A piece in today’s Telegraph by Fiona Tomas, a whine merchant. The only thing that matters to most people is that it’s clear when references are being made to women’s sports, so people can switch off and thereby escape the inevitable boredom induced by them. Women’s sports are invariably parasites on the men’s game, where for obvious reason money goes, whether through ticket sales or advertising.
Shortly after Bryony Frost became the first female jockey to win the King George VI Chase last December, my phone buzzed with a text message.
“Did you see a lady jockey win the big race at Kempton?” a male friend asked. I punched a reply, “Yes! By the way, I hate the term lady jockey!!”
In fact, I loathe any application of the word ‘ladies’ in women’s sport, a talking point which was touched upon last week by BBC journalist Sarah Mulkerrins. “Am I the only one that would remove all mention of the word ‘ladies’ in women’s sport?” Mulkerrins wrote on social media, on the same day that Maidenhead RFC unveiled the respected rugby writer Stephen Jones, who has been the standout advocate for women’s rugby during his successful reporting career, as the club’s director of “ladies rugby.”
Overt gender marking has always been an inherent problem for women in sport, but the term ‘ladies’ takes it to a whole new level. For me, and it seemed most people who responded to Mulkerrins’ post, the term screams physical fragility, reinforces sexist stereotypes [J4MB emphasis: reinforced the bleedin’ obvious] and depicts sportswomen as inferior to sportsmen. [J4MB emphasis – OK, Fiona, kindly inform us of a sport where this isn’t demonstrably the case. Take your time, love…]
Perhaps the word would be slightly more palatable if it was at least used on a similar level as its male equivalent. But recent data by the Cambridge English Corpus, a multi-billion word collection of the English language, found the word ‘gentleman’ was the only male gender term that decreased in usage within a sports context, following a study it conducted on the 2016 Rio Olympics. The term ‘ladies’, meanwhile, increased by 20 per cent.
In this country, some of our oldest sporting institutions are still very ladylike in their traditions, among them being the Lawn Tennis Association, which still stubbornly uses ‘ladies’ for the women’s draw at Wimbledon. At least there is some continuity in that the men’s tournament goes by the moniker of ‘gentleman’, although male players have been commonly talked about as ‘men’s’ by players and pundits for decades. Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot is a tradition which harks back to 1823, but at a time when female jockeys entering the sport from college are outnumbering men at a ratio of nearly 70:30, the name sounds increasingly archaic. Golf, home to both the European Ladies Tour and the Ladies Professional Golf Association, is another big offender.
There have been concerted efforts by sporting organisations in recent years to modernise their language and drop the term ‘ladies’ to reflect the growing popularity of women’s sport. Manchester City kicked things off when they rebranded as ‘women’ in 2014 and now Blackburn Ladies are currently the only elite women’s football team to still go by the name – a stark contrast to five years ago, when 11 clubs were ‘ladies’ sides.
In America’s National Women’s Soccer League, clubs such as Portland Thorns and Houston Dash are so gender neutral it is only possible to tell they are women’s sides from the title of the competition they play in. The England netball team are called ‘The Roses’ in line with the wider international netball community, where other national sides go by their own nicknames. It works well for predominantly female sports such as netball, but the concept arguably carries less weight when it comes to women in traditional ‘male’ sports.
When England women’s rugby team rebranded as the ‘Red Roses’ in 2016, the move was welcomed as new and exciting. Incidentally, the national flower is never used to describe Eddie Jones’ men, who I’m sure would have something to say if they were constantly compared to delicate rose petals. Five years on, the name is already beginning to feel dated, with World Rugby having removed any mention of the word ‘women’ for this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Why should it matter? The lady boxers, jockeys and footballers of this world have bigger barriers to size up to as sportswomen – the fight for increased media coverage, having equal opportunities and the battle to change sexist perceptions.
The word ‘lady’ works against all those aims, feeding Victorian stereotypes that seek to negate and ultimately differentiate, rather than integrate, women’s sport.
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