Before the modern, more egalitarian age of sports began during the latter half of the 20th century, men were much more likely than women to compete in athletics. In the 21st century, women can do almost anything men do across the board, although women have better opportunities in some sports than others.
The Title IX Revolution
The state of women’s sports in the United States changed dramatically beginning in 1972, thanks to Title IX of the Education Amendments, which bans discrimination within public education and other programs that receive government assistance. The law helped raise girls’ participation in high school sports from 294,000 in 1971-72 to 3.2 million in 2012-13. Over the same span, boys’ participation increased from 3.7 million to 4.5 million. Women’s participation in NCAA sports has risen from 30,000 before Title IX to 200,000 in 2012-13. Men’s NCAA sports participation in 2012-13 was 265,000.
The Muscle Sports
Men continue to dominate most sports in which raw strength is often paramount. For example, there are no NCAA women’s football or wrestling teams. At the professional level, men's football is a huge business, while women’s pro football leagues have seen little success. This is not surprising, given that women lack sufficient testosterone to grow muscles as large as men's. Men use their larger muscles to punch harder in boxing, maintain difficult holds in wrestling, and block 300-pound linemen in football.
Level Playing Fields
Men and women’s competition is almost identical, with only a few rules differences, in sports such as basketball, swimming and diving, track and field, soccer, tennis and golf. In general, accommodations are made for the fact that women are smaller and less muscular than men. In track and field, for example, men throw a 16-pound shot put while women use an 8.8-pound shot. Golf courses have several tees for each hole, and women typically play the forward or middle tees, rather than the longer tees. In high school basketball, the girls' ball is 1 inch smaller in circumference and 2 ounces lighter than the boys'. In college hockey, bodychecking is forbidden in the women's game, but not the men's.
You've Come a Long Way...
For many years, women were artificially held back in sports based on supposed physiological inferiority. From 1932 through 1956, for example, women ran no farther than 200 meters at the Olympics. Today, women run the same events as men. This egalitarian spirit allows both women and men to enjoy the benefits of sports, including improved physical fitness, strength gains, weight loss and a reduced risk of disease. Additionally, coed sports such as mixed doubles tennis or coed recreational leagues permit men and women to enjoy the social and fitness aspects of sports together.
- AAUW-St. Lawrence County Branch: History of Women in Sports Timeline
- Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX, the Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America; Karen Blumenthal
- NFHS: Participation Data
- ESPN: Landmark Law Faces New Challenges Even Now
- NCAA: 1981-12 - 2012-13 NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report
- USA Weightlifting: History of Weightlifting
- IAAF: Shot Put
- NFHS: 2012-13 NFHS Basketball Rules Book
- NCAA: Ice Hockey: 2012-13 and 2013-14 Ice Hockey Rules and Interpretations