Mariah Burton Nelson, author and former basketball player at Stanford University, got her first taste of competition when she was 5 years old. Her mother, who loved swimming, challenged her to a race at a local pool. Her father waited on one side of the water with a stopwatch while Ms. Nelson dove in.
Once Ms. Nelson surfaced from the fastest lap she’d ever swam, her mother had already reached the other side of the pool. She had lost the race, but Ms. Nelson was eager to compete again—especially after seeing how much fun her mother was having.
“She was happy. Her hair was all slicked back, her eyes were full of chlorine and she was smiling,” Ms. Nelson said. “We were playing together. Competition was fun and female.”
That day at the pool launched a traditional race that took place every year until Ms. Nelson finally beat her mom at age 10. It also gave Ms. Nelson her first female role model in sports. At a panel discussion hosted Wednesday by the National Women’s History Museum and the George Washington University Department of History, Ms. Nelson urged women in the audience of the Jack Morton Auditorium to continue giving young girls strong examples of female athletes.
The discussion also featured Bonnie Morris, author and adjunct professor of women’s studies at GW, and moderator Jill Agostino, editor at the New York Times. Titled “Game Changers: American Women and Sports,” the conversation drew on examples from the Sochi Olympics to examine the history of women and sports, and to analyze what progress needs to be made for female athletes in the future.
The panelists recounted the passing of Title IX, a part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that banned sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. However, Title IX wasn’t easy to implement. It took the efforts of trailblazers to see the legislation enacted around the country. Ms. Nelson and her basketball teammates held sit-ins at Stanford, urging athletic directors to grant women’s sports teams the uniform, coaching and travel benefits the men’s teams received.
Although Tile IX has rendered tremendous gains for women, Dr. Morris explained that society must continually work on bringing women of all ages into “the daily conversation about sports culture that we assume is the right of men.” She wondered why it’s easy for people to imagine a grandfather and grandson playing catch in the backyard, but difficult to envision the same scenario between a grandmother and granddaughter.
“We cut girls out of the conversation really early, and then we joke about them not being able to follow the game when they’re older,” Dr. Morris said.
Women face other hurdles when it comes to how they are portrayed in the media. Despite an unprecedented number of television channels today, Ms. Nelson said only a tiny fraction of sports coverage is devoted to women’s sports. The Olympics are an opportunity to place international attention on female Olympians and their athletic achievements.
But audiences following Sochi coverage should be mindful of the ways women’s accomplishments are framed, Dr. Morris said. Some stories of women’s athletic successes are tied to relationships with male figures—like a coach, fiancé or brother—or colored with emotional headlines. Still, winter sports like bobsledding give women a chance to show off their ferocious side. Dr. Morris gave a shoutout to bobsledder and alumna Elana Meyers, B.S. ’06, M.T.A. ’11, whose recent performance at Sochi secured the U.S. a silver medal.
Ms. Agostino added that more often, men and women are competing on courses styled the same way, showing that there are no boundaries for what women competitors can do.
Whether a woman is a novice or an Olympian, the panelists agreed sports empower athletes by reinforcing values of competition, leadership and healthy body images. Oftentimes, the hardest part is attempting a sport for the first time, but Ms. Nelson emphasized it’s never too late to try. Her own mother had never competed outside of their mother-daughter pool races. Ms. Nelson encouraged her to try a class where she raced against women in her own age bracket. Sure enough, Ms. Nelson’s mother went on to set three Arizona state records in her 70s and placed in the top 10 at national events.
“If you think of yourself as an athlete, I guarantee you it will change the way you walk, the way you work and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork and success,” Ms. Nelson said.