Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Equal Treatment or Special Treatment: Why Women Should be Allowed to Play in the British Open

Do feminists argue for "equal treatment" except when it doesn't benefit them?

I think this is a fair question, and worth considering. Two examples of such "double standards," regularly pulled out to criticize all feminists are (a) the fire department and (b) the draft.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard critics of feminism complain that the women who demanded to be let into the fire department for equality's sake, then turned around and demanded they not be subjected to the same physical examinations. Likewise, I have heard many skeptics of the feminist movement declare that women want equal access to the professions, but they don't want to share burdens equally, e.g. be drafted into military service.

Today, justme, alerted me to an interesting article about Jean Van de Velde, a French golfer demanding to play in the Women's British Open. His argument is that if women want to compete in men's golf tournaments, then you should be "fair" and let the men play in the women's tournaments.

Is this fair?

The implied criticism in de Velde's move is that women want to be considered equals for "male" tournaments in order to compete for bigger prizes, but they aren't willing to let men compete with women for (lesser) prizes in women's tournaments. However, is this the only way of making sense of what an equal right to compete would look like?

I find this a rather interesting puzzle and I think that there are, thankfully, more than one interesting feminist responses to the puzzle.

Before offering my proposal for how to reconsider the issue of who should qualify for what tournaments, and what counts as equality, I want you to consider an analogy (courtesy of SteveG). Each year American baseball teams engage in the World Series. Yes, I used the italics for a reason folks. The only teams vying for the world championship in baseball are American.

Let's imagine that a really amazing team from Japan, who had consistently beaten the best American teams wanted to compete in the World Series, should we be allowed to exclude them? Afterall, the contest is called "world," not American, and in this analogy, the Japanese team is "competitive." If you agree with me, that it seems reasonable and fair to include this team, especially given the title of the tournament, then why shouldn't we allow women to play in the British Open 2006 (it's not called the "men's open").

Furthermore, just because you might allow a Japanese team to play in the World Series doesn't mean that you should then abolish the minor leagues in baseball. (Is this a non sequitor, you ask?)

Let's see if I can bring you around to my way of thinking.

The fact that we have a Women's British Open and a British Open does not automatically suggest that we have two separate, but equal tournaments. If we unearth the history of why women have their own tournaments and their own golf association (LPGA), we are likely to find a history of discrimination, such that women needed to form their own organization.

One of the root causes of this discrimination is the assumption that men are bigger, faster, stronger and therefore always likely to be more competitive than women are. It just so happens that in many sports, this turns out to be true. But, what really makes the men good athletes is their athletic qualities, not the fact that they are men, right? If a woman were to possess athletic qualities such that she could successfully compete with the men, why would you want to exclude her from that event. Furthermore, why conclude that her right to compete with the men implies the men's right to compete with the women?

Here comes back the "minor league" analogy. Let's consider, for the sake of argument, that the women's tournaments are de facto "minor leagues." On average, women tend to not play at the same level as men golfer's do. However, there is some excellent female talent, which people enjoy watching as much as watching minor league teams. Every once inawhile, the talent from the women's tournaments makes it to the "show." (Can you believe all the sports metaphors that I am mixing here?)

What I am getting at here is that the problem with equality is complicated by a history of sexism. One of the artifacts of a sexist history is that we tend to dichotomize the sexes and assume certain qualities of men and different, and often inferior, qualities of women. This gender polarization underlying many of our cultural institutions and practices has lead us to group people, particulary in sports leagues, by sex.

We have men's basketball and women's basketball. And yet, perceiving that a necessary characteristic of being a good NBA player is being a man is wrong (a category mistake). The necessary and sufficient conditions of being a good NBA player would be: height, agility, talent, and endurance. I don't think male genitalia is all that necessary. It just so happens, though, that most people qualified for playing NBA ball are men. But, they aren't qualified because they are men.

I think athletic teams should seek out the best talent for their competitions, and in doing so, not rule out women. Granted less women will be qualified for the British Open, but that doesn't mean they won't be qualified at all. If they are qualified, then isn't it fair to let them play, assuming they have earned their place?

And, instead of thinking that the only fair response is to let men play in the Women's Open, why not reframe the tournaments that turn out to be largely women as a "minor" golf league. Then, of course, it is not a reciprical move to allow men into the "minor" league. In fact, it doesn't make any sense. Why would you want to suggest that allowing competitive women into the British Open gives men the right to sign up for "minor" league tournaments, where they are overqualified.

You see, I have reframed this whole issue away from gender and toward ability. The flaws and problems that often come about in legal remedies to sexism which tend to "integrate" pro Golf tournaments that formerly excluded women, really are the fault of maintaing gender categories as natural ways of dividing up athletic competitions.

Would you need a women's poker tournament as opposed to a men's poker tournament? Why sex segregation in Billiards?

It just seems silly. I propose that you stop making gender the overriding consideration, and focus on whether or not the men or women at issue can fairly compete with one another.