Review of Women’s Sports: What Everyone Needs to Know

Schultz, Jaime. Women’s Sports: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 243. Notes, bibliography, and index. $16.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

As scholars of women’s sport well know, studying women’s sports tells one about much more than women’s sports. With Women’s Sports: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jaime Schultz makes sure educated readers also realize the explanatory power of women’s sports.  

Oxford University Press, 2018.

According to Oxford University Press, the What Everyone Needs to Know™ series “offers a balanced and authoritative primer on complex current event issues and countries.” In eleven clear and concise chapters about the past and present of women’s sports, Schultz succeeds in meeting this standard. All the more, she not only effectively explains the intersecting inequalities of gender and sex that still define women’s sports, but her explanations also demonstrate how the gendered and sexed inequities of women’s sports serve as an insightful window in the gendered and sex inequities that exist across society.

In Chapter 1, “Why Women’s Sport Matters,” Schultz establishes the parameters of her text. She defines sport as “physical, institutionalized, nonutilitarian contests,” (6). She also notes that the volume will “approach girls’ and womens’ sport primarily from a US perspective, resulting in a regrettably partial view of the subject,” (6). However, although she focuses on dynamics of women’s sports in the United States, Schultz provides a range of comparative examples from around the globe throughout her text, allowing readers to begin to better understand women’s athletic experiences in India, South Africa, Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, among other places. This strategy, while centering the United States, does not privilege the United States as the absolute, global standard of women’s sport. Her approach also highlights how women’s opportunities in sports are products of a respective nation’s particular, often long-standing ideologies of gender and sex.

Schultz likewise remains to attuned to the ways in which a woman’s intersecting identities determine her access to and experience in sport. While the institutional infrastructure of women’s sports has positioned the white, middle-class heteronormative woman as the imagined, idealized woman athlete, Schultz’s attention to differences of race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, age, and ability implicitly argues against this imagined ideal. As she writes at the close of Chapter 1, “In thinking about the progress and pitfalls that characterize women’s sport, it is important to remember that the subject cannot be isolated from larger historical, cultural, and social issues, but, rather, is deeply implicated in the ways we think about women’s right, bodies, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, and (dis)ability,” (9).

In Chapter 2, “A Brief History of Women’s Sport,” Schultz details how and why exclusion has defined the history of women in sport. This exclusion is most explained by sport’s status as space that protects and promotes masculinity. While the ideological justifications have changed over time, the sentiment that, “Sport ruins women and women ruin sport,” encapsulates the enduring opposition to women in sport (20). Critically, Schultz emphasizes why this exclusion matters. She asserts that “girls’ and women’s sport reminds us of participants’ humanity” by “show[ing] women [and girls] as active subjects,” thereby countering objectified and exploitative understandings of women (4-5). However, Schultz also recognizes the ways in which the institutions of sport work to attempt to reinforce conventional, objectified understandings of women. In Chapters 4 and 5, “Gender and Sport” and “Sexualities in Sport,” she explicates the norms of gender, sex, and sexuality that sport imposes on women, which, in turn, results in sport reinforcing simplified stereotypes of womanhood and femininity. In short, Schulz carefully accounts for the ideological complexities of women’s sport, recognizing the potential of women’s participation in sport to foster progressive change even as past and present realities have worked to prevent the realization of such possibilities.

In Chapter 3, “The Influence of Title IX,” Schultz offers a useful explainer on what the law has and has not done to help women’s sport fulfill its progressive potential. Most importantly, Schultz counters the damaging myths about Title IX, noting that “college men have gained athletic opportunities since 1972,” the year of the law’s passage (35). Furthermore, she also emphasizes that the intent of Title IX is to “provide opportunities, not take them away,” (36).  It is the decision of colleges to provision an inordinate amount of resources to men’s football and basketball that requires the cutting other men’s sport programs. As Schultz clearly explains, schools, instead, could choose to comply with the spirit of the law by allocating resources in ways that expanded athletic opportunities women while preserving often-marginalized men’s sports. Chapter 6, “Sex Segregation,” serves as an insightful complement to Chapter 3, explaining the complicated ideological dynamics that have produced the segregation of sexes in sport and, thus, make Title IX a necessary law. Relying much on the research of Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, from their excellent text, Playing with the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal,” Schultz outlines the negatives and positives that characterize the segregation of the sexes in sport, ultimately emphasizing that it its“ how, why, and in what circumstances we distinguish between male and female” that determines whether sex segregation in sport is detrimental or beneficial to women athletes (86). Schultz also highlights how this Gordian knot is made all the more complicated by the difficulty of determinatively defining femaleness. From intersexuality to hyperadrogenism to transgenderism, this spectrum of sex traits and identities illuminates the arbitrary constructedness of the binary sex regime that organizes much of the sporting world, as well as the worlds outside of sport.

However, sport media reinforces the believed relevance of the difference between the sexes, as as Schultz shows in Chapter 8, “Women, Sport, and Media.” Since sport primarily derives cultural significance through the meanings it communicates, Schultz’s analysis of role of the media in shaping the meaning of women in sport represents the volume’s most critical chapter. Drawing on the theories of Michael Messner, Cheryl Cooky, and Michaela Musto, Schultz explains the “symbolic annihilation” and “othering” of women in sport media, where institutionalized practices, based on heterosexist (or heterosexy) ideologies, produce the inadequate, inaccurate, infantilized, and/or incomplete portrayal of women athletes, especially  women athletes of color, queer women athletes, and women athletes with impairment(s). This under- and/or misrepresentation depresses interest in women’s sport, thereby appearing to justify the lack of concerted coverage. Such a nefarious cycle is accompanied by the informal policing of women within sport media, with the implicit condoning of the harassment of women journalists preventing more women from entering the field and, in turn, changing its worst practices. A similarly insidious dynamic operates to limit the professional opportunities available to women in sport, whether as athletes, coaches, and administrators, which Schultz addresses in Chapter 9, “Professional Opportunities.” In particular, her discussions of the struggles of aspiring women athletes, coaches, and administrators to secure equal pay and have their experiences of sexual harassment and violence taken seriously demonstrate how women’s sport provides a heightened perspective of the challenges encountered by women across sectors of society.

Chapters on the “The Sport-Health Connection” (Chapter 10) and “The Olympics and Paralympic Games” (Chapter 7) complete Schulz’s volume. Her attention to the Paralympic Games is especially appreciated. Not only does her examination of the Paralympic Games work against the unquestioned ableism that organizes sport and sport culture, but the her analysis of the intensified barriers encountered by differently-abled women athletes also offers a sharper perspective of the degree to which intersecting, identity-based inequities influence opportunity and esteem, both in sport and beyond. Schultz concludes the text with a final chapter, “Moving On,” (Chapter 11) summating that, while women have achieved progress in sport, establishing a demonstrable presence, power is required realize the possibilities that sport holds for women.

Women’s Sports: What Everyone Needs to Know represents a concise reference and review resource for scholars. It also would be an excellent text for an introductory course on women’s sport history or any entry-level sports studies courses concerning women and gender. The text likewise is recommended to anyone desiring a society organized around gender and sex equality. As emphasized, Schultz’s volume encourages readers to see women’s sport as lens through which to better understand, and begin to address, the entrenched inequalities of gender and sex that have limited women well beyond the boundaries of the playing field. The study of women’s sport illuminates issues of “power, privilege, and politics” that, when redressed, not only will result in a better sporting world for women, but also a better society (9). Women’s sport matters.

Cat Ariail is an instructor of history at Middle Tennessee State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Miami, where she researched issues of race, gender, citizenship, and nationalism in mid-twentieth women’s track and field in the United States and Caribbean

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