Women-only events: sexist or sensible?

NS September 22nd, 2010

News that a handful of men are entering (and often winning) races and marathons put on mainly for women has created a bit of a stir. Are these guys douchebags who enjoy exerting their superior physical capabilities over The Ladiez, ruining the spirit of the event, or is it unfair for these races to be exclusively aimed at  only one gender in the first place?

Some people like to trot out the familiar argument that if women want equality with men, it has to be enforced in all areas. No female-only gyms, no ladies’ night drink specials, no women-only events or groups. Some go a step further and say that women shouldn’t expect separate toilets, exclusion from the military draft or even be eligible for maternity leave. You need to pee or have a baby? Well boo frickin’ hoo, you wanted to be just like the big boys and you GOT it, ladies.

This, of course, is called being a giant JERK.

The thing about this argument is that it assumes that women who fight for their rights think that men and women are exactly the same, with no biological deviances or differing practical needs. It’s also more than a little patronising. Men (and some women) often use this argument to try to ‘trap’ feminists into reneging on their arguments for equality. Much like the groups of white people who cry ‘Reverse racism!’ when minority groups put together an event celebrating their heritage or form a group exclusively for those within that minority group, there seems to be a wilful ignorance and refusal to acknowledge historical power structures in these protestations.

Reverse racism against whites is impossible because minority groups lack  the political or societal power to enforce their alleged biases. In the same vein, women as a whole lack the amassed authority required to actively oppress men and deny them their basic rights based on gender. So when someone cries ‘Reverse racism! Female sexism against men!’ they mostly need to be told to stick a boot in it.

On the other hand, I can see how the ‘women only’ thing can seem a bit unfair at times, especially if it has nothing to do with physical strength or biological differences (unlike sporting events and having babies). I’m no fan of ladies’ nights, when women get into bars and nightclubs free of charge while men pay full cover. That’s very unfair and also pretty gross since the only reason establishments do this is so that there’s more tits and asses in the bar for the men to ogle. It degrades both men and women.

Even if female-only races are, at their core, unequal, I still think that entering a race full of women just so you can win is pretty tacky and mean-spirited. Not only does it prevent a woman from garnering that top glory (since she is very unlikely to win an event that includes both sexes), it can take the sheen off that ‘we’re in this doing it together, girls!’ camaraderie that events like these can help foster.

What do you think? Would you be upset if a man entered a women’s running event for the sole purpose of winning, or do you think it’s his prerogative?

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13 Responses to “Women-only events: sexist or sensible?”

  1. Sandrine says:

    I don’t know how anyone can claim that equality involves not paying any attention to biological differences. Or if it did, then we might, instead of taking maternity leave from women, demand that men go through pregnancy and birth. I’m also very happy about drafting equality. As far as I’m concerned, no one, man or woman, should be forced to wear a gun.
    But as to allowing the odd man to join a women’s race, I reckon that should be fine as long as there’s a different category of winning for them, e.g. male guests. I don’t think it need take away from the camaraderie. I was at a conference last month where most of the participants (save 3) were men. The atmosphere was palpably different from the usual mostly male conferences I go to, and the three men present somehow managed to fit in amiably.
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  2. Expat Mum says:

    It’s such a gray area but I agree that when it’s obvious that the physical traits of each sex would ruin the race for female competitors, it’s unfair and just plain mean. However, if women want to ban men from running in the same races, they might have to forego co-ed competition in any sport – since strength usually comes into it. Even golf.
    Some might argue that when women enter men’s competitions, they are probably not going to win anyway, and to that I ask – What’s the point then? Is it just to make a point or is this equally mean-spirited?
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  3. Rosemary Cottage says:

    Where exactly does this leave trans and intersex people? You know, surely, that not all women have exactly the same plumbing nor for that matter are all people with a certain kind of uterine plumbing women! Women only events have a nasty and sometimes even violent history of defaulting to “cis women only”. But few feminists want to own this. I’m disappointed in reading such a ciscentric article from you.

    NS Reply:

    @Rosemary Cottage, You are right, I should have addressed the issue of trans or intersex people being excluded from races and other ‘women-only’ events because I know that this does happen on an annoyingly frequent basis, but the WSJ article I cited was specifically about (presumably cis) men entering women-only or mainly-women races to either a) win or b) ‘prove a point’ about sexism. If any of the female-identified participants were being given grief simply because they were trans or intersex then I think that’s a different (and similarly problematic) issue.

  4. BoozleBox says:

    The whole ‘something-only’ event is a mess. I mean the race is for ‘women’ but as already discussed it’s really only meaningful for people who are as strong as the average cis woman right? I mean that’s the point presumably otherwise anyone with the average man’s physical makeup, regardless of gender, testosterone, muscle mass etc is going to win. But as soon as you start trying to exclude people it gets crazy so I have no idea what you do. I’ve always struggled with the concept of people with learning or behavioural disabilities being able to enter the Paralympics too – I mean surely it’s about physical disabilities? If your body is not impaired then you should be in the normal olympics no? It all makes my head hurt.
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  5. Emily Barton says:

    This post perfectly argues what I think was a major fault in the feminist movement of the late 20th century. Women should have fought for equivalency, not equality. No one would argue that 5 + 2 does not add up to the same sum as 4 + 3. However, they would not say that 5 = 4 just because each digit is in the same position in similar equations. Does a 5 belong in the same subset as a 4? It depends on what is defining that subset. If the answer is “only the digit 4,” then, no, a 5 does not belong, even if both digits can be parts of equations that add up to 7.

  6. Blue Sky says:

    Isn’t a bit of tolerance the answer? I’ve taken part in the Dublin Women’s Mini Marathon a few times which is a fab race and there’s always a few men in fancy dress taking part. Never been a male winner – as Sandrine said, maybe a (lesser) prize for a male guest winner would be appropriate, but certainly the main prize should be for the female winner in a female race. Women do in fact win some mixed races, especially at ultra distances. And many sports have separate events for men and women, such as golf and tennis: I wonder why men have never tried to enter the women’s version of them?
    Blue Sky´s last blog ..My baby girl is 18 today!My ComLuv Profile

  7. Hayley says:

    God I could write an essay on this lol. Ok I wont but yes. Recently I ran the WOMENs 5K in Hyde Park and it was lovely having so many women running one race, together, sisters alongside each other, running for great causes, with the men having to cheer them on and hold the children. It was great to see role reversal there. Normally its the women that are at the sidelines cheering on these men, it makes such a nice change to see it the other way. I dont see it as being sexist that we have womens only races. Its a different atmosphere!

  8. You say a woman is unlikely to win a race if it includes both sexes but this really depends on what kind of race you’re talking about. In ultra running competitions and long-distance swimming women regularly beat men in the same field and this apparently becomes more likely the longer the race is. This is due to the fact that women’s bodies function better in ways which become more important the longer the race (such as sweating ‘better’ and more efficient use of body fuel). The tipping point for such advantages in running starts at somewhere around the 30 mile-mark (slightly less for swimming) and it will therefore come as no surprise that the (basically male) Olympic committee has kept the 26m marathon as the longest Olympic race (and still doesn’t allow female swimmers to do as long a race as men even though the distance is paltry anyway), despite allowing all kinds of other ‘sports’ to be introduced…
    If women-only races were deemed sexist then it could be argued that all sports would have to be equal for everybody and whilst women would surely be the losers in sports which play to men’s physical advantages (increased muscle mass, quicker speed over short distances) and which just also happen to be the sports that men have decided are the important ones (American football, football, rugby, baseball, basketball), men would have to accept being beaten in other sports where greater flexibility is an advantage for women such as skating, gymnastics or diving. It’s not by chance that whilst women gymnasts do the beam and the bars, men hoike themselves up and down on rings and the pommel horse (working that upper body strength, see?) Men would also have to take their chances with other ‘sports’ with a lesser physical component, such as shooting. Olympic rifle shooting was co-ed until a woman tied a man for first place in 1976…and now it’s all segragated and I’m pretty sure that it’s not because female shooters demanded it… So whilst women may be the losers in the major sports if it all goes co-ed, it’ll be men that get their knickers in a twist about losing to a woman.
    Mistress of Boogie´s last blog ..Feminists Love You More Than You KnowMy ComLuv Profile

  9. jen says:

    i really don’t understand the need for women only races, i have to say – most co-ed races i’ve been part of have men’s and women’s winners, so it’s not as if women have no chance of winning. and if it’s primarily about the camaraderie of sisterhood, then it’s not really a serious race anyway, and it shouldn’t matter much who wins. but as long as they don’t discriminate against anyone, i don’t have a problem with them.

    i find it pathetic that some men are so insecure that they feel the need to enter a race where they are running against a physically slower field in order to display their dominance. that’s just sad. but there have always been, and will always be, men who feel the need to interject themselves whenever it’s about all about Teh Men – those interlopers may be physically faster, but they’re just demonstrating their real weakness at the core.
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  10. geekymummy says:

    I;m left wondering if there are men who enter these races thinking they will win, but don’t, and slink off with their tails behind their legs. Now that would be a story.
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  11. I knew there was a reason why I hate sports!

    The only sport I ever seriously became involved in (and miss desperately but it doesn’t fit in with small children) was kyudo (Japanese Archery) where men and women shoot and compete as equals. There used to be segregation of the sexes but it was done away with quite a while back. There are some differences in costume (including a very sensible chest protector for people of whatever gender assignment with breasts) but that’s pretty much it.

    As for atheletics, the men who entered the event you describe sound a bit, well, pathetic. Haven’t they got anything better to do?
    Dad Who Writes´s last blog ..HospitalMy ComLuv Profile

  12. The term “Reverse Racism” needs to be destroyed.

    If a white guy doesn’t like a black guy, than it’s racism. if a black guy doesn’t like a white guy it is also racism. Racism is racism. until we can all get along, it is all racism.

    These same men should try and enter woman only beauty contests, if they win than that is a sign that the end is nigh.