08 December 2014

Marimachos*: On Women’s Football in Latin America

Note: this post first appeared on The Football Scholars Forum. The Forum is hosting a discussion on women's soccer on Thursday, Dec. 11 at 2 pm. For more information on how to participate via Skype, contact Alex Galaraza at galaraza.alex@gmail.com

By Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel
Dr. Brenda Elsey is an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth Century Chile. Follow her on twitter @politicultura. Dr. Joshua Nadel is assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history and associate director of the Global Studies Program at North Carolina Central University. His book Fútbol! Why Soccer Matters in Latin America was published in 2014. Follow him on twitter @jhnadel

Not to complain, but it’s not easy to be a feminist and a scholar of sports. On the one hand, many researchers are hostile to feminist scholarship. On the other hand, many feminist scholars express disgust at the mere mention of studying sport, seeing it as an overdetermined site of sexism. Even scholars who have embraced the study of masculinity and recognize the importance of gender often neglect to discuss how it shapes women’s lives. In practice, this has meant that men remain the protagonists of history.

In Latin America, there is a further criticism from our peers. Some argue that feminism is an imperialist imposition, an import that has distracted from the need to analyze economic and political inequalities, despite the fact that gender is a prime determinant of one’s position in both of those hierarchies. It is surprising how otherwise critical and brilliant minds react to this work. Several of the reactions can be grouped and, when taken seriously, reveal important assumptions that need to be overturned. In her excellent post, Jean Williams mentions similar misconceptions. We think it’s worth reflecting on them at length.

The first cluster of responses can be categorized as a “defensive reaction.” Instead of recognizing that the history of women’s sport sheds light on broader histories of the body and gender, a common reaction is to defend the neglect of women in previous studies. This line of argumentation features phrases such as, “it’s a different game altogether,” “women’s football doesn’t have a long history,” or the related, “not that many women play.” These unsubstantiated declarations require the feminist sport scholar to re-hash examples of women’s presence in football since the late nineteenth century. In Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador, women’s teams formed in port cities shortly after the first men’s teams. Scholars too frequently adopt the rhetoric of sportswriters to come to such conclusions.

Another problematic reaction is a discussion of the supposedly inherent inferiority of women athletes. It is problematic, firstly, because it is not a research question posed by historians. In other words, it is a tangential point. Furthermore, the assumption is that because women are less skilled than men, “no one” watches women’s team sports. This response falls flat on at least three counts. Firstly, academics do not study cultural practices only if they are popular. If we did, there would be much less scholarship out there. The inferiority argument assumes that preference is objective and rational, rather than relational. Long ago, Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated that taste is not created in a vacuum. Unfamiliarity and preconceptions shape the way we view women’s sports.

The more writers naturalize difference and taste, the more they support a ridiculous intellectual fallacy. It is easy to think of sports teams that are beloved, though not successful (the Detroit Lions and Chicago Cubs stand as two examples of this), or where truly inferior play is tolerated and televised (low-ranking Premier League teams). The rhetoric that no one cares about women’s sports because they are inferior should be recognized for what it is, a sexist exercise, in which the writer enjoys hero worship of male athletes, while dismissing women’s accomplishments.

Finally, the argument is ahistorical. Not only have women been playing soccer since the 19th century, people (gasp!, men too) have been watching women’s soccer for a long time: roughly 8,000 people showed up to watch two Costa Rican teams play in 1949, while average attendance at the 1971 Women’s World Championship in Mexico hovered around 25,000 per match.The finals saw the Estadio Azteca packed to capacity--over 100,000 people. This in spite of the fact that the Mexican Football Federation threatened professional teams with sanctions if they let the tournament play in their stadiums.

The narrative of inferiority fits conveniently into the narrative of women being uninterested in the sport, which is the story that FIFA and national federations like to tell. In this version of history, women began playing only in the 1980s, and when they did they found a supportive FIFA. This is a particularly cynical version of history, as it ignores successive attempts by soccer institutions across the world to impede the development of women’s soccer. In soccer terms, the English FA was the first to ban women’s soccer, in 1921. There are other well known prohibitions of women’s soccer, including Brazil. In the case of Latin America, where professionalism officially began later than Europe, women’s teams were part of the broader expansion of amateur clubs (see Brenda’s Citizens and Sportsmen). In addition, women took the lead in organizing official fan clubs. Football club statutes always stipulated categories for women, either as participants, or as “madrinas,” or godmothers.

Beyond the official exclusion of women, men have marginalized them, seeking an escape from domestic obligations within football. In the stands, fans insult the masculinity of opposing teams, characterizing them as feminine and questioning their heterosexuality. They have hinged weakness onto femininity, so women players invert one of the basic building blocks of the sport. Thus, female players are viewed as threatening, not only on the pitch and in the clubhouse, but in society more broadly. While Costa Rican women’s clubs gained respect throughout the region by the 1950s, they also prompted congressional hearings about the sports’ threats to public health. Brazil’s ban rested on the same “science”(see Josh’s Futbol!).

National football associations, which liberally use public funds, have neglected women athletes in Latin America. For example, the Argentine Football Association has not provided the thirteen professional women’s clubs with technical support, decent facilities, or publicity. To make matters worse, female coaches are terrified of being accused of improper sexual behavior towards others, and report that their community is on “high alert.” The result is that there is a reluctance to support female leaders. Mexico has had the same coach for the women’s national team since 1998, and he has retained his position after a year in which El Tri lost three times to its main rival, the United States, by a combined score of 15-0. No men’s team coach would survive.

On the eve of the draw of the Women’s World Cup of 2015, there has been even less media interest than four years ago. No television station picked up the Women’s Copa America, the qualifier for the Women’s World Cup, until after the tournament started, even though rights were free. When Argentina failed to qualify for the tournament, none of the major newspapers covered it. Last Tuesday, Ecuador played Trinidad and Tobago for the final spot in the World Cup 2015, but to find any mention of the Ecuadorian women, one has to dig below the headlines: English Premier League rankings or Barcelona players’ debt. On a regional level, despite the failure of the Boca Juniors’ women’s team to reach the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the South American club tournament, sportswriters had no comment. Instead, the following day El Gráfico picked up a story that ranked the “hottest” girlfriends and wives of male players.

If we place the blame on ourselves and journalists, it’s because fans are conditioned to care about people they know and to watch the sports they read about. For every writer like Grant Wahl, who has done a great service to women’s soccer by telling the stories of the USWNT and focusing attention on the sport, there are many more who think it’s unimportant. Worse still, many media outlets continue to belittle women athletes by commenting less on athletic prowess than on physical beauty and questioning women athletes about their desire for family life (which are never asked of men). Some, in fact, only discuss women in the context of botineras--wives and girlfriends--and always accompanied by sexualized imagery. And even coaches discuss the potential “benefit” of using “sex“ to market the game. This last link, just to be clear, is to a 2008 article originally published in Soccer Journal, the official publication of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

Radical ways of thinking about women and football are frequently dismissed as impractical, but are worth considering. Title IX, for all of its value, has consecrated segregation in sport. But If sport is indeed an idealized version of the world, why wouldn’t we want that place to be integrated? So we could argue in favor of integrated teams--like mixed doubles in tennis--at least at the Olympic level or as a stand alone event. Also, as Jean Williams and Jennifer Doyle have argued in the British and U.S. context, Latin American women may do better, so long as segregation is the rule, to form independent associations. Finally, we think that masculinity, as traditionally defined in the Americas, needs to be critiqued from the perspective of its harm to women. Allowing stadium violence, forgiving fans for misogynist chants, and ignoring the domestic violence abuses perpetrated by players, encourages homophobia and sexism. Despite its claims to care about women, FIFA showed no qualms about awarding a World Cup to Russia and Qatar, neither of which can claim to adhere to human rights protocols in regard to women or LGBT communities.

The study of sport from a feminist perspective, regardless of the challenges it faces, requires optimism: the study of oppression opens opportunities to explore how it can be overturned. Those who reject studying women’s football ignore strong evidence that athletic activity in young women’s lives improves their health, expands educational opportunities, and lessens their susceptibility to drug addiction and eating disorders. When we care about women’s football, we care first about women. That’s why the constant diminishing of its importance continues a long tradition of sexism.

* marimacho is a term that can be translated as tomboy or butch lesbian, depending on the context. For many years, it was an epithet thrown at women and girls who played soccer in Latin America. While less common than it once was, women’s soccer players still contend with embedded attitudes about sexuality and soccer.

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