By Cat Ariail
On June 25, 2013, Texas Senator Wendy Davis engaged in an eleven-hour filibuster to attempt to defeat Senate Bill 5, which severely would restrict access to abortion. Throughout her marathon filibuster session, Davis wore a pair of pink Mizuno Wave Rider 16 running shoes. In media coverage of the filibuster, Davis’s pink tennis shoes gained cult status. While even the most mundane news reports commented on Davis’s shoes, women’s rights supporters enthusiastically purchased their own pair to express solidarity with Davis and her cause. The fetishization of Davis’s shoes also resulted in accusations of sexism, with these arguments recognizing that the supposed novelty of a female politician wearing pink running shoes obscured the importance of issue for which she was taking a stand.
Yet, unappreciated was how Davis’s running shoes highlighted the athleticism her effort required. In order to survive the filibuster, Davis equipped her body for strenuous physical performance, wearing a catheter and back brace in addition to running shoes. While fighting for the right of Texas women to retain bodily autonomy, Davis herself exhibited a high degree of bodily autonomy. Her marathon filibuster illuminates the compatibility between a woman’s demonstration of bodily control, exemplified by female athletic performance, and woman’s control of her reproductive decisions.
Rigorous opposition to abortion access indicates resistance to the right of women to enjoy complete independence. In contrast, female athletic performance displays ultimate bodily independence. Women’s participation in sport thus symbolically refutes anti-abortion arguments that deny a woman’s capacity to exercise self-determined control of her body. A precisely executed Serena Williams serve, a deftly played through ball by Alex Morgan, or a penetration and pull-up from Elena Delle Donne represent examples of women who have total control of their bodies. Instagram photos and videos of off-season training, such as those of Carli Lloyd and Allyson Felix, also evince female athletes’ dedication to developing mastery of their bodies. The active bodies of female athletes testify to the ability and right of all women to control their bodies. However, despite the ever-increasing threats to Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to an abortion, the fight for women’s reproductive rights has not animated female athletes.
In contrast, athletes have become meaningful actors in other contemporary social and political movements. When LeBron James shared a Twitter photo of he and his Miami Heat teammates wearing black hooded sweatshirts in support of Trayvon Martin, a new era of athletic activism seemed to have dawned. From the Clippers’ rejection of their team-issued warm-up tops to James, Derrick Rose, and other wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to members of the St. Louis Rams entering the stadium demonstrating “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” to the proposed boycott by the Missouri football team, black male athletes have exhibited a renewed recognition of the power of their public platform in the movement for racial rights. Political activism has even become an expectation, evidenced by the disappointment surrounding LeBron James’s lack of response to the non-indictment of the Cleveland police officer who killed Tamir Rice. Likewise, the steadily increasing number of openly gay athletes has resulted in the sports world occupying a powerful role in the LBGT rights movement. For instance, with her retirement from international and professional soccer, Abby Wambach has expressed her intention to embrace her role as a gay activist.
Yet, unless I am mistaken, no female athletes have spoken out in support of Planned Parenthood or women’s reproductive rights. Activist efforts of female athletes suggest they are not apolitical. In addition to Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Brittney Griner, Seimone Augustus and other gay female athletes enthusiastically have voiced support for LGBT rights in and out of sport. Last year, Serena Williams used her return to Indian Wells to encourage support for the Equal Justice Initiative. In the realm of sport, her sister Venus advocated for equal pay for women’s tennis players at Wimbledon, finishing the equal pay movement in professional tennis begun by Billie Jean King in the 1970s. King’s Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) advocates for women’s rights issues in sport, with their website featuring position papers on “Participation of Intersex Athletes in Women’s Sport,” “Participation of Transgender Athletes,” “Sexual Harassment and Sexual Relationships Between Coaches, Other Athletic Personnel and Athletes,” “Addressing the Issue of Verbal, Physical and Psychological Abuse of Athletes,” “Physical Activity and Athletic Competition for Individuals with Disabilities,” and other topics with social and political implications. While King participated in the women’s movement in the late 1970s, the WSF somewhat curiously does not advocate for these gender issues outside the sphere of sport. Likewise,the reproductive rights movement seems to represent an arena in which female athletes remain unwilling to enter.
This absence indicates the endurance of apologetic behavior. Jan Felshin theorized apologetic behavior in 1973, which she described as the ways the “the woman athlete must document the validity of her womanhood within the cultural connotations of femininity” in order to receive social acceptance as an athlete (Felshin, 37). The primary apologetic behavioral strategies she identified were how a female athlete “denies the importance of her athletic endeavors and avows the importance of her appearance and the desire to be attractive and to marry and raise a family as the overriding motivations of her life” (Felshin, 37). In 1978, Patricia Del Rey built on Felshin’s assertions, emphasizing apologetics as a “defensive posture,” with female athletes aiming “to minimize personal deviance from ideal feminine characteristics” (Del Rey, 9). These demands particularly apply to heterosexual white female athletes, since heterosexuality and whiteness are implicit requirements of ideal femininity.
Fighting for reproductive rights would seem not to violate the demands of apologetic behavior, as female athletes would be accentuating their femaleness. Yet, in United States history the right of a woman to control decisions about her body has been construed as opposed to a woman’s role as a wife and mother. Women’s historians Linda Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and others have recognized the power of wifehood and motherhood in securing women’s citizenship. In her 1997 Organization of American Historians address on “The Meanings of Citizenship,” Kerber argues that remnants of coverture, when “the married woman’s civil identity was ‘covered’ by her husband’s,” continues to guarantee that women experience the rights and obligations of citizenship differently from men (Kerber, 838). In In Pursuit of Equity, Kessler-Harris argues that women’s social citizenship as mothers has prevented economic equity for women. She states, “while proclamations of the value of motherhood and family commitment have extended social rights [to women], they have done little to provide the ground on which economic citizenship has been realized” (Kessler-Harris, 13).
Apologetic behavior reflects and reinforces the prominence of marriage and motherhood in determining the life possibilities for women. Participation sport represented an option to women, as long it as did not conflict with or, better yet, even bolster, her commitment to her family. A snapshot of women’s sport history reveals the prominence of marriage and motherhood in defining female athletes. In Coming on Strong, Susan Cahn describes Babe Didrikson’s transformation from a “Muscle Moll” to “real woman” due to her marriage to wrestler George Zaharias. Cahn recognizes that Didrikson’s more feminine comportment garnered her acceptance from previously hostile male sportswriters. For instance, the Washington Post’s Frank Fawley gushed about Babe’s “cooking, interior decorating, curtain making, Victory gardening and other housewifely arts” (Cahn, 215-216). Similarly, the Baltimore Afro-American’s Sam Lacy enthusiastically celebrated Wilma Rudolph’s desire to be a mother. In a 1962 article in which he recounted his recent interview with Rudolph, Lacy proclaimed, “Then claimed the climatic question and came the beam in the eyes of the 21-year-old bride of three months. When and if you decide to raise a family, how many children would you like?” According to Lacy, Wilma asserted that, “My husband wants two children, but I’d like to have four,” adding, “I’d like to have four girls. Then I could teach them to run.”
In 1964, the President’s Council for Physical Fitness released, Vim: A Complete Exercise Plan for Girls 12 to 18, which, according to Mary Jo Festle in Playing Nice, promoted exercise that supposedly prepared young girls for future wife- and motherhood. The experiences of Japanese American runner Miki Gorman, winner of the 1976 and 1977 New York Marathons, suggested a mutually beneficial relationship between running and motherhood. Gorman reported that she struggled to conceive until after running the Boston Marathon in 1974 and then improved her marathon times after the birth of her daughter. In the late 1990s, Sheryl Swoopes’s and Joy Fawcett’s statuses as mothers contributed to the amenable imagery of the WNBA and 1999 United States World Cup-winning women’s soccer team. This focus continues into the present day, although it has begun to receive pushback, as most evidenced by a 2014 article in Cosmopolitan.
Nevertheless, the collective cultural valorization of female athletes as wives and mothers remains, establishing boundaries which female athletes, seemingly cannot cross. Modern apologetics does not demand that a female athlete speak reverentially of marriage and motherhood, yet the persistence of apologetics requires that she must not engage in actions that can be construed as oppositional to either. The false binary between pro-choice and pro-family politics that prevails in the United States positions reproductive rights activism as a risky proposition for a female athlete. With commercial sponsorships providing female athletes with needed financial support, embracing political positions that supports a woman’s independence over her familial roles could economically imperil her career. The existence of this risk not only confirms the endurance of apologetics, but also heightens the productive potential of a female athlete choosing to advocate for reproductive rights.
The independence the bodies of female athletes exhibit on the court, field, or track requires that these women have the right to exert control of their reproductive systems. Using birth control to time their menstrual cycle with training and competition schedules represents a strategic strategy for female athletes. Considerations of her competitive career could also lead to a female athlete choosing to terminate a pregnancy. The exposed abortions of Billie Jean King and Chris Evert reveal that this decision is a real aspect of the elite female athlete experience. Yet, the decision to become a mother also can represent an assertive independent decision by a female athlete. These female athletes often advance alternative family organization models that refute heteronormative conventions that demand mothers always prioritize family over career. When she plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the women’s Euroleague during the WNBA off-season, Candace Parker takes her daughter Lailaa with her while he husband Sheldon Williams plays professional basketball in China. Similarly, Christie Rampone’s daughters joined her during the United States Women’s National Team’s World Cup run last summer, with teammates assisting Rampone in caring for her girls. Female athlete mothers and female athlete non-mothers together advocating for reproductive rights could create a powerful cohort of women who exemplify the right of a woman to control her body. Such a campaign might even alter the paradigm of contemporary abortion and reproductive rights politics in the United States by refuting the false binary between family and choice.
Of course, like those arguing that LeBron James should use his platform to contest the non-indictment of Tamir Rice’s killer, demanding that female athletes become politically engaged in the reproductive rights debate represents an unfair expectation. Nevertheless, in an environment when athletes increasingly are participating in controversial political movement, the absence of female athletes from the reproductive rights movement deserves consideration. This absence does not reflect the disengagement of female athletes, but the role limitations still faced by female athletes. Felshin titled her 1973 article “The Triple Option for Women in Sport,” with forensic, dialectic, and futuristic as the future courses Felshin foresaw for women’s sport. Today’s female athletes enjoy options not envisioned by Felshin, but apologetics still structures the roles available to female athletes.
Like sport, politics is a masculine sphere where women are expected not to betray their prescribed role. In taking her marathon stand against Senate Bill 5, Wendy Davis boldly challenged these demands. Although Davis’s filibuster could not prevent the eventual passage of the restrictive law, her stand exhibited female political power. In order to challenge the persistence of apologetics, a female athlete or group of female athletes must act with the courage of Davis. Perhaps, their efforts will also fail to enact real change. Nonetheless, I expect their commitment could unleash female athletes as influential actors in the reproductive rights movement.
Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport through the lenses of gender, race, and nationalism in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at email@example.com.