Shrinking and Pinking: A Month of Firsts for Female Athletes

It’s been a month of firsts for women in athletics.  While women have definitely made many strides in gaining access to various playing fields, it’s startling to realize how many more physical milestones there are left to hit.  But it’s also inspiring to learn about the women who break barriers and set the standards. For example, for the first time ever female boxers will be included in the Olympics.  The inaugural women’s Olympic trials will be held in February 2012.  Eight women will vie for a chance to compete in London next summer. Click here to read about one of those inspirational women, Patricia Manuel. (While I’m pretty sure none of these young women will end up as Olympic boxers, this story about female boxers who are part of the Harvard Boxing Club is a fun read.)

Sticking with Olympic sports, Ibtihaj Muhammad is poised to become the first American Muslim woman to compete in a hijab.  Muhammed is a New Jersey-based fencer (ranked second in the US and 13th in the world at sabre) who not only hopes to contend for Olympic medals, but also be a role model for female Muslim athletes.

An Egyptian-born squash player also serves as a good role model for playing with the boys. Nour Bahgat, a Trinity College student who won the 2009 Women’s Collegiate National Championship as a freshman, is the first female player to join the professional squash tour. She practices with both men and women, but enjoys games with men because of quicker play and longer rallies that help her develop skills.  It seems that playing and training with men is important across different sports to help women elevate their game (even when they play against other women).

Alex Hai is another woman who tends to work around men.  Though her professional pursuit isn’t strictly defined as a sport, it is certainly physically demanding.  Hai is a gondolier in Venice. In fact, she is the first ever female gondolier.  When I make it back to Venice someday, I will have to seek her out! I was surprised that it has taken this long to have a female gondolier; while it doesn’t surprise me that there are many more male gondoliers, I would have expected there to be more than just the one woman.

Of course, the other big female athlete crossing boundaries story this month was Brianna Amat, the field-goal kicking homecoming queen, who I have written about before.  But I thought this story about the reaction to female football players—both by teammates and peers and the media—was particularly powerful and incisive.  Micheline Maynard explains that in some sports, it’s not just the milestones that matter now. It’s the fact that females are accepted not just on the frontstage of the field, but also backstage in locker rooms and at practice.  We have a long way to go, but we have also still come a long way, as Maynard notes.  Best of luck to Manuel, Muhammed, and Bahgat as they do their parts to achieve both accolades and parity.