Sponsoring football, because boobs aren’t news

Around the middle of 2012, Lucy-Anne Holmes realised that although athletes such as Jessica Ennis were among the most high profile British performers at the Olympic Games, the largest and most high profile picture of women in The Sun was it topless ‘Page 3 Girl’ – now a feature of the paper for over 43 years. This is all the more paradoxical, because for many men the reason for buying the paper is its sports news which is strong on football, and they claim to begin reading from the back page.

Holmes, not to be confused with the Australian actor Lucy Holmes (for those who are Wikipedia searchers), set out to do something about this paradox; in a manner of more and more people in the internet age, she started an on-line campaign and found that she was onto something. No More Page 3 isn’t the first campaign to target The Sun’s part in mainstreaming the objectification of women; among others, Claire Short, who became secretary of State for International Development in Tony Blair’s government, tried something similar in 1980s – but at the height of Thatcherism it didn’t take off as a campaign.

Of course, times have changed. Liberal feminism, with its limited success in mainstreaming women’s success, leads to feminist struggle being presented as thing of the past. This success is limited because women are still under-represented in positions of power and major political, social, economic and cultural institutions, are still fighting for equal pay and remain among the principal victims of structural adjustment programmes and economic austerity, and that doesn’t begin to deal with issues of violence against women, reproductive rights and those other things that are more obviously ‘women’s issues’. Even so, the mainstreaming of images and practices that objectify women (magazine covers at the local newsagents and the seeming ubiquity of lap-dancing clubs being but two of the signs of this mainstreaming) has seen the re-emergence in the last few years of campaign groups such as the campaigners Object: Women Not Sex Objects, the on-line spaces at Feministing and at the F-Word and the consumerism focussed Pink Stinks. We have seen similar campaign groups centred on women’s equality emerging across the world – in Sudan, it started as an issue about whether women should wear trousers while Afghanistan saw campaigns to protect and defend the parliamentarian Malalai Joya.

Amid all this, it is hard not to get the feeling that the high profile and success of some women athletes is part of the liberal argument that women are making progress so these dissenting feminists and their supporters should pack up and go home. This is all the more so because of the seeming absence of formal barriers – women now participate in all Olympic sports and at the London Olympics in 2012 women made up around 45% of participants and even represented retrograde patriarchal strongholds such as Saudi Arabia (no matter that women are arrested for driving cars, a US-based athlete of Saudi descent was in the team) leading to those hyperbolic claims that London 2012 surely were the ‘women’s games’, while tennis’s Grand Slam prize money is now equal. The absence of legislative barriers, however, does not mean that there are no barriers or that women’s sport and physical activity participation is not constrained by all manner of social and cultural rules and conventions; neither does it mean that the practices of sexualisation and trivialisation that Jennifer Hargreaves, among others, identified as the norm in discussions of women’s sport before the 1990s are no longer pervasive.

Which brings us back to Lucy-Anne Holmes and her campaign, which really isn’t only her campaign any more – it is now supported by groups as diverse as the National Assembly for Wales, the UK’s Girl Guides and Girls’ Brigades, the Royal Colleges of Nursing and of Midwives, a wide group of trade unions, the British Youth Council, Rape Crisis, the Breastfeeding Network and many others. Pressure from Student Unions has also seen the end of sales of The Sun on many University campuses. In many ways, this is the campaign profile we might expect. Earlier in December the campaign took a turn that brings it back to its 2012 origins – No More Page 3 decided to see if it could sponsor Cheltenham Town Ladies Football Club. The partnership – the footballers and the campaigners – set out to crowdsource the funds they needed – another option not available to Claire Short and others in the 1980s.

Leaving aside the problem of the ‘Ladies’ label, this campaign seems to have hit a nerve and a large number of people responded positively to the idea of a football team bearing the No More Page 3 logo, to the extent that 11 days into the 30 day fundraising campaign they have already raised 4 times the target amount. It is a campaign that raises the profile not just of the problems of the Sun’s Page 3 but wider issues of women’s objectification; the fundraising site doesn’t say how many donors there have been but the range of amounts when I last looked was £2 to £30 with most being £5 or $10 – small amounts of crowd sourcing money suggesting wide support for the move. This is an innovative, from the ground, campaign of the kind we too often miss as sports scholars and analysts who, all too often, focus on policy, on national and international sites for developing analyses and arguments. It is the kind of thing we should be studying and involving ourselves in (and giving money to, just click on ‘crowdsource’ above) – not only is it good politics, it provides meaningful support for women’s sporting participation and helps poke the eye of a media conglomerate. It’s just the thing for warming the heart at Christmas, and I suspect not what was intended when huge banners across London made Jessica Ennis the face of the 2012 Olympic Games.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the School of Sport and Exercise, and is Research Degrees Lead for the Schools of Health & Social Care, Natural & Social Sciences and Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is also University Lead for Research Ethics and Integrity. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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