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Struggle for public honour for women's sport is ongoing

Katie Liston


Katie Taylor will fight on August 22, but it is doubtful if Amanda Serrano will be her opponent

Katie Taylor will fight on August 22, but it is doubtful if Amanda Serrano will be her opponent

Katie Taylor will fight on August 22, but it is doubtful if Amanda Serrano will be her opponent

On Friday, attendees at 'Sidelines, Tramlines and Hemlines: Women in Irish Sport' in Louth County Museum were thrust into the annals of time to newly discovered pasts: Irishwoman Mary Welch, who fought in the Bear Garden amphitheatre in London in the early 1700s, elite women who hunted in the 1800s and Irish women gymnasts on tour in Sweden in the 1940s, to the diversity of women's surfing and football at Diverse City FC.

The day-long conference reminded us of the paradox then when we read, listen to and consume history, it appears much faster because, as we live history, it often feels slow. Especially for those who continue to strive for gender equality in sport. For, as working-class women competed in six-day bicycle races in the 1900s, doctors were often more concerned with the capacity of middle-class women to conceive and give birth. "Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted 'bicycle face'," said the Literary Digest in 1895.

Today Katie Taylor is world-leading but formal equality does not exist in boxing. Deirdre Nelson's case against the Boxing Union of Ireland in 1999 paved the way for Taylor and others, the tribunal ruling that the BUI's refusal to grant Nelson her application to box on medical grounds was not based on objective factors, but was premised instead on gender-based stereotypes and assumptions. Women's sport and physicality has always been bound up with changing patterns of honour and shame.

When public disgrace was cast towards Maeve Kyle for leaving her husband and young daughter to pursue her Olympic dream in 1956, she wasn't culturally unique. En route to Melbourne, her sprint action was recorded by an American PE Professor for the purposes of showing locals that athletics was not unfeminine, and that track athletics was in fact graceful and attractive.

Personal honour was bestowed on those who engaged in normative behaviour, staying within the boundaries of accepted social codes. Public honour built on this: what you then accumulated as a result of sporting success, who and what you are, social and occupational position and status.

When Kyle's honour was questioned by a man who passed her on a Sunday morning run, her riposte was quick: "What am I doing? The same as you, but obviously much quicker".

She was skilful and often assertive at stretching what was permissible, whether in the context of women's athletics or in negotiating the politics of identity in athletics, north and south. But she and many others, faced public struggles. 'Unusual for women' was the description used by De Valera, whom she met after a college race at Trinity. Those who challenged the prevailing expectations were vilified, consigned to the sidelines of sport.

When the struggle for public honour is not among equals there are other questions to consider: who legitimates power, and why. With little formal equality between men and women in sport, and with the role of women as mothers enshrined in state policy and legislature, sportswomen were often branded as outsiders, and even inferior. They were denied public honour. Furthermore, they were denied any chances to respond to this unless and until they were able to demonstrate success, through their own limited ways and means. Even then, this was often regarded as inferior.

The 1994 Women's Rugby World Cup (the second of its kind) had to be retitled Championship because the then IRB refused to endorse its status, a position that remained until 2009. Rather than being held in Holland as planned, due to threatened sanctions from the IRB it was moved to Scotland at 90 days' notice.

This was the first international tournament for the Irish women's rugby team, captained by Gill Henderson, who were told consistently in one form or another that "first must come success, then follows respect". A strong motivational message but built on a limited understanding of the prevailing inequities, because there have been many women's successes that were not followed by honour and respect. This is changing, however, as the current generation seeks to understand its own relatively recent history.

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To know ourselves we have to face ourselves. To do this, we have to understand our collective past, with all of the challenges this brings. For while it is important, sometimes to let go of history in some places, at other times and in other places, it is appropriate to keep one eye on the past. This is critical for those women's sports with relatively recent (and as yet incomplete) histories.

In the multitude of stories that are now beginning to be communicated about women in sport, it is important that this history neither goes stale nor becomes conformist. An important decade of political centenaries will culminate in 2021 and the 100-year passing of the Government of Ireland Act. Looming on the sporting horizon too, the 2020s will be an important touchstone for women's sport, commemorating the 50-year histories of soccer and ladies' Gaelic football, north and south. That women managed to establish and sustain these and many other games and activities in the face of social resistance and of political and civil unrest, especially in border regions, is staggering.

For if the institutionalised values in sports, like physical strength, stamina, swiftness, skill, athleticism, playing hurt (which brings its own issues) and camaraderie are thought of as human rather than exclusively masculine, the prospect for women's sports is different today than in the past. The struggle for public honour for women's sports is an ongoing one, even in our times.

Since there is a choice about what to include and what to omit in the stories that we tell, and how to tell them, the stories of women in sport are especially important. They can help us to understand not only how things were different, but also what legacies remain in the way we see the world and ourselves. We can better understand how we came to be the way we are, and therefore to see many possible futures.

Through retelling these stories, we can see how power elites operated to ensure that sporting honour was largely a male preserve. In teaching the current generation about this, we play a critical role in helping them appreciate that today's opportunities are not simply given, but directly connected to yesterday's struggles. Individual merit for female athletes is personally honourable but, equally, gender quotas are by no means shameful in our public struggles, here and worldwide. Hopefully we can all work towards a future where the desire for equality might just overcome the will to power.

Kudos to UCD emeritus Professor Tom Inglis, and his seminal work, Truth, Power and Lies, for helping all of us to appreciate how honour and reputation are political and generational struggles.

Dr Katie Liston is a senior lecturer in the School of Sport at Ulster University and a former elite sportsperson

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