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Michelle Payne made history this week as the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in its 155-year history. Horseracing is a rare example of a sport where men and women compete together on more or less equal terms.
Payne is only one of four women jockeys to have ever competed for the Cup – which means it only took the fourth woman to have taken part to ride to victory. Just imagine if 50 per cent of the jockeys in the race were women. If this were the case, there would be damn good odds that the number of female winners would be on par with men. It’s just a shame that it could take another few decades for more than four women to compete.
If women are able to ride alongside men in horseracing why do so few women take part? Unsurprisingly, institutional sexism plays a huge part. Michelle Payne suffered sexism and ridicule. She was made to feel unwelcome in this male-dominated sport. In her post-race interview she said: “It’s such a chauvinistic sport, a lot of the owners wanted to kick me off. Everyone else can get stuffed [who] think women aren’t good enough”.
Beating the odds of 100-1, the extraordinary sportswoman won the race and thus the argument: women can and should compete with men.
But the majority of sports competitions still segregate on the basis of gender in one way or another. Men and women play different sports, play in different leagues, and play by different rules – rules generally devised by men at a time when women had no rights or voice. I’d need a thesis to set out all of the examples of gender discrimination in sport.
One perfect example of illogical decision-making predicated on sexism is the male-only 1,500m freestyle long-distance Olympic swimming competition. Debbie Meyer, the first woman swimmer to win three gold medals at the 1968 Olympics said she was locked out from swimming 1,500m – which she considered to be her best event – because of her gender. Sports writer David Epstein insists there is “no good physical reason” why women cannot also compete.
A key justification for excluding women from sporting competitions is their so-called weaker physiology. Fortunately Michelle Payne did not think this way. In her interview she went on to say: “I would like to say that, you know, it’s a very male-dominated sport and people think we are not strong enough and all of the rest of it … you know what?
“It’s not all about strength, there is so much more involved, getting the horse into a rhythm, getting the horse to try for you, it’s being patient and I’m so glad to win Melbourne Cup and hopefully, it will help female jockeys from now on to get more of a go. Because, I believe that we sort of don’t get enough of a go and hopefully this will help.”
Amen and bravo.
Calling out sexism is no easy feat. I should know – having done so myself a few weeks ago and experienced the backlash.
The trope of biological determinism reifies dangerously defeatist attitudes among girls and women who are taught to believe they do not have the ability to compete alongside men because of their biology. And yet the truth is that the difference between men and women is culturally created.
Sporting competitions, which do not allow men and women to compete together, exaggerate and extend socially constructed gender distinctions. In this way, sporting competitions reinforce the perception that men have an inherently superior prowess to women. Men are considered to be faster, and stronger and to possess greater endurance.
Photo: Getty Images
So why does any of this matter? The fact is that sport is not just about sport. It is not just about who wins some artificial competition. It resonates with and radiates into virtually every sphere of social life and contributes to this question: who wins the race for social power and privilege? And the answer – well, it’s not women.