Drop the ‘female:’ Athletes at WU ask to be judged by achievements, not by gender
On August 22, 2017 at 7:25 p.m., the “SPORTY GALZ” GroupMe was born. Members of the Washington University sports teams that identified as female were slowly added to the chat until it accumulated 119 members. It’s a massive group chat of talented, vibrant and inspiring “sporty” bears. Elise Brown, student at the Brown School of Social Work and senior member of the Wash. U. women’s soccer team in the 2017 season, created the group chat along with Lauren Martin, undergraduate and junior member of the Wash. U. volleyball team in the 2017 season. Brown carved out a space within the “SPORTY GALZ” GroupMe for more official comradery.
“I’ve always felt so supported by the female athletes on this campus…so I just wanted to create an informal network where we could share that support,” she said.
The group was a success. Social events between teams were organized, as well as coordination of fan support for other team’s games. Generic notes of encouragement and praise filter through the GroupMe as women’s basketball, track and field, cross country, soccer, tennis, volleyball, and swim and dive members are added over time.
In the past two weeks, campus has seen this group of female athletes unite in a more official fashion outside of a group chat and social events. Athletes have been seen sporting black or white t-shirts with the lettering, “FEMALE ATHLETE,” with the world “FEMALE” struck through and in smaller type below, “JUDGED BY ACHIEVEMENTS NOT BY GENDER”. There are 95 girls wearing them, so you’re bound to have seen one somewhere.
Maggie Crist, senior women’s soccer player, was the first to discover the athlete shirt over the summer when she saw a coworker—a Division I volleyball player—wearing an athlete shirt. In awe of the shirt and its message, she snapped a picture of her coworker’s shirt and sent it into the women’s soccer team’s group chat, suggesting that the soccer team order the shirts. Audrey Freeman, fellow senior women’s soccer player, then suggested that they open up ordering the shirts for all of the “sporty galz”. Caroline Dempsey, another senior women’s soccer player, contacted Esther Wallace, founder and designer of Playa Society Sportswear, to inquire about a large order, then coordinated within the “SPORTY GALZ” group chat to get the orders.
Wallace was more than happy to give the group a discounted bulk order and traded a few emails with Caroline Dempsey.
“I’m always excited to know that people are noticing the brand and the t-shirt,” she said. “For a student athlete to say, “We all want to order this shirt”, that was extremely exciting. It’s not coming from the athletic department, it’s not coming from somebody in administration, it’s coming from a student athlete and half of her peers.”
The excitement Wallace felt has been felt by the athletic administration as well. Adrienne Azama, school psychologist and partner of Athletic Director Anthony Azama, was actually a part of the initial order. Since administration spotted them on campus, the general feeling has been that of unrelenting support. In the future, there’s talk of another shirt order including girls that missed the first order and administrators that are interested in showing their support.
Heidi Nassos, senior on the track and field team and one of the point people for coordinating the shirt order, explained the impetus behind these shirts.
“We’re standing up for ourselves. We’ve grown up being told, ‘Oh, you’re pretty fast for a girl,’” she said. “Everything is qualified because of our gender, and I think I want people to look at it [the shirt] and say, “Wow, you know you’re right, we should be judging them based off of their accomplishments, not just qualifying it because they’re women.””
Freeman expressed a similar sentiment regarding the connotations of the inherent qualifications of “female athlete:”
“It’s a good movement to be like, ‘Hey I’m not a women’s athlete, I’m an athlete. I put in the same time as my male counterparts and I just happen to play on a team with other girls.’ It’s a cool way to say we’re not second best.”
Brown connected the shirts to the history of Title IX activism through women’s sports, and how those battles have continued to be fought today by female athletes:
“The issues that face female athletes a lot of the time are the same issues that face women on this campus more generally…I think that having sports compounded on top of those other things—like Title IX issues, since Title IX was initially about sports—[the shirts] come to mean so much more. The experience of the female athlete is about so much more than just athletics, so I think there are a lot of challenges.”
To Brown, the shirts represent the Wash. U. experience that the University should aspire to.
“I want Wash. U. to be a place where people feel that the stereotypes associated with their identities are not as present on campus as they are in greater society. I think that’s something that school should continue to strive for,” she said.
One thing that was expressed by all the girls was the amazing feeling of community that’s been gained from these shirts. Dempsey described it as almost a “Jeep wave” among some pretty accomplished and powerful women and Crist seemed to agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment:
“We have all these athletes and we also have this huge group of powerful females that are involved in a lot more stuff than just athletics, but this is what connects all of us together.”
Needless to say, the women at Wash. U. and the female athletes at Wash. U. are taking a stand against stereotypical qualifiers and gender bias in general. They’re starting a conversation on campus with a powerful message they’ve rallied behind, and they’re doing it together.
The creator of the shirt, Wallace, offered some final advice:
“You might not be able to convince the world to think any differently, but you can influence people to build a community around you.”