Left Out: Women’s Soccer

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Left Out: Women’s Soccer

It was a golazo, an extraordinary goal. Marta’s second, and her team’s final, goal in Brazil’s 4-0 dismantling of the U.S. women’s team in the semi-finals of the 2007 Women’s World Cup seemed pulled directly from her compatriot Pelé’s playbook. Receiving a pass just outside the penalty box from near midfield, she flicked it to herself twice. The second time, Marta curled the ball around a U.S. defender, shook off an ill-disguised attempt to pull her down, and wrong-footed a second defender before blasting a shot into the net. Brazil went on to lose to Germany in the finals, but Marta’s play—and the team’s success—announced that Brazil, so long a force in the men’s game, intended to make the same impact on the women’s game.

If there is anywhere that women’s soccer should catch on, it is Brazil. Brazilians often refer to their country as o pais do futebolthe country of soccer. It is the only country whose men’s team has qualified for every World Cup, which it has won an unprecedented five times. The women’s team is a world and regional power as well, finishing as silver medalists in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics as well as the 2007 World Cup. One of the world’s most well-known soccer players at present is Brazilian: Marta Vieira da Silva, who won FIFA’s woman footballer of the year award five times in a row between 2006-2010.

Yet the Brazilian women team’s success in dominating regional play and its increasing recognition on the international field has not translated into popularity at home. Women’s soccer in Brazil has always survived on the fringe. It was illegal from 1941 and 1975 (though the ban was not fully lifted until 1979). Between 1999 and 2003 there were no official practices for the team, and only after the 2007 Women’s World Cup did the Brazilian Soccer Confederation create a tournament for women’s teams. Brazilian women who wish to play professionally do so outside of the country; Marta and most of her fellow Brazilian teammates played in the Women’s Professional Soccer league in the United States until it folded in 2012. Many now play in Sweden.

The lack of support at home, however, belies the deep roots of women’s soccer in the region, even if those roots are usually obscured. In Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, women began playing soccer in the early twentieth century. Yet regional soccer histories suggest that women’s interest in the game was limited to cheering on their husbands and friends, and ogling the male sex symbols of the day. Women, according to this version of history, had no desire to play. This narrative, however, veers somewhat from the truth. By the late 1910s and early 1920s, reports began to appear of women stepping onto the field to play soccer. Certainly, by the 1940s women played soccer from Costa Rica to Colombia, in Brazil and Mexico. These stories are crucial to understanding the broad reach of women’s soccer in Latin America, and act as an important counter-narrative to the history of the sport, which has ignored women almost entirely.

Narratives occasionally miss things. These oversights can happen for a number of reasons, not all of them intentional: enough written sources may not exist or interest may be on another realm of history (political instead of economic history for example). But part of a historian’s work is to review and revise history, going back to include elements overlooked or left out of earlier versions of the story. Women’s soccer in Latin America, however, was not simply overlooked. National leaders sought to suppress it. Sports authorities systematically closed down options for women to play the game with the support of public health ‘experts’ who claimed that soccer damaged women’s reproductive capacities. Ultimately, the reason for banning women’s soccer had little to do with the game itself and much more to do with the meaning of soccer and womanhood for Latin American nations. While men’s soccer was—and remains—the national game throughout much of the region, women’s soccer was seen as a threat, making the game almost anti-national. The idea that women soccer players violated national ethos led to the near dismissal of the sport.

Though most countries had women’s soccer in one form or another during the twentieth century, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico represent compelling case studies. In each of these nations women played the sport earlier than the prevailing narrative would have us believe. In Brazil, the national government closed avenues for women’s soccer, claiming that the women’s game risked the very survival of the nation. And if, given Brazil’s love affair with soccer, we are not surprised by Brazilian women’s desire to play, Mexico and Costa Rica highlight the popularity of the game throughout the region. More, in both countries women’s soccer attained considerable success and international acclaim. Yet in all three countries, and indeed around the region and the world, women continue to face both institutional hurdles and societal scorn in order to play.

The Start of Women’s Soccer

Before we look at women’s soccer in Latin America, however, it would be useful to examine what happened to the women’s sport in the birthplace of the game: England. Women’s soccer gained an early foothold in England, starting in the 1890s. By the 1920s, however, the governing body of the sport in England, the Football Association (FA), chose to restrict the women’s game due to concerns over women’s health. And just as Latin America adopted soccer from England, so too it adopted attitudes about the women’s game from the cradle of the sport.

Soccer fans in England initially treated the women’s sport as something of a joke. The field at Crouch-End in London surely was not meant to accommodate 11,000 spectators, yet somewhere close to that number settled in to see the first match of the British Ladies Football Club in 1895. Formed near Aberdeen, Scotland in 1894 by Nettie Honeyball, the club had been playing for about a year. As the ladies came out to play, they were treated to “a tremendous roar of mingled shouts and laughter,” and the Manchester Times suggested that the twenty-one women and one boy who comprised the two teams treated the fans less to a game of soccer than to “a burlesque.” The spectators, apparently, treated the entire game as a joke, focusing more on the “fair players” than on the game itself. While women took increasingly active roles in public spaces at the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of women playing soccer still rubbed many people the wrong way.1

Until the start of World War I, women’s soccer remained little more than a spectacle in Europe. The war, however, opened up new opportunities for women players by eroding traditional boundaries between men’s and women’s work. As men went off to fight and die on the continent, women filled their jobs in factories, making the war materiel crucial to the fighting. Factories, for their part, had been missionaries of sport since at least the 1890s, when managers began to see the benefits of a healthy workforce that understood the value of teamwork and discipline. As a result, the number workplace-sponsored sports teams exploded. And, as they had taken men’s place in the factory, during World War I women replaced men on the soccer field as well. Women played charity matches to support the Red Cross, as raising money was a popular and patriotic activity during wartime. According to historian Jean Williams, charity events allowed women to remain in their traditional roles as caretakers, even as they challenged assumptions about their ability to work in a factory or play a “rough” game like soccer.

Just as the war created new opportunities for women in work and sport, the end of hostilities heralded a return to pre-war norms. Men wanted their jobs back—both in the factories and on the field—and wanted women to return to taking care of the home as wives and mothers. So, in a move that would be copied by soccer associations around the world, the FA engineered ways to prohibit women’s soccer. The Football Association forbade male clubs from allowing women’s teams to play on their fields and sought medical expertise to bolster its position that soccer was unsafe for women. While the ban was never completely successful in England or elsewhere, it effectively pushed women’s soccer to the sidelines.

The idea that vigorous physical activity was unsafe for women was supported by medical ideas of the time. The turn of the century saw growing interest in physical fitness as way to strengthen both people and nations. Doctors and intellectuals advocated the belief that a healthy body led to a healthy mind, good citizenship, higher moral values, and greater intelligence. As a result of these attitudes, governments all over the world began to include physical education in newly created public schools and to create parks and recreation grounds. But physical fitness meant different things for men and women. Educators and others encouraged men and boys to participate in vigorous activities such as rugby and soccer. These activities would help develop strong, virile men capable of succeeding in a competitive world and defending their nation. Girls and women, on the other hand, were to practice harmonious sports such as gymnastics and swimming in order to prepare them for lives as wives and mothers. These sports promoted balance and calm, which supposedly were more in tune with women’s nature. Though some believed strenuous games to be beneficial to young girls’ development, the majority thought that even mild competition and physical stress could damage their ‘fragile’ constitutions.

Eventually, The Lancet, a leading public health journal, established a panel of doctors and educators to study girls’ sports in British schools. The group released its preliminary report in 1922 and in it argued that physical education offered concrete benefits to girls’ physical and emotional health, while also strengthening their morals and intellects. Moreover, the report found no link between physical sports and health problems among school-aged girls, nor evidence of adverse effects on childbearing or labor. In fact, the experts broadly agreed that all competitive sports had a positive effect for girls and young women. All sports except one: soccer. Soccer, according to the report, entailed “too much strain.” So while cricket, basketball, volleyball, field hockey, and lacrosse all met the panel’s standards, soccer was “unsuitable” for girls to play.2 The Football Association used the Lancet study to justify its restriction of girls’ soccer. All soccer clubs affiliated with the FA risked expulsion for letting women play on their fields, which effectively ended the development of women’s soccer in England for decades. Once women’s soccer began in earnest in Latin America, national federations in the region explored following suit.

Those unfamiliar with the history of women’s soccer in Latin America might think it is a relatively new phenomenon that began in the late 1980s or early 1990s when FIFA started to organize women’s competitions. At that point national governing bodies of soccer in the region began to pay a nominal attention to the sport. But there is much more to the history than that. Women began playing soccer in the region in the early twentieth century, and in many ways the arc of women’s soccer in Latin America parallels that of England: a start as spectacle, the development of recreational leagues, and the eventual suppression of women’s teams. In fact Latin American football associations used many of the same reasons for limiting girl’s access to the field as their counterpart in England: the game was too violent and thus presented a risk to potential mothers. Nevertheless, Latin American women continued to play in the face of broad resistance from governments, associations, and family. {sidebar 7.1 near here} {Photo 7.1 near here}

Threats to the Nation

<txt>Brazil may have had the earliest organized women’s soccer in the region. It was not uncommon for girls to kick balls around with friends from the time that Charles Miller brought the rules of the game to Brazil in 1894. By the 1910s-1920s, clubs sponsored skills competitions for people who did not play organized soccer: women, children, and the elderly. For example, in 1920 Penha A.C. held a goal-scoring contest for girls. Indeed, according to Brazilian sports educator Eriberto José Lessa de Moura, skill competitions such as this were common as halftime amusement. In other words, women cultivated and exhibited soccer skills, which makes it likely that they played soccer as well. However, the difference between leisurely kicking a ball and competing in a game was vast. It took almost thirty years from the time the first men’s game was played until the first reported match between two women’s teams.

In 1921, two women’s teams from the suburbs São Paulo, Tremembe and Cantareira, played what many consider the first match between women’s teams in Brazil. From then on, scattered reports of women playing soccer appear in the São Paulo and Rio press. By the early 1930s, a number of Brazilian women and girls took to the game rapidly and they received a measure of support from sports clubs and the Brazilian press. Regular reporting on women’s soccer began in 1931, appearing in Jornal dos Sports, a major Rio de Janeiro sports-only newspaper. According to the Jornal, a May 1931 women’s soccer match provided an “attractive festival,” that was “watched with great satisfaction” by those in attendance. Ten years later, O Imparcial, another paper from Rio, noted the “intuition” with which women “thrilled” the audience. In other words, women knew how to play the game. Indeed, by the late 1930s women’s soccer in Brazil received support from local and regional federations such as the Suburban Federation of Football in São Paulo state. The majority of women’s soccer teams formed in São Paulo and Rio, with scattered games in Belo Horizonte and other regions of the country.3

As in England, the growth of sports was part of a culture of physical education that inundated Brazil and the rest of Latin America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. National leaders sought to create physical education curricula for boys and girls, and magazines promoted physical fitness through articles and advertisements. Women were encouraged to play sports, but only certain kinds. Sports that aided women’s “harmony” and did not threaten her “fragile” nature were seen not only as desirable, but as essential in helping Brazilian women develop healthy bodies and minds. Thus, experts argued that women should practice gymnastics, ride horses, play tennis, swim, and even play basketball and volleyball. Soccer, however, was the subject of a great deal of debate. Most agreed that women should be banned from playing. Others, however, argued that with the proper modifications and precautions, soccer could be perfectly healthful for women.

Debate about the women’s game played out, among other places, in the magazine Educação Physica, an influential publication that lobbied for increased physical education in Brazilian schools. Hollanda Loyola, for example, suggested that soccer could be beneficial to Brazilian girl’s and women’s health. He pointed out the numerous benefits of the game—it developed “initiative, solidarity and discipline.” At the same time, he recognized the sport’s potential drawbacks: “morphological defects…excessive development of the legs…damage to certain organic functions.” However, with the correct precautions Loyola saw little danger for women playing the game. All female players should, he argued, have a full medical exam prior to playing to ensure that their bodies would be able to withstand the rough nature of the game. Loyola also suggested rules changes to “soften the natural violence of the game”: smaller fields and shorter games would accommodate women’s and girls’ more fragile disposition. Indeed, Loyola argued for soccer to be incorporated into physical education program for girls in schools, as long as they did not play it too seriously.

On the other hand, Dr. Humberto Ballariny, a specialist in physical education, suggested that soccer would cause “pelvic damage…harmful to the female organs.” Moreover, the sport was “anti-aesthetic” for girls and women, as it caused women to become to overly muscular while at the same time causing contusions, “deformed knees,” and a loss of feminine “harmony.” The sport brought about a certain aggressiveness that, in the mind of many, was “incompatible” with the “female character.” In other words, under no situations should girls and women be allowed to play soccer. Doctor Leite de Castro shared Ballariny’s opinion, arguing in the Sports Gazette that soccer brought with it “defects and vices,” by which he meant “general alterations to women’s delicate physiology” that could “seriously compromise” their reproductive capacity.4 Medical experts argued—and indeed this argument remained popular through the 1970s—that being hit repeatedly with a soccer ball could harm the uterus and potentially cause infertility and breast or uterine cancer.

Public health and government officials were concerned about women’s soccer, in part, because of its potential impact on the nation. While sports were seen as promoting the health of the nation, they were also gender specific. Rough sports that required physical exertion, body-to-body contact, and stamina were the domain of men. Women playing these sports were unnatural; their bodies were supposed to develop softness and suppleness in order to fulfill their “primordial duty”: motherhood. Women who were not physically prepared for this task risked the “extinction of their descendants.”5 Soccer, in other words, threatened the nation because of its potential to damage women’s reproductive capacities.

But this concern was not aimed at all women. Hollanda Loyola noted that the majority of women playing in the Rio de Janeiro area belonged to “the most respectable clubs.” National leaders at the time were heavily influenced by eugenic philosophies, which suggested that selective breeding could create stronger nations. Concern centered on the middle and upper class girls and young women who played soccer. Their play risked the very population that Brazil needed to develop and advance, and their fertility was conceived of as a matter of national importance. As any reduction in fertility among healthy, productive women meant that the future of the entire country could be at risk. In the early twentieth century, motherhood was seen as the patriotic duty of women—especially women with the “right” racial and socio-economic profile. The nation needed healthy mothers to raise good citizens to benefit the patria.
The idea that women’s soccer damaged women’s ability to reproduce provided a convenient justification for the official suppression of the game. On April 25, 1940, a concerned citizen named José Fuzeira wrote a letter to the Brazilian president about a “calamity” threatening the nation: girls and young women playing soccer. The danger in women playing soccer, according to Fuzeira, stemmed from the inherent violence in the game, which could “seriously damage the physiological equilibrium” of women’s “organic functions.” Soccer, in other words, endangered girls’ and women’s reproductive capabilities. More, the girls would become “prisoners of a depressive mentality” leading to “rude and extravagant exhibitionism.” Fuzeira worried that unless the government intervened to stop women’s soccer, it could be ruinous to the country. If the game continued to expand from its base in the middle class suburbs of Rio, São Paulo, and Belo Horizonte, he argued, within a year over 200 teams would form “destructive nuclei for…future mothers.” Brazilian girls who played soccer, in other words, would make bad mothers. If they became mothers at all.

Less than a month later, in May 1940, President Getúlio Vargas’ office charged the Minister of Health with protecting women from football. “There exists an interminable bibliography,” noted the presidential directive, suggesting that soccer “caused trauma that can affect particularly important and delicate female organs.” Within a year, women’s soccer was banned throughout the nation. Decree law 3199, which among other things created the National Council for Sports (CND), passed on April 14, 1941. Article 54 of the law limited women in the sports that they could play. Soccer headed the list of sports, which included judo and rugby, that were considered incompatible with the nature of women. The ban would last thirty-four years.6 One question we might legitimately ask is why? Why expend energy trying to keep women from playing soccer?

Women’s soccer in Latin America did not develop in a vacuum, but rather in the context of nations coming to terms with their own identity. Soccer arrived in Latin America in the context of rapid changes that swept the region in the late nineteenth century. As nations consolidated and economies modernized, regional leaders turned to Europe for political, economic, financial, and social models. And attitudes about gender played a critical role in the construction of modern nations. According to George Mosse, ideas about masculinity played a “determining role” in the creation of new national identities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nationalist thinkers “adopted the masculine stereotype as one of the means of national representation.”7 In other words, the nation itself was defined along masculine lines. And shortly after its arrival soccer became a prominent way to define both masculinity and the nation: it helped to crystallize the abstract idea of the nation around eleven players, created a space where men could express “national and capabilities and potentialities,” and acted served as an initiation ground into maleness in the same way that playing with dolls “trained” girls to be mothers. In other words, soccer was a male space par excellence.8

At the same time, the construction of new nations heralded changes in social structures as well, including those related to gender. Michael Messner termed the era from 1870-1920 as one of “crisis” for masculinity, marked by “drastic changes in work and family.” Indeed, women’s place in these emergent societies was hotly debated. Throughout Latin America in the early twentieth century, women agitated for increased rights both inside and outside the home. From expanding educational opportunities to changing divorce laws and granting suffrage, women from all political backgrounds took to the streets for their rights. In Brazil, efforts begun in 1891 for voting rights came to fruition in 1932, with the passage of a suffrage bill granting literate women over 21 the right to vote. This was a partial victory to be sure, but one that heralded deeper changes in gender relations. While the concrete successes of the Brazilian women were not paralleled by other women’s movements in the region, nevertheless active and vocal women’s movements developed in Mexico, Argentina, Cuba, and Chile. In Argentina, for example, women activists had staged strikes as early as the 1880s for improved working conditions, while in 1920s Mexico, women agitated for and temporarily obtained voting rights in the Yucatán.

Political activism on the part of women in the region was only one element of women’s expanding roles. Urbanization meant that women increasingly had roles outside of the home. Burgeoning industries in cities from Santiago to Montevideo and Rio Grande do Sul to Caracas employed increasing numbers of women. Women’s place in the workforce grew—in some places more than doubling—while opportunities for education increased as well. Literacy rates jumped for both men and women in the region, but went up more steeply for women. At the same time, however, expectations for women remained rooted in the home and the family. National leaders and intellectuals advocated for increased education for girls, but only as a means to “modernize” the home. Women throughout the region were encouraged to understand home economics, to become more efficient housewives and mothers, and to inculcate their children with patriotic zeal.

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