Charlie Blair has used International Women’s Day to reflect on her own experiences as a young Ultimate player and on how we can all help Women’s Ultimate to grow.
Until about age eleven, I didn’t really have the opportunity to regularly play team sports with my female peers. Yes, we would be compelled by curriculum to have a weekly P.E. lesson as a whole class but girls playing team sports, with the slight exception of rounders in the summer, was just not part of the playground culture. I was always the only girl playing football with the boys at break time.
Granted, I grew up in a village and went to a tiny school, and a lot has changed since then, but the point I’m trying to make is that in this environment I grew up constantly measuring myself against male standards. I became understandably defensive, having to always defend my right to play, my right to be respected on the pitch. It was something a boy never had to earn before touching the ball; it was already granted.
The boys’ respect for me rested on my ability to compete with them. I was unduly elevated above the others girls who dared not do so. However, that never meant that these girls weren’t capable of competing, but only that they didn’t feel welcome to try.
Therefore it was hard for me to feel a sense of achievement if I was not achieving what the boys were. And I now recognise that this contributed to my embarrassing attitude as a GB junior.
After playing Ultimate for only six months, I was lucky enough to be selected for the GBU20 Women’s team heading to Vancouver. As were three of my ‘Kent comrades’, who were chosen for the Open team! But, although it was never their intention, I definitely felt belittled by the gruelling trials that the boys went through in comparison to mine. I felt they were being pushed much harder than the girls were. They knew it, I knew it, and although no one said it, I was thus implicitly the inferior member.
This embarrassed me. And as a result I very immaturely took it out on my team. Instead of respecting the skills that we did have, the connections we had fostered, the progress we’d made, I saw only the negatives; because we weren’t doing fartleks or putting athletic bidders on a pedestal, I thought we were underperforming on the international stage. This is not to say that women shouldn’t be pushing themselves in any ways they want, but they shouldn’t feel like they have to behave a certain way just because men are in order to see themselves as equals. I couldn’t see beyond my own warped criteria for what made a great female player, and more importantly, teammate.
I really did have good intentions, but whilst some of the girls did respond well to my demands, it also alienated a lot of my teammates. Dare I say, the majority of my U20 women teammates. My expectation that the team should ‘man up’ was in fact the problem. I was simply perpetuating the toxic culture of my own childhood playground. I was in no way being an ally to my fellow women, I was trying to rise above them and play like the men. I was imitating the boys’ style of aggression. It was a style that demoralised my team, rather than motivating them. And some were quite rightly then made to feel angry that I was not giving due credit to their sincere and worthwhile efforts.
I have only just recently reflected on why I was like this, after a remark this week that was made to me during my first lesson with a women’s-only BMX class. And I now I realise the importance of addessing the reasons for it.
At this BMX class, one of the other women ridiculed the track’s lack of equality for not offering a male-only session as well. It was hard to swallow my giggle as she pitied the men too intimidated to show up to the ‘open’ sessions for fear of being shown up by talented 10-year-olds. In my mind, equally comparing the intimidation women feel from men to that that men feel from children… I don’t think is a fair or accurate one, for a start. Secondly, she was clearly only measuring her levels of intimidation against another man, which, as a married, middle class, white women, would potentially be far less than a black, queer woman.
By directly comparing these two examples she was implicitly suggesting that women are not deserving of the equity the track is trying to provide by offering ‘women’s-only sessions’. I’m sure it was not this woman’s intention and I’m sure she would call herself a feminist. But to me, she wasn’t coming across as an ally. She was struggling to recognise that feminism had worked for her, and that quite frankly, some (because I’m sure it’s not many!) men should put up with getting schooled by the kids as we get it right for the rest of the sisterhood.
So I feel that when it comes to Ultimate, we should be making sure that we are not having to behave and organise exactly like men to prove our worth. Now is not the time. And while we still have a lot of ground to make up, it should never be the time. There are differences that serve in no-ones interest to ignore in an attempt to offer simple solutions to a nuanced issue. And as our wonderful community seeks to make concerted efforts towards making Ultimate a level playing field regardless of gender, we need to breed a culture where women are never made to feel ashamed of their differences to men.
If Ultimate can make that safe space that women deserve, it will only draw more and more women into the game faster. This will in turn increase the depth of talent and the value of women’s play will only become more and more self evident to both themselves and everyone around them. That way, we will ensure that we won’t be repeating the mistakes of the past, and that there will never only be one girl in the village playing Ultimate.
Featured photo by Sam Mouat.