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Individual competitive sport as a site of women’s emancipation in Britain c.1948-1970 by Sophie Olver

At the Tokyo Olympic Games 2021, women will compete in all thirty-three available sports. In the British team, women will outnumber their male counterparts for the first time in history. By contrast, at the 1948 Olympics, women were restricted to five of seventeen sports, and by 1968, still only seven of eighteen sports.[i] Significantly, in those twenty years, women totalled less than one-quarter of the British Olympic team, signalling their struggle for recognition by the national sporting elite.[ii] Nevertheless, despite these restrictions, women’s very participation, determination, and success challenged male hegemony, rendering sport a site of women’s emancipation in Britain.

Women have long faced numerous boundaries in sport. From the late nineteenth century, British sport was defined by amateurism, a concept moulded by the white British social elite to foster ‘manly’ characters and gentlemanly behaviour. Rejecting professionalism and financial award and championing fair competition and effortless victory, amateurism was detrimental to both the lower classes and women. As historian Richard Holt suggested, “how could men be men if women adopted the very activities through which masculinity was defined?”.[iii]

While women gained access to some sports in the twentieth century, including golf and tennis, these sports upheld the masculine-feminine dichotomy. Just as an amateur gentleman played effortlessly, women too were expected to achieve victory with grace, making femininity a metaphor for amateurism. Socially constructed biological myths also influenced female exclusion. Guided by typically male medical opinion, widespread belief assumed sport would strain the female nervous system, strengthen the abdominal muscles to cause pelvis rigidity during childbirth, create masculine and unmotherly mindsets, and disrupt menstruation causing infertility.[iv] Consequently, women faced exclusion from sports perceived as too ‘tough’, symbolising male control over the female body.

Following World War II and in light of the emerging Cold War, these outdated boundaries intensified. Femininity was no longer just a metaphor for amateurism but a symbol of Britishness that would help reconstruct the post-war world and contrast with Communism. Accordingly, while Soviet sportswomen engaged in intense training and developed necessary muscle, British sportswomen were restricted by amateur principles promoting effortlessness, medical opinions condemning vigorous activity, and the media portrayal of women as housewives and mothers. To the Soviets and Americans, a medal won by a woman was as important as that won by a man in gaining international prestige. To the British, amateurism with feminine “grace, lightness, and rhythmicity” was more critical.[v]

By the 1970s, as well as continuing exclusions, sportswomen faced intrusive sex tests, sexualisation in the media, and the exemption of sport from the UK Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Consequently, by the 1980s, Britain had one of the lowest female sports participation rates in the western world (one-third of women, one-half of men).[vi] Due to this, not only has women’s sports history remained underwritten but so too has the recognition of sport, particularly 1948-70, as a site of female emancipation. As historian Joyce Kay pointed out, women’s history has often overlooked leisure, favouring topics “crucial to female advancement in the public sphere”, including politics and employment.[vii]

When comparing female participation figures today to pre-1970, women were far from equal. Few critics even understood that sporting equality meant not the same achievements but rather the same chance to gain such achievements. Nevertheless, this should not discredit progress pre-1970. Despite accounting for roughly eighteen percent of the team 1948-68, women brought home twenty-eight percent of British Olympic medals.[viii] They did so because they rejected patriarchal amateurism and medical worries with training, coaches, and determination.

While papers, particularly tabloids, often stated “women are only better than other women”, numerous women defied this, including horse-riders Jane Bullen, Marian Coakes, and Sheila Wilcox, who all won international medals against men.[ix] Similarly, in 1967, cyclist Beryl Burton set a twelve-hour-time trial record, beating every man before her and every man for the next two years she retained the record. Whilst sex tests, introduced in 1966, signalled a male attempt to control the female body, these tests also symbolised male fear of female prowess. These feats, amongst others, expose how, regardless of patriarchal limits, women displayed strength, control, and willpower.

The uptake of weight training – against medical advice – by athletes like Linda Ludgrove, Mary Rand, and Mary Peters directly symbolised the defiance of socially constructed femininity. Critically, despite having a committed training schedule and competing in the masculine-associated shot put during her pentathlon, the press hailed Rand for disproving that “you can’t be truly feminine and a truly great athlete”.[x] Sportswomen were redefining femininity as compatible with strength. Moreover, amongst others, Rand simultaneously rewrote the medical narrative by winning international medals post-childbirth. Alongside women gaining reproductive rights with the contraceptive pill in 1961 and Abortion Act in 1967, sportswomen gained control of their bodies and empirically disproved medical myths.

By redefining femininity, sportswomen became greater accepted by the press and public. This is evident in the Sports Personality of the Year Award. Between 1960 and 1969, women claimed a top-three position twelve times.[xi] Considering women were excluded from multiple international competitions and had low media coverage, this figure exposes women’s challenge to male prowess and popularity. Arguably, by 1968, as the media inadvertently reassured critics that sportswomen could be strong and feminine, public understanding of traditional gender dichotomy blurred.

While not denying the struggles sportswomen endured, my research looks at the period through a revisionist lens to reconsider women who defied gender restrictions and prejudice. These women renegotiated the conservative definition of femininity as weak, passive, and inferior to strong, active, and sometimes superior to male achievements. As such, the sporting efforts of women 1948-70 undoubtedly mark them as pivotal in challenging the patriarchy.

Sophie Olver is a History graduate from the University of Southampton and was shortlisted in the Women’s History Network MA Dissertation Prize 2020. Her research combined her historical interests and personal love for sport, exploring the interrelationship between political, medical, and media discourse in the sporting world. Sophie currently works as a publishing assistant for an academic publisher.


[i] The Organising Committee of the XIV Olympiad, London, 1948 The Official Report of the Organising Committee For The XIV Olympiad (London: McCorquodale & Co, Ltd, 1951), p.112; The Organising Committee for the Games of the XIX Olympiad, Mexico 1968, vol.2 (Mexico: Miguel Galas, 1969), p.71.

[ii] Sports Reference LLC, ‘Great Britain’, SR/Olympic Sports <https://web.archive.org/web/20141101022147/http://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/countries/GBR/> [accessed 20/06/2020].

[iii] Richard Holt, Sport and the British: A Modern History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p.117.

[iv] Adolphe Abrahams, and Harold Abrahams, Training for Athletes (London: G Bell and Sons LTD, 1928), p.15; Patricia Vertinsky, The Eternally Wounded Woman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), pp.11-12.

[v] Adolphe Abrahams, Human Machine (London: Penguin Books, 1956), p.69.

[vi] Martin Francis, ‘Leisure and Popular Culture’, in Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska (ed.), Women in Twentieth-Century Britain: Social, Cultural and Political Change (London: Pearson Education, 2001), pp.229-43 (p.237).

[vii] Joyce Kay, ‘‘No Time for Recreations till the Vote is Won’? Suffrage Activists and Leisure in Edwardian Britain’, Women’s History Review, vol.16, no.4 (2007), pp.525-53.

[viii] Sports Reference LLC, ‘Great Britain’.

[ix] Bernard McElwaine, ‘Mac of the Pic Declares: Women v. Men in Sport is Nonsense!’, Sunday Mirror, 05 August 1951, p.16, British Newspaper Archive <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000844/19510805/152/0016> [accessed 17/07/2020].

[x] Peter Wilson, ‘I Just Thought of my Baby’, Daily Mirror, 15 October 1964, p.30, Mirror Historical Archive <https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/QUBGSH991829942/GDCS?u=unisoton&sid=GDCS&xid=7feef76> [accessed 19/08/2020].

[xi] BBC Press Office, ‘50th Sports Personality of the Year: Previous Sports Personality of the Year Winners’, BBC, 29 October 2014 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2003/11_november/20/spoty_50_winners.shtml> [accessed 15/09/2020].