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This paper explores the historical and ideological meanings of organized sports for the politics of gender relations. After outlining a theory for building a historically grounded understanding of sport, culture, and ideology, the paper argues that organized sports have come to serve as a primary institutional means for bolstering a challenged and faltering ideology of male superiority in the 20th century. Increasing female athleticism represents a genuine quest by women for equality, control of their own bodies, and self-definition, and as such represents a challenge to the ideological basis of male domination. Yet this quest for equality is not without contradictions and ambiguities. The socially constructed meanings surrounding physiological differences between the sexes, the present “male” structure of organized sports, and the media framing of the female athlete all threaten to subvert any counter-hegemonic potential posed by female athletes. In short, the female athlete—and her body—has become a contested ideological terrain.
An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport Meetings in Las Vegas, Nevada, October 31, 1986.
Direct all correspondence to Michael A. Messner, Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society, University of Southern California, Taper Hall 331M, Los Angeles, CA 90089-4352.