Have you heard about Angel City FC? It's football's newest club, debuting in Los Angeles. In itself, that news might be remarkable; the US is not known for its love of football (soccer). The fact that it was founded by a group of female investors is what makes Angel City newsworthy.

By her own admission, Natalie Portman did not watch or play sports as a child. Despite that, she's no stranger to athletics. She studied modern dance and ballet; skills that came in handy when took on the role of Nina Sayers in Black Swan. Also, she's married to French ballerino Benjamin Millepied; clearly, she has first-hand knowledge of the rigours of athletic training.

Ms Portman started the club to highlight female athletes' fight for equal pay and benefits. Her initiative is not lacking in investors or interest; so far, they've sold over 16 thousand season tickets.

That a star of such renown as Natalie Portman would start a football club, and the reasons she started it signal that it's finally time to hear what female athletes have been telling us all along: that they're equal contenders in the world of sports.

Female athlete headline makers:
Simone Biles: Olympic gymnast, outstanding for her acknowledgement of mental health care.
Brittney Griner: US basketball player currently detained in Russia.
Meg Rapinoe: US football player and activist fighting for equality in football.
Hou Yifan (Yifan Hou): world's top active female chess grandmaster. She claimed her GM title at 12 years old; the youngest female player ever to do so.
Michelle Wie: US pro golfer whose response to inappropriate comments about her physique shone a spotlight on the sexualization of female athletes.
Serena Williams: her 'catsuit' forced a change of acceptable wear for female players.
Kamila Valieva: her young age and skating excellence, contrasted with doping allegations, shone a spotlight on coaches' ethics.

Much was made of Ms Biles and 'the twisties' as she competed in the last Olympics. Outside of basketball fandom, Ms Greiner is best-known as the American basketball player held in Russia on a drug charge.  But they are individual athletes.

Superprof proposes to go beyond individual female athletes and the reasons they garner attention - too often, less for their athletic performance than for something about them, personally.

Let's look at women in sports from a holistic perspective to see if we can find the disconnect that every female athlete competes against; that Ms Portman has resolved to do something about.

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A Brief History of Women in Sports

The brevity of this segment is not solely due to an allotted word count; it's because women have only been recognised as capable of playing sports for about 100 years.

Madge Syers gives us a good starting point. She was the first female competitor at the 1902 World Ice Skating Championships, beating out two male skaters to claim silver. Rather than inspiring the officials to allow more women to compete with men, they formed a separate championship for female skaters.

Ms Switzer is a trailblazing marathon runner.
Ms Switzer broke the marathon running stereotype. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Marathona

In 1967, German marathon runner Katherine Switzer concealed her gender on her Boston Marathon application to participate in the event.

When she turned up at the starting line, very obviously not male, one of the race officials got physically violent in his attempt to rip her number off of her. Ms Switzer's partner tackled the restrictive official, who, apparently, was determined to uphold the commonly-held belief that marathons were too strenuous for women. Ms Switzer proved him and that concept wrong by finishing the race.

This happened amid the sexual revolution in the US; a time when women from all walks of life fought for equality. This struggle was highlighted in the odiously-named Battle of the Sexes, the 1973 tennis face-off between the legendary Billie Jean King and the world's Number 1 ranked Bobby Riggs. It was hardly a contest; she mopped the court with him; 'women's work' stereotype intended.

For centuries, it was believed (white) women were far too delicate for sports, let alone competing alongside or against men. Indeed, many firmly believed (white) women should not exert themselves in any way. Some strolling around the garden, a little lawn croquet and dancing were all the exertion (white) women were supposedly capable of.

And all they should do, lest they be labelled hoydens.

The 'white' in parentheses is factual. Nobody had any trouble with women of colour exerting themselves; indeed, those women took on their white mistresses' exertions. That fact makes the Williams Sisters' fight for racial equality in sports all the more poignant.

Given Serena and Venus' high profiles and the causes they fight for, do you think race and gender carry any weight in sports diplomacy?

Trailblazing Female Athletes

The previous segment gives a glimpse of women who dared to break out of the confines their gender was restricted to; there are plenty more.

  • Gertrude Ederle: first woman to swim the English Channel. In 1926, she beat the men's record time by over two hours.
  • Fanny Blankers-Koen: the first runner to win four gold medals in a single Olympics (1948). At the time, she was a mother of five.
  • Althea Gibson: the first Black woman Grand Slam winner (1956/57). She further distinguished herself as the first Black player on the women's PGA circuit (1960s).
  • Junko Tabei: 35 years old and a mother of two, she became the first woman to summit Mount Everest (1975). She went on to climb the Seven Summits.
  • Carina Vogt: the first woman to earn a gold medal in Olympic ski jumping (2014) - a full 90 years after the males-only sport was included in the games.
  • Ronda Rousey: the first female fighter inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame (2016).

This is by no means an exhaustive list of remarkable female athletes. We've plucked these names out of history specifically because their sports are outside of what the mainstream believe are 'acceptable' sports for women. Sports that, still today, have a minority complement of female athletes.

The Dick, Kerr ladies defied convention to become a winning team
The Dick, Kerr Ladies were a fierce team a footballers who defined convention. Source: Wikipedia

To wrap this segment, let's talk about the Dick, Kerr Ladies, an all-female football team formed by munitions factory workers during the First World War. They wanted to raise money for wounded soldiers so they played in front of 53,000 avid fans. That match gained them a huge following and their fan base only grew larger after they played in France.

Rather than embracing their success and encouraging more women to the sport, the Football Association banned women's football in 1921. Cheeky ladies that they were, they went on to play over 200 games, winning every single one.

As there was no doping in sports back then, at least not to the degree that plagues modern sports, we have to conclude that those women must have been ferocious on the pitch.

Women in Sports Broadcasting

In itself, broadcasting is a relatively recent innovation. Still, for its first 40 years or so, it was the exclusive purview of men.

In the UK, Barbara Mandell broke that barrier by becoming the first female newsreader, in 1953. Elsewhere, it took a bit longer for women to report on more than gossip, fashion and home economics. To wit, although Dorothy Fuldheim had worked in television since 1947, it wasn't until 1959 that she launched her own news and commentary show.

Sportscasting remained off-limits for several more years. For instance, in 1963, Jane Chastain became the first sportscaster in the US. Still, seven whole years later, female sports reporters were so scarce that Lesley Visser, known today as the Number 1 sportscaster of all time, was thought to be a fan trying to con a player into an interview.

Ms Visser is the epitome of a trailblazing woman in sports. She's the only caster, male or female, to have covered every major sports event from the NBA finals to the Super Bowl, with ice skating and horseracing thrown in for good measure.

Ms Rapinoe strikes for women's equality in football
Meg Rapinoe leads the fight for gender equality in football. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Joel Solomon

Women in Sports: Controversies

Controversies over women in sports are peppered throughout this article. They're just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider women's sports attire, for starters. Serena Williams' catsuit is banned in France's most prestigious tennis event, the Roland Garros. It's apparently mandatory for female tennis players to prance around in miniskirts under the guise of respecting tradition, while men are permitted loose, long-ish shirts and shorts.

The same goes for Olympic beach volleyball. Males' acceptable dress is loose, relatively comfortable beachwear; females essentially play in their underwear.

The issue of sexualizing women in sports hit a crescendo when septuagenarian Rudy Giuliani told a story about Michelle Wye's putting stance, gleefully disclosing that he was treated to a glimpse of her underwear. She fired back via social media, sharing her outrage at him discussing her physical attributes with the world. And then, she schooled him on what he should be focusing on: her athletic skills.

Other sports have caught on. In 2018, Formula One racing stopped using grid girls, based on the logic that pretty girls who don't race have nothing to do with the sport of racing. Boxing and MMA have a ways to go before ending what they call a fun tradition.

Now, we come full circle, to Angel City's raison d'être: inequality in football.

As previously mentioned, the US is not known for its prowess on the football pitch; the men's team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup tournament. To add insult to injury, the US women's division of that federation is phenomenal. Not only did they qualify but they won back to back tournaments.

And still, they're paid less and are accorded fewer benefits, particularly those that would see them through after they retire from playing. Benefits that male players receive as a matter of course.

In March 2019, Meg Rapinoe spearheaded the lawsuit alleging gender discrimination. Shockingly, that case is ongoing, two years later. Meanwhile, the women's team has won yet another World Cup, their fourth in their eight years of play.

What does that say about the politics in football?

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.