Julie McDonald Commentary: Reserve Women’s Sports for Biological Females


Cracker Jack announced last week the 126-year-old company will be packaging special-edition Cracker Jill snacks to support American female athletes through the Women’s Sports Foundation — and reworked the old song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to include lyrics about female athletes.

Girls love sports as much as boys — softball, soccer, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, swimming, tennis, golf, etc. And they probably like to nibble on the all-American treat of caramel popcorn and peanuts — and find the prize inside.

But it took more than a century for them to earn a spot in the world of athletics, a struggle outlined in vivid detail during an excellent St. Helens Club presentation Wednesday in Chehalis by Corene Jones-Litteer titled “Overcoming Hurdles: Women in Sports.”

As I listened to the stories of women who fought valiantly for equitable treatment in the world of sports, I couldn’t help thinking about University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas who recently snagged an NCAA women’s swimming championship trophy — despite being born a male. While competing on the men’s swim team, Lia placed 412th. But as a transgender person who now identifies as a female, Lia was allowed to compete against women — and won.

Some say Lia robbed the 500-yard freestyle trophy from Emma Weyant, a female freshman from Virginia and an Olympic silver medalist who finished second in the Atlanta, Georgia, competition.

Women fought more than a century for equal rights in sports, and now those rights — and the scholarships, trophies and pay they could earn by excelling in athletics — are jeopardized by allowing biological males to compete in women’s sports.

American women earned the right to vote in 1920, but it took much longer to obtain equal rights in sports. Nineteenth century doctors and educators claimed vigorous exercise could harm women’s health and their ability to have children, Jones-Litteer said.

Although the 1912 Olympics allowed female divers and swimmers to compete, the U.S. Olympic Committee headed by Secretary James Sullivan prohibited participation by American women.

Eight years later, 14-year-old Aileen Riggin Soule of New York won the gold medal in the springboard diving competition at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. She continued to compete during the Roaring Twenties and swam as a nonagenarian until her death in 2002.

First Lady Lou Henry Hoover joined the National Amateur Athletic Federation’s Women’s Division in April 1923 to promote the physical and mental value of athletics for women to build courage, strength, confidence, and character. But, after facing resistance to corporate underwriting, she focused on the enjoyment of sports at play days with singing and socializing rather than setting records or competing before spectators. Yet she promoted “a sport for every girl and every girl in a sport.”

Other pioneers forged a role for women in sports.

Like Gertrude Caroline Ederle, a 1924 Olympic gold medalist from New York who became the first woman to swim across the English Channel in August 1926. She was 20 when she swam from France to England in 14 hours and 34 minutes — two hours faster than the quickest of the five men who had accomplished the swim before her.

Mildred Ella “Babe” Dedrickson Zaharias, a Texas teenager born in 1911 who excelled in sports — basketball, baseball, golf, and track and field — won two gold medals in track and field during the 1932 Olympics and 10 golf championships through the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which formed in 1950. She broke barriers when, in 1938, she competed against men in the PGA’s Los Angeles Open. She also played all-star softball, baseball, roller skated, bowled, boxed, swam, and dove. The Associated Press dubbed her the Woman Athlete of the Half Century in 1950, and ESPN called her the 10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century.

The Tuskegee University Women’s Track Team became the first all-black team to win the Amateur Athletic Union National Championship in 1937.

Tennessee’s Wilma Rudolph, the 20th of her father’s 22 children, suffered from polio as a child but ran with grace in track and field events during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Then, four years later, she won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where she broke three world records and became the first American woman to win three golds at one Olympics. When her hometown of Clarksville, Tenn., wanted to hold a segregated parade in her honor, she refused to participate until they allowed it to be integrated.

These are only a few of the women who battled racial and gender discrimination to pave the way for women to compete in sports.

Then came Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that received federal funding and opened the door for women’s sports teams nationwide.

Since then, the number of women competing in high school and college sports has soared. During the 1971-72 school year, 294,015 women competed in high school sports, according to a NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation report. By 2005-06, that number had increased 904 percent to 2.95 million. At the college level, 29,977 women competed in sports in 1971-72, while that number rose to 166,728 by 2004-05, a 456 percent increase.

Shortly after passage of Title IX, a battle of the sexes occurred Sept. 20, 1973, when Billie Jean King, 29, beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs, 55, at the Houston Astrodome in three televised tennis matches watched by more than 50 million people. Billie Jean King lobbied for women to receive equal prize money during competitions, a fight that continues today.

In February, five U.S. women’s soccer team players who filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation seeking equal pay with men won a $24 million settlement — and the promise that men and women will be paid at an equal rate in the future.

The battle for equal treatment continued through the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 21st century as women assumed roles as coaches — like Patricia Sue Head Summitt, an All-American basketball player and longtime coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin — and even as referees like Sarah Thomas, Shannon Eastin, and Maia Chaka, the only three female officials in the NFL.

The list of women athletes who broke the proverbial glass ceiling goes on and on — among them NASCAR racer Janet Guthrie; Toni Stone, the first female professional baseball player in a men’s league; Diane Crump, the first female jockey to race in the Kentucky Derby; basketball player Lisa Leslie; tennis player sisters Serena and Venus Williams; soccer player Mia Hamm; horse jockey Julie Krone who won the Belmont Stakes; Indy car racer Danica Patrick; Becky Hammon, the first female NBA assistant coach; Manon Rheaume, the first woman to sign an NHL contract; Pat Palinkas, the first female placekick holder in minor league football; and Mo’one Davis, the first African American female to pitch in a Little League World Series game (18th woman overall) who threw 70 mph fastballs.

So many women have fought so hard, sacrificed so much to earn respect in the world of sports. They proved the adage — women need to be twice as good to earn half as much — but today their efforts may all be for naught.

It should be news to no one that God created males and females different—physically. Women can have babies; men can’t (although there’s probably a government-funded study somewhere trying to make it happen). Males on average are physically stronger than women. That gives Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer who is a biological male despite hormone treatments, an unfair advantage in competition against women.

Young girls who train for years and compete in sports, hoping to win college scholarships, may find those efforts thwarted by biological males who identify as female. People have the right to identify with any gender they want — unless that choice violates the rights of others, in this case, the rights of natural-born females to compete on a fair playing field.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.