By Hayley Gilson
I’ll never forget the disappointment in the voice of a community member who congratulated me in the store, when I told him that I didn’t wrestle in the boys division after I had become the first, and only female wrestling state champion for Ketchikan High School.
Winning the state wrestling title has been the biggest accomplishment of my career so far, but I am often too embarrassed to bring it up to people. There is always something someone says to make me feel like my accomplishment still isn’t good enough.
There are so many times where – for some reason – I have had to defend myself for being a female athlete, but I am not here to complain. I know that I must work harder than the male athletes in my sport and school to achieve the same recognition. No matter how hard female athletes train, they really never get the credit they deserve – and some get no credit at all.
I deeply appreciate the community members who show up to watch the female athletes in Ketchikan, but I would hope that more people would support and show up for the female athletes that work just as hard to make themselves the best version of themselves.
I am grateful to the person who stopped me in the store to congratulate me, but the subconscious diminishment of female athletic accomplishments still stings.
Women’s sports: Where we were
The sanctioning process for Alaska women’s wrestling with ASAA started in 2007, one year after Michaela Schmitz (Hutchison) from Soldotna Alaska became the first girl in the nation to win a state title competing against boys. It was officially sanctioned in 2014.
Schmitz’ sees discrimination continuously daily as she is around wrestling in Illinois, but never experienced it first hand as a 16 year old in the time she had won state.
“I wanted to be the best in the state, I wasn’t aware of the male/female status of the nation,” Schmitz said. “We have taken things so pure and made them so hard to recognize that this(womens wrestling) is a sport and we are here to compete.”
As women’s wrestling is still in the development process, women’s basketball has been around for a long time.
Basketball for women in the 1900’s was all half court, six players, two dribbles, and no three-point line.
Kayhi english teacher and former athlete Rebecca Bowlen played 6-on-6 in the late 1970s, the same way her grandmother played in the early 1920’s.
“You had six players on the floor, three guards and three forwards, you were only allowed two dribbles,” Bowlen said. “As a guard you weren’t allowed to shoot.”
While the game progressed, recognition for female athletes lagged. It wasn’t until March 1995, Sheryl Swoopes became the first woman to have a Nike signature shoe, the Air Swoopes.
Swoopes had more to prove after Team USA’s 1996 Olympic games, when she came back from pregnancy to play in the WNBA in 1997. The stereotypical idea is that when you have a baby, you can’t come back and play the same way Swoopes was looking to change that.
While Swoopes became a bit of an icon, female athletes only slowly started getting recognition.
Where we are
There are thousands of role models for all types of female athletes. Arizona women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes is well known for her empowering story of pumping breast milk for her 6 month old baby during halftime of the national championship game during March Madness. The measures taken to continue to be a working mother and an elite coach is an inspiration to mothers and female athletes all.
Barnes spoke to reporters after the game and made it clear how proud she is to be a mom, and coach.
“I represented moms. I have a baby here. I hear her crying ready to feed. I represent moms—you can be a coach; you can do it at an elite level,” Barnes said. “I represent Black females, they don’t get here too often and don’t get opportunities, but I had an opportunity today on the biggest stage and represented a lot.”
In addition to culture being receptive to role models and more women empowering younger generations, schools are attempting to make changes for females to be equal to the male sports. At Kayhi, they rotate the boys and girls basketball games, and do their best to make the facilities opportunities equal when they are shared, and better the facilities when they aren’t shared.
Kayhi softball coach Kalea Allen said fewer people attend female sports over all, which can be difficult for high school athletes. But in Kayhi baseball and softball, they try to coordinate their schedules so fans can watch both equally.
“It’s small changes like this that will not only grow the athletes confidence but also give the equal feeling of being the spotlight, being just as important as the boys teams,” Allen said.
Where we’re going
Going forward, there is a lot of progress that needs to be made for women to have the same equality in sports.
The gender pay gap in sports is a real and nuanced thing. It is not as simple as just paying athletes the same wage, because marketability, audience, and advertising come into play. However, there are instances that these factors aren’t in effect.
The United States Women’s National Soccer team has continued to dominate in not only athletic performance compared to the men’s team, but marketing and revenue, as well. But the athletes on the team still are fighting for equal pay.
Coach Allen knows that change will happen when the same opportunities are given to everyone, from a coach, facility, and community standpoint.
“If everyone does their part to help exude the same respect to female sports as male sports then we will set our athletes up for better morale and success overall,” Allen said.
Thanks to Title IX and culture shifts, women now make up 40% of spokespeople, but continue to only receive 4% of total sports media coverage.
Schmitz made it clear that women and men are different, and shouldn’t be compared no matter the circumstance at hand. Everyday she does her part in breaking down the barriers and stigma of women in sport.
“God made us to be something different and the only way to show it to others is through one mind at a time,” Schmitz said. “I have learned through my life that if people don’t understand something, or are not close to the situation, the judgments come easy.”
Female athletes have been fighting for respect, equal opportunities on and off the court for way too long. Bowlen has seen a lot of discrimitation in her time, but is happy for the growth everyone has made, and the growth from here on out.
“We’ve come a long way,” Bowlen said. “But we still have a long way to go”