Steph Houghton of England in action during a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine in May 2014. Photo: Getty
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Why is men’s football the default “proper” sport, while the women’s game is merely a pale imitation?

Everything a women’s football team does is taken to represent the “quality” of the sport as a whole, while male players are allowed to be judged as individuals. We have to put an end to this sexism.

The mere introduction of women’s soccer as a subject of conversation provokes ‘common sense’ observations from sexists about how “no one wants to watch women’s soccer” because women are weaker, slower etc. That is sexist. That the people who work on women’s soccer have to defend women’s athletic ability in order to participate in any conversation about women’s soccer – that is sexist.”

Jennifer Doyle

I’m never sure whether to be amazed, disturbed or amused at the kind of conversations that can come up when the subject of women and sport, particularly football, is introduced. I’m a little more sure that writing my thoughts about it is going to lead to whole load of grief.

The quote at the top of this blog comes from a revealing post by Jennifer Doyle, a feminist academic who writes extensively about sport, particularly football. Her football writing can be found at the From A Left Wing blog, and her current wider writing about sport at The Sport Spectacle. It is interesting to read Doyle’s piece On the Sexism of Football Scholars and Sports Critics, or indeed much of her other writing, in the light of the post made by sports journalist and academic Carrie Dunn on this website just a week ago. Or rather, in the light of some of the comments posted on that blog.

Dunn’s blog questioned the routine erasure of women’s sporting achievement from much discourse, and went on to raise some pertinent points about the relative absence of women’s voices in football journalism – about which I’ll say more in a minute. And yet, once again, many of the comments pitched up the old “women’s football is not as good/interesting/lucrative as men’s” argument. This argument spectacularly misses the point.

For many people, myself included, women’s football and men’s football are separate sports. So the discussion about which is “better” is irrelevant. What’s more relevant is why one is seen as the default “proper” sport, and the other a pale imitation. Or why the England women’s team’s failure to progress from the group stages at the last women’s World Cup is seen as so much more of a let-down than the failure of the England men’s team to do the same at the last men’s World Cup. The failure of England’s women was used in many quarters to write off the women’s game, while the failure of the men was merely used to write off individuals. It reflects a wider culture in which an individual woman achieving or not achieving is all too often taken as an emblem of what all women can do, while what an individual man does is indicative of no more than that individual.

Diverting the discussion into the kind of “men are stronger than women” argument that Doyle says she had to deal with as an eight-year-old on the school bus is quite a handy way of avoiding the more serious issues about why women’s sport, and women’s sporting achievement, is treated so differently. And that matters because sport needs an audience, and the commercial prospects that audience offers, to thrive. If the message being constantly peddled is that women’s sport is somehow less valid than men’s, it becomes so much more difficult for women’s sport to develop, and for women athletes to have the same chances as men.

It matters, too, because of the kind of thing that happened to English women’s football team the Doncaster Belles, which I wrote about in a couple of posts last year. Interestingly, it was put to me while I was researching those pieces that much of the press interest in the case came from a media that rarely concerned itself with the women’s game, so criticism of a Football Association that was at least trying to implement some solutions was a bit rich. As Dunn, who I asked for a comment on the piece, said at the time: “It’s almost as if they’re saying ‘Well, you complained when we did nothing for women’s football; now we’re doing something so you should be grateful’.”

The real anger provoked by the Belles case, and many others around women in sport, is over why women should have to prove themselves in ways men would never be expected to, or accept different frameworks that go beyond arguments about biological determinism. And it’s at this point that the kind of links that powerful elites worry about can be made. Because, as Doyle pointed out when she wrote about the Doncaster Belles: “Sexism does not stand alone. The FA did what it did to kill the women’s game in the 1920s not because women weren’t suited to football (that’s the official reason they gave)… The FA did what it did because the women’s game was organised differently. It represented a different cultural possibility.”

What also angers the many women interested in both men’s and women’s football, and the women interested in one or the other, is being told by men how they we should enjoy or consume sports. That comes up regularly in the discussions I have with women football fans and football journalists. And it comes alongside a list of irritations including commissioning men to write pro women’s sport pieces because that carries more gravity, the apparent ease with which a woman criticising anything that can be dubbed “feminism” seems to have in finding an outlet, or simply drivel such as the Telegraph’s “How to sound like an expert while your boyfriend’s watching football”.

I know that because I have conversations with those women. It’s an indication of how much is wrong with this whole discussion that I even have to write that. But discussions of this sort are often marked by the lofty pronouncements of people speaking on others’ behalf, and I’m conscious that, with every sentence of this blog, I’m walking a tightrope.

That pressure on every move is something many women sports writers are acutely aware of. Few I speak to want to go on the record about this stuff, because it further decreases their chances of getting an overwhelmingly male sports journalism establishment to commission them. As one told me: “I could probably earn more money in a year writing about the ‘problem’ of coverage of women’s sports than I could from writing about women’s sports.”

That’s not to say that there are no women’s voices in the sports media. There are many excellent female journalists in print and broadcast plying their trade. But, as Eleanor Oldroyd observed on her Twitter feed in the run-up to Saturday’s England game:

That prompted former Guardian sports journalist Ian Ridley to tweet

The writer Ridley referred to was Hadley Freeman, whose piece on her assignment to the World Cup, published on 2 June, almost prompted a number of people I know to punch their computer screens out. That, incidentally, is no criticism of Freeman, I writer I like and whose dispatches from Brazil have included some sharp observations of the absurdity of FIFAland. But it’s not hard to understand why that piece, with its perpetration of the ditzy female footballing ignoramus, prompted much slapping of foreheads. Raising the point is not so much a criticism of Freeman as of the mentality of the sports department that came up with the wizard wheeze.

As I’ve already said, merely writing this has involved something of a tightrope walk. From checking my privilege to being overly right-on, I’m opening myself up to a comment thread flaying. When I tweeted my annoyance at that Telegraph piece, one female sports writer who is a very good friend of mine tweeted back that she thought it was quite funny. But that’s the thing. All women don’t think the same. A bit like men.

The point is that, when there’s a disagreement among men, the conversation does not quite as rapidly progress into one that challenges their ability or even right to hold an opinion at all. As Doyle points out in the quote at the top of this blog, it’s this seemingly inexorable line of conversation that is the problem.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.