximity to the opposition batter. A well placed comment to the batter or enthusiastic praise of the bowler can unsettle, confuse or distract the batter so that they play a false stroke, and that can make all the difference in a game as one mistake is all it takes for a batter to be out of the game.
Commonly referred to as ‘sledging’, this technique sometimes involves rude or inappropriate comments. My preference is to use flirting, and I have found it to be very powerful. I have some qualms about this, which I will outline shortly. However, on a purely pragmatic level, I have found that most straight men feel very unsettled about being the focus of even feigned interest from other men, and in a sporting context this puts enough doubts in their mind to distract them from their play.
Some of my teammates have also been amused by this, and have joined in with gleeful comments about my ‘interest’ in the batsman. A similar effect can be observed when our opening bowler, a woman, is bowling, as some men fear the comments from their teammates if they are ‘out’ batting against a woman.
My reservations about this are as follows:
– it could clearly be perceived as somewhat unsporting
– it could reinforce/consolidate prejudice against gay/bi people
– it is partly using peer-based homophobia and teasing to discomfort players
However, there is also an extent to which this confident and overt expression of sexuality increases awareness of the existence of bisexual people, a problem often faced by the bi community (also known as bi erasure).
It also undermines traditional sexual/power exchanges by playing with the insecurities and uncertainties in the privileged male heteronormative sexuality, while empowering a traditionally repressed expression of sexuality, that of same-sex attraction.
Questions arising from this week: is it acceptable to use flirtation on the sports pitch to unsettle opposition players? Particularly, is this problematic when it throws up queer/LGBT+ dynamics into the equation?
Those of my readers from Cambridge University who know any former Women’s Blues hockey players may want to be aware of the current drive by the club for equal prominence of both teams:
“As part of the celebrations we plan to unveil a new Blues name board at Wilberforce road for the women’s teams pre-2005. This will complement the boards for men’s and women’s Blues since 2005, and men’s Blues back to 1951, which were unveiled at the 2015 celebration. Our records for the women’s teams pre-2005 are incomplete and this is why we have been delayed with the new board. (…) We would also be very grateful to receive any information about ladies Blues teams and Varsity match scores pre-1998.”
Additionally, anyone who knows anyone graduating who wants to ‘queer it up’ should have a look at this guide, courtesy of Nina Thunder.
One of my readers recently linked me to this TED Talk, which critiques the use of sporting language, in particular in US English, to refer to sexual acts and choices. The extended metaphor proposed as an alternative features another of my favourite things in life alongside sex and sports…
A former US Senator announced recently that his second marriage would be to a man, after decades of marriage to his wife, who died in 1996. Harris Wofford described his life as “a story of two great loves” and wrote a piece in the NY Times on his life story and support for same-sex marriage. Importantly, he states in the latter piece that “I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love,” a beautifully progressive sentiment. Worth a read!