In 2001, Adam Małysz of Poland won gold in the Nordic World Championships in ski jumping. Soaring in great style over a mind-boggling distance of 98 metres, he immediately made his discipline a new Polish national sport and the whole country has been glued to their TVs for every competition ever since. I distinctly remember asking mum about the women’s contest, and her explanation that women couldn’t ski jump. Apparently, if they did, on the impact of landing, their reproductive organs would tear, or worse yet, fall out altogether.
Something didn’t add up. The womb and the ovaries, safely tucked away inside the abdomen, seemed to me much better suited to taking an impact than, say, a pair of loose hanging glands. Still, I sensed it was one of those discussions where logic wouldn’t have applied, and there was no point in asking further questions.
The belief in women’s physical inadequacy (and, consequently, all those assigned female at birth) has been carefully and systemically constructed over centuries. Even as a genetic freak of sorts – cranking one-arm pull-ups as a teenager, and taking down male friends in arm-wrestling well into her middle age – my mum just rolled with it, accepting that being a woman simply meant being physically weak.
When the industrial revolution brought vast numbers of folks into the rapidly growing cities, a new social class began to emerge in the middle – often educated, self-made people with great ambitions. They began to be known as the bourgeoisie and quickly established themselves as distinct from the paupers working in mills and factories. This division was achieved by creating new fashions, styles, and tastes to suit a new social class with spare time and money on their hands. They enjoyed art and newspapers, engaged in politics, attended theatres, and founded elegant dining societies. They also travelled and played sports – two activities, however, that were reserved almost solely for men.
(It is also incredible how sports were used as a means of discipline for the lower classes but, conversely, as a way of raising confident team players and leaders among the bourgeoisie. I briefly explored the subject in Born to Climb – painting a rough background to the emergence of mountaineering and rock climbing.)
Following aristocratic fashion, middle-class women were reduced to a purely ornamental role, and to justify this, leading thinkers of the time employed medical science – or its somewhat confused beginnings. Menstruation rendered an individual “unfit for any great mental or physical labour.” Parents were advised not to enrol their daughters in... continue reading now→