Special Sub-Topic: No Girls Allowed
|The ancient Olympics, a competition dedicated to Zeus: There were no girls allowed at these games, either to compete or to watch -- but that hardly means they stayed at home! A month before each Olympics, young unmarried women from all over Greece had their own competition in the Olympic stadium. To which goddess were their games dedicated?|
Hera. Hera, the much put-upon wife of Zeus, was a natural patron for these games, which some historians think may have been even older than the Olympics. The Heraia was a springtime competition, held every four years like the Olympics, and seems to have consisted mostly of footraces. In the second century A.D., Pausanias wrote of the Heraia: "The first to run are the youngest; after them come the next in age, and the last to run are the oldest of the maidens ... These too have the Olympic stadium reserved for their games, but the course of the stadium is shortened for them by about one sixth of its length. To the winning maidens they give crowns of olive..." ("Description of Greece," translated by W.H.S. Jones) It seems that no married women were allowed to run.
|The ancient Olympics were officially closed to women, yet at least one woman -- Cynisca, a princess of Sparta -- won Olympic events at the beginning of the fourth century B.C. In what type of sport did Cynisca take home the olive branch?|
Chariot race. Cynisca wouldn't have been allowed to take the field with her horses, or even to watch them run -- but the credit for a chariot victory belonged to the owner of the team, not to the charioteer. A wealthy woman, Cynisca owned the horses, and Cynisca won the glory (probably in 396 and 392 B.C.). She was so proud that she paid for an inscription at Olympia: "My father and brothers were kings of Sparta. I, Cynisca, won a victory with my swift-running horses and set up this statue. I claim that I am the only woman from all Greece to have won this crown." Several other ancient women owned successful chariot teams, though not necessarily at the Olympics; even Egypt's famous Cleopatra had one!
|Gladiatorial combat was central to ancient Roman life; if the Roman Empire could be said to have a national sport, surely this was it. Most gladiators were male, but there were some women fighters as well. What infamous Emperor was said to have forced highly-born ladies to fight in the amphitheater?|
Nero. The Romans weren't much bothered by female gladiators generally, if they hailed from the "barbaric" lands to the south (Ethiopia) or north (Germany). However, when women from the aristocracy appeared in the amphitheater -- even by choice -- it was viewed as appalling. Nero reigned from 54 to 68 A.D., and the historian Dio Cassius wrote of his entertainments: "There was another exhibition that was at once most disgraceful and most shocking, where men and women not only of the equestrian but even of the senatorial order appeared as performers in the orchestra, in the Circus, and in the hunting-theatre, like those who are held in lowest esteem ... they drove horses, killed wild beasts and fought as gladiators, some willingly and some sore against their will." ("Roman History," translated by E. Cary). In the opening fights of the famous Colosseum, in 80 A.D., several female gladiators battled with wild animals, but they may have been volunteers.
|The Middle Ages: we don't have many records of the sporting activities of regular people, but the European nobility wrote with great interest about themselves. A favorite sport among the aristocracy was falconry, which entailed training birds of prey to hunt for human masters. There were often strict rules about who was allowed to use each type of bird; in England, what bird was reserved for noble ladies?|
Merlin. "The Boke of St. Albans," a book of essays published in 1480, provides us with much of our information about this practice. An emperor was the only person entitled to hunt with a golden eagle or a vulture; a king would command a gyrfalcon. The list extended all the way down to the lowest ranks: a child or a servant might be permitted a kestrel. Peregrine falcons might be flown by princes or earls, but ladies of any noble rank were to hunt with a female merlin, a relatively small species of falcon.
|In eighteenth-century England, sporting opportunities were very different for working-class women as opposed to aristocratic ones. In the 1720s, one working-class woman, Elizabeth Stokes, took London by storm as she won victory after victory, bragging about her success in newspaper advertisements for subsequent matches. In what sport did Stokes compete?|
Boxing. Boxing was then an even more dangerous sport than it is today: it wasn't until 1743 that rules for the protection of fighters were widely adopted. (These were the Broughton rules, and were replaced in 1867 by the modern Marquess of Queensberry rules.) In her own bouts, Elizabeth Stokes (née Wilkinson) insisted on a clever rule that prevented gouging and scratching: the boxers held a half-crown coin in each fist, and letting the coin slip meant an automatic loss.
In a 1726 advertisement for a match, Stokes described herself thus: "...being well known by the name of the Invincible City Championess for my abilities and judgment ... having never engaged with any of my own sex but I always came off with victory and applause..."
|As the eighteenth century progressed, women in the English countryside began playing modern team sports. One sport in particular was widely popular, and accounts of the women's matches (and notches) were widely published in newspapers. This is how we know of the exploits of Miss S. Norcross, star of the Maids of Surrey, who in 1788 became the first known woman to score a century. In which sport did Norcross excel?|
Cricket. Norcross's century (a hundred runs scored in one innings) represents one of the earliest known records in women's sports. (Quantifying achievements -- the highest-ever score, the fastest-ever mile, the most-ever knockouts -- is a very modern obsession.) Norcross was part of a long tradition of country women playing cricket, charmingly recounted in the papers of the day. The earliest game we know of happened in the summer of 1745, and was described by the "Reading Mercury" as "the greatest cricket-match that ever was played in the South part of England ... The girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men could do in that game." Many games matched teams from neighboring villages, or girls against unmarried women; in 1765, in a village called Upham, the victorious girls walked off with a prize of tea, cake, and ale.
|On the thin edge of sports innovation, women sometimes had an icy reception. In 1851, in the Alsatian town of Colmar (a town in Alsace, France), a woman named Maria Weigel tried to engage in what we now view as a wholesome winter sport (well, except for Tonya Harding) -- and was physically attacked by her neighbors for indecency. In what sport was Weigel trying to take part?|
Ice skating. The bar for indecency was not very high: all a woman had to do, in that place and time, was strap on a pair of ice skates. Weigel's neighbors were almost lethally serious -- they tried to stone her to death -- but, luckily, this winter athlete escaped with her life. A rule of "No girls allowed" can take an ugly toll.
Just a few short decades later, ice skating clubs for women were popping up all over Europe; Hamburg was hosting races as early as 1885.
|Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tennis championship, began in 1877 to celebrate the inauguration of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (previously the All England Croquet Club). The first Wimbledon women's championship was held in 1884. What was the format of this championship?|
Ladies' singles. The very first female champion at Wimbledon was Maud Watson, one of a pair of tennis-star sisters; Lilian Watson lost to Maud in the final that year. Another early champion, Lottie Dod (whose first victory was in 1887), found herself at a great advantage due to her youth: as a fifteen-year-old, it was socially acceptable for her to wear shorter skirts than her opponents, which gave her greater freedom of motion on the court.
Ladies' doubles and mixed doubles events were introduced to the Wimbledon schedule in 1913.
|The 1890s saw a trend for female racers in the vélodromes of Paris. Hélène Dutrieu, a future aviator, covered a record 39.19 kilometers (24.35 miles) in an hour in 1895. Amélie LeGall, racing as "Lisette," won an 1896 hundred-kilometer (62-mile) race in two hours and forty-one minutes. What type of races were these?|
Bicycle races. The vélodromes were bicycle courses, and played host to many athletic women of the Gilded Age. The impressive Lisette even defeated a male rival in a 25-km (15.5-mi) race (well, with a 4-km or 2.5-mi head start). In the U.K., female cyclists were held in less esteem: a track owner could lose his license for letting them race, and "Cycling" magazine called them "object[s] of ridicule." The vanguard has always been a difficult place to be!
|In 1896, the Olympic tradition was revived as representatives of fourteen countries gathered in Athens to compete. The ancient Olympics had banned women even as spectators. Were there any events for female athletes at the first modern Olympics?|
n. Pierre de Coubertin, father of the Modern Olympics, was adamantly opposed to public sports contests for women: "the spectators who gather for such competitions," he wrote, "don't show up to look at sports." Consequently, no women were allowed to compete in the 1896 Games, although one Athenian woman, Stamata Revithi, did run the men's marathon course the day after their race. (She finished in five and a half hours.)
Luckily for both athletes and fans, Coubertin lost the argument in the planning of subsequent Olympics: women competed in golf and tennis in Paris in 1900, in archery in St. Louis in 1904, and in archery, tennis, and figure skating in London in 1908. The 1896 Olympics were the first and last to exclude women entirely.
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