Co-ed Wrestling: Feminism Gone Wrong?

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Here’s the scenario:

It’s the Iowa state wrestling tournament and Joel Northrup and Cassy Herkelman are supposed to compete in a wrestling match. Except the match doesn’t happen, because Northrup defaults to Herkelman on the grounds that he can’t/won’t wrestle her because of his religious faith.

Perhaps Northrup is sincere, but the whole thing smacks of sexism. After all, Northrup knew going in that he might have to wrestle a girl at some point in his high school wrestling career: Iowa’s wrestling teams have been coed for two decades. It’s just that it’s not often that a girl makes the cut all the way up to the state championship. (In fact, Herkelman and Megan Black are the only two girls who have made it so far.)

Secondly, I’d be really surprised if Northrup’s religious upbringing didn’t teach him that homosexuality is a sin, in which case you’d think that he would object to wrestling a homosexual as well.  (Shades of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military.) But supposedly that’s not the same thing. It’s all right for guys to pit their brute strength against each other (even if one is homosexual), but it’s definitely not okay for guys and gals to do so.

This story has received a lot of media attention for two reasons:

1) Northrup has been cast as a “religious hero” by commentators with similar religious backgrounds.*

2) The case has called into question how Title IX is applied in school programs.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits sex discrimination in any program or activity at educational institutions that receive federal funding. Although Title IX affects all areas of education, it has come to be most famous for the huge impact it has had on girls’ and women’s sports.

Title IX has popularly been construed as meaning that academic and sports funding have to be equal for men and women. But it has also come to mean that neither sex can be prohibited from participating in a program that is dominated by the opposite sex.

It wasn’t that long ago that women were considered to be intellectually inferior to men which meant that men and women could not compete with each other academically. But since that belief has been (mostly) debunked, there has been relatively little hoopla about the mixing of the sexes in academic programs.

Sports, however, are a whole other ball game (no pun intended). The argument goes that males and females just aren’t equal physically; therefore, they can’t be on the same team or compete against each other. But should it be “can’t” meaning “not allowed to” or “can’t” meaning “unable”?

It’s hard to argue with the statement that women don’t usually have the physical strength that men have. However, wrestling is a sport where physical strength is not a major component. Also, the combatants are matched weight-wise.

But the question is, if a girl does meet the physical requirements of a given sport, why shouldn’t she be allowed to compete with the boys?

We used to think that the military was the last bastion of sexual discrimination. Now it appears that it’s the sports world.

* Read Ms. Blog‘s article about the religious world’s response to Northrup’s action.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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