Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Sporty women 'held back' by sexist myths
Women's marathon times have dropped rapidly
Women's progress in sport has been hindered by the myth that they are less robust than men and unsuited to physical activity, a scientist has said.
Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Professor Cashmore said: "Against this background, the question is not why women lag so far behind men, but how they have managed to make up so much ground so quickly."
He cites women's marathon running, records for which have only been kept since 1964.
Women's best times have improved by an annual average of more than 2 minutes and 47 seconds compared with just 66 seconds for men.
The myths that have stood in the way of women's progress have their roots in 19th Century medical discourses, says Professor Cashmore.
He said the patriarchal society of the time was only too eager to accept the view that women were inferior to men.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, it was suggested that the enfeebling effects of menstruation could be best offset with "homely gymnastics" - otherwise known as housework.
Determined sportswomen were thought of as odd, unfeminine, and moral degenerates, writes Professor Cashmore, with sports intended for men alone.
Weightlifting apart, says Professor Cashmore, "it is at least possible that in all sports that demand skill as opposed to pure brawn, women might have been competing at levels comparable with their male counterparts".
Professor Cashmore conceded that men's greater strength was ultimately an advantage in many sports.
But he said women had already proved that they could equal - and in some cases out-perform - men in endurance sports such as long distance swimming and cycling.
"The differences between women's and men's bodies are apparent, but they respond to diet and training regimes in pretty much the same way," he said.
"Part of the problem is that in the past women have excluded themselves from sporting activity.
"There is pretty good evidence that they bought into the idea that sport was not a suitable thing for them to do, and some decided they wanted babies instead."
He believes women will never catch up with men, partly because he thinks there is too much money in women's sports.
Judo champion Karen Briggs believes women could only compete with men in sports which do not require power or strength.
"Women have to be a little bit more skillful to get the same performance as men and we have a long way to go before we can compete on the same level," she said.