There are very few times when it pays off to be from middle America—and having a Utah driver’s license entails a lot of sniggering from bouncers. But when it means standing front row at Olympic qualifying competitions, I’m not one to complain.
This winter, I got to witness something unprecedented, an event that drew the largest crowd to Utah Olympic Park since the games in 2002 : A group of women competing to be a part of the first-ever female Olympic ski jumping team. Ski jumping might not be the most exciting winter sport—and even as an avid skier, I’ll admit something is lost in translation through television viewing. But whether it’s your cup of tea or not, let me put it this way: Until 2014—90 years after the sport was introduced at the inaugural Winter Olympics—women were not permitted to compete in the Olympics in this sport because the committee was holding on to the archaic, Victorian notion that the physical exertion would make women infertile. In 2005, the president of the International Ski Federation told NPR, “Don’t forget, it’s like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
Oh wait, there’s more.
Beyond their “concern” for female competitors’ physical shortcomings, officials worried that there weren’t enough qualified women and that allowing women to compete would cause the medals to be “diluted and watered down,” according to former International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge in 2008. Apparently he hadn’t heard that women had already been competing successfully in ski jumping internationally. Never mind that American jumper Lindsey Van held the record for the longest jump—among both men and women—on the ski jump built for the Vancouver games when they once again denied her the right to compete in 2010. Never mind that in 1922, two years before the first winter games in Chamonix, skier Isabel Coursier broke the world record for ski jumping.
It’s frustrating to see such ridiculous discrimination, especially in a sport that, according to experts, the physical advantages a man might have are extremely minimized.
What’s infinitely more frustrating, though, is that no one reading about this is genuinely surprised. Few of us pay much attention to professional female athletes. Still today, the ones that do manage to get more attention than their male counterparts often compete in sports that involve a fair amount of glitter and makeup.
I’m not a female athlete. I was lucky enough to attend an all-girls middle and high school where the word “feminism” wasn’t even used because it seemed so obvious—of course we were as capable as men. Of course we could do anything we set our goddamn minds to.
The first time I remember becoming aware that I was looked at differently than my male peers was at a high school debate tournament. My coach resignedly told my partner and me that we were going to have a hard time winning as an all-female team. There was a sneaky strategy that many of the male or mixed-gender teams were using: Basically, they would tell female competitors to “calm down” or “not get out of hand” during the crossfire portion.
Why? Because it worked. There’s nothing quite so great for a 14-year-old’s self-esteem as reading, “Stop being a bitch,” from a middle-aged debate judge.
Awareness of the perception gap between the bitchy female and the assertive male is now so common that it’s fodder for Pantene commercials. But I ask, even if we all can see that gender bias exists in our everyday lives, why is it that it feels like these issues are treated as a joke? Why do I see eye rolls during conversations on gender inequality? Is this funny to any of you?
Our campus is certainly not immune. There are the big indicators, like the fact that only 25 percent of all tenured faculty are women, though women have been graduating from undergraduate and masters programs at comparable rates nationally to men since the 1980s. I can keep quoting statistics. But, perhaps most jarringly, it clings to the little things we don’t think about. Ask yourself: How many female authors have you read in college? Is it awkward for a male student to invite a male professor out for a coffee, or just a female student? Or, as Gloria Steinem wittily points out in one of her essays, “‘Man,’ ‘mankind,’ and ‘the family of man’ have made women feel left out, usually with good reason. Feminists tried to educate by asking men to imagine receiving a ‘Spinster of Arts’ or ‘Mistress of Science’ degree, and then working hard for a ‘sistership.’ Wouldn’t they a feel a little left out?”
Though our degrees still bear the title Bachelor of Arts, the pure Knickerbocker college days are gone: Women have maintained a majority in total undergraduate enrollment nationwide for decades.
But if your answer to the question on authors was, “There can’t be many women in the Core, women didn’t write back then,” or something similar, think about that for a second. Doesn’t that sound suspiciously like our lovely ski officials arguing that there just aren’t any women who could jump? You might not find many female authors in Greek antiquity, but maybe you haven’t considered Sappho, the renowned ancient Greek poet who even Plato revered. Or perhaps you’d forgotten about Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s controversial “Women’s Bible,” a revision of the bible that challenged patriarchy in scripture.
This week marked a great victory for women's ski jumping: Germany’s Carina Vogt snagged the gold medal in the historic competition. But I can’t help but wonder how we will win these battles closer to home.
Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life’s a Mitch runs alternate Fridays.
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