Time to put our sportswomen on a pedestal

You might wonder if women’s sport has much of a history judging by the dearth of visible signs of achievement. The men have a plethora of statues celebrating their sporting heroes, the women have almost none. So, the Women’s Sport Trust has helped set up the Blue Plaque Rebellion to spread the word and bring the past into the present and future. Olivia Shears explains the campaign’s aims

There are just two statues of sportswomen in the United Kingdom: double Wimbledon tennis champion Dorothy Round in her home town of Dudley and Olympic pentathlon champion Dame Mary Peters in Belfast. In comparison, there are three male footballers in bronze outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium alone. The disparity between the sexes is marked; journalist and campaigner Anna Kessel wants to even things up.

To that end, Kessel launched the Blue Plaque Rebellion at the Women’s Sport Trust’s #BeAGameChanger Awards last month with the intention of bringing past deeds to light in an attempt the inspire and present and future generations of sportswomen.

Kessel unravelled some one-sided statistics while researching her book Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives, not least a study by the Sporting Statues Project at the University of Sheffield that found there were around 200 named statues of elite sportsmen in this country; and just the two women already mentioned.

Yet, Kessel believes, women’s sport has a similar rich history as the men, the same stories of passion, skill and achievement. The problem, as one of those deserving of being immortalised, hockey’s Kate Richardson-Walsh, said at the Game-Changer Awards, is simply that: “We just don’t know about it yet.”

This is where the Blue Plaque Rebellion comes in. The campaign, in association with the Women’s Sport Trust, aims to uncover these long-forgotten stories of sporting gold and push for a better public platform to secure their longevity.

But why statues and plaques? With increasing participation and viewing figures, isn’t women’s sport better looking forward rather than back?

Firstly, there’s the aspect of visibility. When we go to stadiums or grounds and we see statues or memorabilia of sportsmen but not sportswomen, it sends a message about aspiration and attainment in sport. It suggests that elite sport is a male domain and preserves the misplaced idea that women and sport are somehow incompatible.

Secondly, this invisibility also acts to perpetuate the erroneous notion that women’s sport doesn’t have a history. It suggests that the growth of women’s sport is a relatively new phenomenon, and obscures the fact that for periods in the recent past, women sport was not considered much different from men’s. This idea is embodied by the Dick, Kerr Ladies, a female football team from a Lancashire factory who, in the 1920s, were the most successful in the world until the Football Association banned women from playing the game for nearly 40 years. In May 2017, through the hard work of club historian Gail Newsham, the team were honoured with a blue plaque outside their factory.

Thirdly, delving into the past allows us to uncover these fabulous stories. The Blue Plaque Rebellion is about discovering and recognising these inspirational female pioneers, because, as Anna Kessel says: “Unearthing the past makes the future easier.” Through recognising the trials and tribulations of the sportswomen of the past, we can begin to debunk the myths surrounding women’s sport, while revelling in stories of hope, perseverance, dedication and inspiring the future.

With the help of historians such as Gail Newsham, Stuart Gibbs, Jean Williams and Rachel Bichener’s SpeedQueens blog, the Blue Plaque Rebellion is beginning to pick out ground-breaking sportswomen from the past. Sportswomen like Lottie Dod, the most versatile athlete of all time; Emma Clarke, in 1895, Britain’s first black female footballer; Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the Channel; and Dorothy Levitt, Britain’s first female racing driver.

But there are many more to be discovered – from pioneering disabled sportswomen to those in coaching and managerial roles. You can join the rebellion by tweeting @BluePlaqueRebel with names, information and stories. The campaign will be working with English Heritage, local councils and sports governing bodies to put forward proposals to secure plaques and statues to change the visual landscape of women in sport.


Article by Olivia Shears. Olivia’s latest articles.

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Women’s Sport Trust want to thank our partner Getty Images for some of the imagery of women in sport used on this site. Click here to view the editorial curation featuring the world’s top sportswomen in action and here to learn more about our partnership with Getty Images.

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