Even in the 21st century, the presence of traditional gender-normative roles continue to persist, according to Sarah Stack ’19. In her Brace Fellow Presentation on Saturday, Stack aimed to challenge the discrimination against girls and women that remains prevalent in predominantly male sports such as wrestling.
“When I think about what makes a good wrestler, there’s a couple traits that stand out: someone who’s strong both mentally and physically, someone who is agile and quick, someone who is not afraid of physicality and is aggressive, and someone who is strategic and determined. And it happens that these traits are pretty synonymous with the traits of the gender category masculine,” said Stack.
The Brace Student Fellow program is an academic opportunity that allows Andover students to explore issues related to gender studies, especially in the context of cultural and racial identity, according to the Andover website. Selected students conduct independent research over the summer and present their research during the course of the school year.
Titled “Grappling with Gender: The History and Future of Women’s Wrestling,” Stack’s research project aimed to address the social and cultural gender constructs around sports. Stack’s presentation posed questions such as “Why do sports where sex makes little difference continue to be sex-segregated?” and “Is sex the most important factor in determining athletic ability in all sports?”
In an interview with The Phillipian, Stack mentioned that her connection to wrestling initially stemmed partly from her aggressive nature and frequent sibling fights as a child. These playful fights later nurtured a passion for wrestling—something that shocked many people.
“When I would tell people that I wrestled, I was often met with surprise. People would be like ‘You wrestle?’ and then I would be like ‘yeah.’ And then when they found out I wrestled on a co-ed team, they’d often be more startled. And oftentimes, a lot more questions followed—questions like: Isn’t that unsafe? Isn’t that inappropriate?…These were the kinds of questions that led me to embark on this project, because I wanted to understand why did a girl wrestling feel like a statement?” said Stack in an interview with The Phillipian.
Stack’s presentation emphasized that while female participation in wrestling has skyrocketed in the past few years, women wrestlers battle a multitude of stereotypes just to partake in the sport. She found, in her year long research on the topic, that ideas of female wrestling focus on traditionally feminine qualities like beauty and attractiveness, as opposed to the sporting and technical aspects of freestyle wrestling. Rather than being an athletic competition on par with men’s wrestling, Stack said that women’s wrestling has often devolved into a sexualized sideshow used to titillate male fans.
“There’s a history of WWE wrestling in professional wrestling, which is provocative, and for some people’s entertainment. Because of this, people assumed that women’s freestyle and folkstyle wrestling had to be sexual. The other objection was that women’s wrestling would delegitimize men’s wrestling because if people could think of women’s wrestling as this kind of sexual and provocative wrestling, then it would categorize men’s wrestling as that too,” said Stack.
Stack also highlighted that gender inequality in the sports industry is not limited to females. According to Stack, many parents only worry about male coaches being accused of sexual harassment when demonstrating moves on female wrestlers.
“I think that underlying all of this is an idea of exclusive heterosexuality where, if they’re worried about male coaches touching female wrestlers, then shouldn’t they be worried about male coaches showing moves on male wrestlers too?” asked Stack in her presentation.
Through wrestling, Stack hopes to create an outlet and opportunity for girls like her to persevere in sports majoritively dominated by males. In her presentation, she suggested creating sex-segregated wrestling teams to foster a less stigmatized environment for girls interested in joining wrestling.
“When I began thinking about this presentation, I realized that women’s wrestling is headed towards sex segregation. And there’s a lot of reasons for this. One is that it encourages more women to join—I think joining wrestling as a girl is kind of a social risk—and I think it’s a little easier if the team is sex-segregated and it doesn’t feel as much like a social risk than if it’s co-ed,” said Stack.
Leon Calleja, Instructor in English and Interdisciplinary Studies, served as Stack’s faculty
advisor for this project. According to Calleja, Stack’s presentation aimed to expose and debunk traditional stereotypes about women’s place in society, particularly in sports.
“There are difficult intricacies in how we approach equity and inclusion efforts in sports. For wrestling in particular, the question about whether it’s better to pursue growth through sex-segregated or a co-ed path is quite tricky; and these efforts need to be done with ample thoughtfulness about the gendered expectations already present in sports and society and how best to challenge them,” wrote Calleja in an email to The Phillipian.
Uanne Chang ’20, an attendee at the presentation, learned more about how many female athletes are marginalized.
“Sarah’s presentation was really illuminating for me, because gender inequity in wrestling was something that I was never educated about. From her presentation, I was able to learn exactly what societal standards and clauses in U.S law led to such a disparity in female representation in this sport,” said Chang.
Kiran Ramratnam ’22, another attendee at the presentation, said that Stack’s presentation allowed her to think about steps that the community can take to eliminate the gender inequality present in sports on campus.
“On campus, we can improve equality in sports by fair coaching or refereeing. In many girls sports games, referee’s will call a foul significantly more often than they would at a boy’s game. There needs to be intersectional discussion about this with referees, coaches, and students. Also, girls lacrosse has a totally different set of rules than boys lacrosse. Why is it 2019 and this still exists? The first step to make sports more equitable is with discussion. Then we can change the atmosphere and culture,” said Ramratnam.