When lost ‘Ladies’ matter, but an omitted ‘Women’s’ matters more


The recent decision by the Arsenal Football Club to rename its ’Ladies’ team Arsenal Women’s Football Club (as in cricket, golf and tennis, ‘Ladies’ remains the preferred label for women’s games and institutions), and dropping the marker ‘women’s’ except in contexts where it is absolutely necessary to demarcate the team from the men’s team may seem minor, but is of great significance. It represents at a very high institutional level an impact of feminist critiques of sport, wider social institutions and the language that surrounds them. It may have been passed over with a nod and an ‘about time’ by many, but the comments sections of on-line reports of this change show that an awful lot of chaps recognise the threat this change presents. We should celebrate this change more, despite and because of the venom of those comments.

It’s not saying anything new to state that sport is a male preserve: a place where we gather to learn to be men, to be brothers, to accept the hierarchies and rules of the sporting fratriarchy and patriarchy, and in doing so shore up a gendered social world where men exercise power. Now, of course we men don’t all exercise the same power – it is demarcated by class, ethnicity, dis/ability, location, sexuality and a myriad other factors, but the masculine domain matters in sport, and as a result in all those places where the sphere of sport has an impact. For most of the North Atlantic world and its spin-offs in New Zealand and Australia, this man-making role of sport has replaced compulsory military service and the war experience of our fathers and grandfathers, although that too is unevenly distributed by class, ethnicity, locality and so forth. The male sporting preserve is culturally potent.

It is also nothing new to say that in the sporting world, the effect of this masculine preserve has been an ethos that men are better athletes, better at sport and have the right to determine and define culturally the measures of success and competent élite performance. We saw this in John McEnroe’s recent claim that although Serena Williams is among the best women tennis players we’ve ever seen, in the men’s competition she’d rank ‘like 700’. The condemnation of McEnroe was widespread and in many cases properly make the point that she is one of the best tennis players, ever! McEnroe’s phrasing is a sign of why the decision by Arsenal matters so much. It removes the implicit marker of women’s sport as distinct and different (meaning, inferior) to the unmarked, unlabelled and therefore normal and standardising men’s sport: we have the World Cup and the Women’s World Cup, we have football/cricket/rugby/basketball and women’s football/cricket/rugby/basketball: it isn’t the MNBA and WNBA, but the NBA and WNBA – and the ‘W’ makes all the difference to profile, salaries and respect. I can see how (although I don’t accept) in some sports that advocates of gender marking might build a case that is coherent and has a degree of perceived legitimacy because of agreed understandings about strength and power – but the same thing happens in darts and pool and other similar sports.

Leaving aside a very small number of sports marked as predominantly for women, in some cases the playing of which marks men as less than ‘proper men’, the use of a gendered marker in sport is always to label a sport feminine and always indicates that it is a ‘substandard’ form or version of the game, whether or not the rules differ. This ‘inferiority’ then becomes an excuse to marginalise women’s sport to the media outlands – for at least 20 years, nearly every survey in nearly every country I have seen of media coverage of women’s sport has it at no more than 5% of national media coverage, and in many case this 5% has also included coverage of mixed sex sport. In some cases women’s sport is so marginalised as to become farcical: at the same time as England was playing France in the Quarter Final of the UEFA Women’s European Cup – a match largely ignored by US TV networks, ESPN2 was showing Drone Racing! (Of course, folks in my Twitter feed might have been engaging in hyperbole – but if so it is believable hyperbole.)

The male preserve normalises men’s sport, making it the taken for granted standard against which we measure all sporting standards and competence, even in sports marked predominantly as ‘for women’: so netball becomes an inferior version of basketball. Although they came from the same game, over 100 years later they have become different sports, played differently and similar only in that the objective is to get the ball through a hoop at the end of the court. Men’s sport acts as this standard, even in sports few if any play at a high level, because we’ve all agreed that it is; that’s how cultural rules work. We may not have consciously taken that decision, but we’ve agreed.

It doesn’t need to be that way. I’ve now lived in England for nearly two decades, and still don’t get football (it was soccer where I grew up); my people are a rugby playing people. During that time I have allowed myself to indulge in an occasional bout of reflexive anthropology, wondering about my perceptions and presumptions about the world I live in – and football/soccer appears in those musings quite often. Not only did I grow up in a place where soccer was marginal – I played a little as primary school pupil, but only competitively for one season when I was about 9 or 10 – but I also grew up at a time when we didn’t have ready access to the professional and therefore élite game on TV, other than the FA Cup Final. What’s more, by the time we did have more ready access I’d stopped watching TV for about a decade. All this meant that by the time I got to live in England, I didn’t have any real sense of what football/soccer was supposed to look like, and accordingly had no measures of good or bad versions of the game other than some aesthetic judgements derived from fairly classical notions of beauty and symmetry.

I found myself in England, teaching in a sports studies programme, surrounded by people who had all that cultural knowledge, all that taken-for-granted learning and in a context where mediated versions of sport were football/soccer as played by men. I realised that I didn’t care for it; I found and find it dull. The sense of dullness would not be lessened by bigger goals or higher scores; the process of getting the ball to the goal for the most part bores me. What’s more, having no reference points for judgements about quality meant that when I watched women’s football I rated it as good, and often better than the games I saw played by men (remember, this is my own rating scale here; not the one I would have learned by absorption had I grown up in a soccer-centric world).

The best football/soccer match I have been to was a top division derby in Sweden where LdB Malmö played a team from, I think, Gothenburg in 2010. I enjoyed the game, the stadium was about half full on a week night, and being in a setting the majority of the audience were girls and women gave the experience of the game a totally different feel to any other football match I had attended. It was one I preferred; I haven’t been to a men’s match since. Here I was, with my improper scale for assessing the quality of the sport, finding that I much preferred the ‘inferior’ version – at least that what is was according to the received version of the rating scale most others seemed to share.

I didn’t absorb the cultural rules that gave me a framework that said that not only is men’s football/soccer better than women’s, but the way men play the game is the standard against which we measure competence and the wider culture of play and audienceship associated with the men’s version of football/soccer is superior. I did grow up with the gendered markers that tell me that labelling a sport or league ‘women’s’ indicates its inferiority; I also grew up spending a lot of time around netball and knowing that it was not an inferior game played by inferior athletes.

Arsenal’s decision is therefore important for two reasons; first, in changing ‘Ladies’ to ‘Women’s’ it tells us that its women athletes are not genteel figures who, like the Victorians, don’t exert themselves and certainly don’t sweat, but may be permitted to ‘glow’. Second, and more importantly, in dropping the marker of ‘women’ as a standard practice in labelling their teams they have taken a small step that undermines systems of judgement of competence that value men’s sport and denigrate women’s and that we all absorb and deploy. Changing the cultural rules will take much longer and require much more than just changing labels, but without changing the labels the rules and the system they sustain will never start to change. It’s time for all sports to drop their gender labelling.


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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, 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 is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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