Anti-trans Republicans don't give a damn about women's sports

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a proclamation declaring Emma Weyant (a Florida resident and former Olympian who attends the University of Virginia) to be the “rightful winner” of the 500-yard freestyle race at this year’s NCAA women’s swimming championship. Weyant finished second in the race, losing to Lia Thomas, a swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania.

Nicole Hemmer

DeSantis, who has never met a controversy he didn’t want to court, issued the proclamation because Thomas is transgender. This was not DeSantis’s first foray into anti-trans politics: Last year he signed a law banning transgender girls and women at public schools and colleges from participating on girls’ and women’s sports teams. At the time, he said, “As a father of two daughters, I want my girls, and every girl in Florida, to compete on an even playing field for the opportunities available to young women in sports.” More recently, he signed a bill that bans education involving sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade (popularly known by its opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill).
    The proclamation builds on a nationwide campaign against trans women competing in sports. That campaign has required a number of conservatives to do a 180 on women’s sports. Long a subject of derision and defunding by many on the right, now these sports have become sacrosanct.
      That about-face comes not because conservatives have discovered the value of women’s athletics, but because they have discovered its value in the broader field of anti-trans politics and the culture wars fueled by those politics. Though the new legislation comes with names like the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” DeSantis signed, the goal has nothing to do with securing equal resources, opportunity or pay for women athletes — issues the right has objected to for decades.
        In his proclamation, DeSantis insisted that he was acting “to preserve fair opportunities for female athletes,” and that “women have fought for decades to have equal opportunities in athletics.” What he failed to mention is that in those fights, historically the right has often been on the other side.
        That has been especially true when it comes to Title IX, an amendment signed into law 50 years ago. Title IX was meant to extend the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to education. When it was first passed, it contained no mention of sports. That changed in 1974, when conservative Republican senator John Tower of Texas sought to amend Title IX to exempt athletics from prohibitions against sex discrimination. The Tower amendment failed, but it triggered a decades-long battle about the relationship of Title IX to women’s sports.
          In the years that followed in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s (before DeSantis, now in his early 40s, was on the scene), Title IX became a focal point for conservatives who felt that equal opportunity protections for women athletes, rather than being a cause of celebration, was in fact robbing men of their opportunities. The pages of conservative magazines like National Review were full of articles attacking the law as an affirmative action program that harmed male athletes. As Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote for National Review in 2002, in a review of the anti-Title IX book “Tilting the Playing Field,” “Title IX…leads to a clearly unjust result. Women today have the upper hand in just about every area of education — except sports, so feminists are now demanding special privileges in that area as well.”
          That mention of “feminists” was important. For decades, efforts to gain equal access to sports was dismissed as the work of wild-eyed feminists. Pushing for equal opportunity for women was not the laudable work of conservatives seeking to protect the rights of women athletes, but rather the act of so-called “feminist gender warriors.”
          Nor was Title IX the only site of contention. As recently as the last few years, when soccer’s US Women’s National Team began calling for equal pay, the right had nothing but mockery. The idea that women should not only have equal opportunity but equal pay seemed laughable. Never mind that the women’s team had a better record and brought in more revenue than the men’s team. Were they worth more, the market would have already paid them more. As right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh put it in 2019, “It may sound cruel, it may sound unfair, but the marketplace is the marketplace.”
          Get our free weekly newsletter

          Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.

          Join us on Twitter and Facebook

            It was only once the right realized women’s sports could be a useful cudgel in anti-trans politics — nicely packaged as a rallying cry on behalf of America’s daughters — that they began to argue that this long fight for equality was, in fact, an honorable struggle, and that access to sports was key to women’s ability to thrive in both high school and collegiate settings.
            Yet these arguments have not led to calls for, say, more protections from predatory male coaches and doctors, or more funding for women’s athletics programs. Rather, it has offered only one solution: purging trans women from athletic competitions. Once they’ve done that, there will be nothing to stop them from returning to long-standing attacks on Title IX, leaving women athletes — both cisgender and trans — behind.

            Comments are closed.