The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott is relishing a summer of top-class, top-quality action that could truly put women’s sport on the map once and for all. And she hears that it is no longer aesthetically wrong for women to have muscles – and use them
We’ve Only Just Begun, as Karen Carpenter sang in the seventies, to witness a summer of women’s sport that could change the way we view female athleticism forever. Ah, the seventies, when the sight of a female in the hallowed Lord’s Pavilion would have elicited the same horror and incredulity as a stray marauding mousse. When to think of women playing in rugby, football or cricket World Cups was laughable. When the first Olympic women’s marathon had yet to be run – because our entrails might fall out, or something equally physically disastrous.
Forty years on, and the ICC Women’s World Cup cricket tournament began yesterday with England playing India, captained by Mithali Raj, who had a tart response to a pre-tournament question about her favourite male player. “Do you ask a male cricketer who their favourite female cricketer is?” she shot back, clearing the boundary rope by a mile.
So things have evolved in the world of women’s sport. But the convergence of three major world-class team sport championships in and around British shores could precipitate the most profound change of all. It will be a visceral demonstration of – and permission to espouse – that formerly frowned-upon female virtue: rip-roaring aggression.
By the time we’ve watched the cricket, that climaxes at Lord’s at the end of next month, the UEFA European Championship that begin in the Netherlands on July 16 and the Rugby World Cup in Ireland from August 9, there won’t be much doubt that raw muscle is a feminine brand. To win any, or all, of the titanic international battles ahead, our British teams will have to sweat, maul, fight, crash, heave, connive and commit with the best of them. Roaring isn’t a male-only occupation.
And the modern generation of sportswomen is monumentally chuffed about that. The recently-appointed GB hockey captain, Alex Danson, put it beautifully when talking to a crowd of young athletes at a school last week: “Muscles are allowed. It’s probably, single-handedly, one of the most important things to me because my body changes dramatically [when I train for a major event] and I’m really proud to be athletic and strong.
“Look at those pictures – look at that one in the middle,” she said, gesturing to the screen version of herself, clenching her hockey-gloved fist, unleashing a scream, gum shield exposed, every prominent muscle flexed and sinew strained. Not what our mothers would have called “lady-like” in the seventies; the glove was definitely not one of Audrey Hepburn’s.
“I think probably ten years ago, people would have been like, ‘That’s unattractive’. Which is utterly ridiculous. It’s important for my performance. I’m very proud of the way we look and you have to work hard to be strong.
“I feel very privileged to speak to a whole host of young women and I would say: be whoever you want to be however it looks. Be very proud of that. The more we can champion that view, I think, and I hope, we will bring up young women who are very proud of how they look and we’ll lose these silly stereotypes of how they should look.”
The former England rugby captain, Maggie Alphonsi, has always talked about the freedom she attained through rugby when every other walk of life seemed not just tame but disapproving. “As a young child playing rugby I found I could be free. It was the one place where I was accepted. Where being powerful and strong was a good thing. Instead of being told, ‘Stop being aggressive’, I was told, ‘Be strong. Be aggressive. Do what you do’. And that’s such a great feeling. I carry this now into my everyday life.”
Fortunately, she doesn’t mean down Twickenham High Street. There’s good evidence that women’s team sport leaves its brute force on the pitch. Danson, if you watch her, touches the ground before every match. A reminder she is stepping over the line into the realm of match play where the social norms need not apply. Meeting former GB hockey gold medalist Christa Cullen for a drink, or in the D with a hockey stick in her hand, are two very different things. Fortunately. One is enlivening, the other, very possibly, deadening.
So with three British sporting chances to bring home a trophy this summer, all televised, all sponsored, all professional and all granted a greater profile in the media than ever before, it could be a significant turning point in our cultural history. It could be a season of drama that brings female muscle in from the cold.
Alex Danson was talking to the girls of Queenswood School.
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Article by Sue Mott. Sue’s latest articles.