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Gender Developments in Sports

Sport to Signal Prowess

We all can agree sports represent prowess and status in some way. When we think of NFL players, we see them as icons, people who can push their bodies to the fullest, while providing us with entertainment and gaining achievements as we watch. When a player makes a touchdown or blocks a pass, we reward them the privilege of receiving recognition, thus gaining a higher status. Men in the 19th century had similar desires to what many aspire today: to ascertain their manliness and social status. This longing derived from the concept of physicality and intellectual awareness. The 19th century consisted of a period where sports and recreation started to develop. Sports and recreation started as lax competitions for fun that soon altered into more controlled and secure activities, while still maintaining the same aspects of competitiveness and entertainment. Sports in the 19th century continuously grew due to men’s persistent desire to demonstrate their power, and because of this, audiences began to become more devoted to sports and their preferred teams. These factors are still prevalent today, however, the main aspect that established from the 19th century was manliness, the ways in which it could be authenticated, and how it changed over the century.

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One classic example of a manly sport in the 19th century was prizefighting. This activity, created among the working class society, was the epitome of manliness and prowess. During this time, men spent extended hours in awful working conditions while earning low wages, and thus, needed a way to blow off steam.  To achieve this, they would devote their free time in taverns while drinking excessively, which typically led to fights. By participating in scuffles, these middle-class workers were able to release their dissatisfactions in a physical way. While establishing their physical ability, these men also sought to demonstrate their social dominance. The article, “New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity,” stated that “fighting those above them and going down in defeat only reinforced the b’hoys sense of social inferiority” (Kaplan 616). By winning against those who were classified as a lower class or not as equipped to fight back aggressively, was a method of representing one’s physical supremacy. Jacksonian culture also remained a big factor in the 19th century that demonstrated public acts of strength and class dignity.  This culture accepted the logistics of the country remaining predominately white. This concept arose from the notion that  native-born whites and immigrants were allowed to participate in fights, while women and blacks were banned from this activity. Once tavern violence became too unsafe, prizefighting was created to provide more structure and fewer injuries. Because of prizefighting, manliness was able to represent a vital aspect in sports, and a way to safely display a man’s skill. A very influential prizefighter named John L. Sullivan, the first gloved boxing Heavyweight Champion “…was looked up to on all sides, not only as a personage to be revered but as an oracle whose opinion was infallible and without appeal on all subjects connected with the Prize Ring” (The American Fistiana1).  This quote demonstrates that even though prizefighting was a way to showcase one’s physical abilities, Sullivan was able to validate his control with admiration and refinement, fighting or not fighting. This is a classic example of an athlete signaling prowess and status through his sport.

America’s favorite pastime, baseball, remained extremely comparable to prizefighting in its primary phases. Baseball originally did not possess a regulation of guidelines for the game or how it should remain structured. The reasons why the athletes got interested in this sport is also similar to those of prizefighting, yet, baseball was not concentrated around working-class men. Once beginning as a simple stick and ball game later developed into what it is now today! Rivalry arose when these players joined clubs and competed against other established clubs. Six features were created to outline how a sport should be determined as modern. These features were: rules, role differentiation, statistics and records, organization, public information, and competition (Adelman 6). Once members of the sporting community followed these guidelines and the modernization of baseball, it developed into a respected sport. It is clear baseball demonstrated prowess and status.  One individual wrote, “the game of Base Ball is one, when well played, that requires strong bones, tough muscle and sound mind…” (“New York City Base Ball”). Not only did baseball require manliness in the sense of physical strength, but it was also necessary to possess intelligence. “Baseball is an intellectual pursuit, which is indulged in only by gentlemen of the highest mental caliber, and by those whose minds have undergone a singularly-stringent training in the matter of intellectuality” (“Baseball At Delmonico’s” 5). Baseball inherently provided players with status since ,we as individuals, view those who retain much intelligence as a high member in society. This only proves how baseball fits into the category of men trying to demonstrate their social and intellectual abilities. Both baseball and prizefighting required meticulous moves, yet baseball used collaboration while enhancing the individual character of a player.

The 19th century recreational health fads signified prowess and status and has significantly changed over the years. People in this time demonstrated their vigor by their choices in specific lifestyle choices. During the 19th century, health fads were becoming increasingly examined and approved. One popular trend was the “Graham System,” which was accountable for many individuals altering their diets to vegetarianism, which was a testament to self-control. Having the self-restraint to eliminate an essential portion of one’s diet displays their mental power and skill. This self-control could have also shown their supremacy over an individual who was unable to accomplish the same. Graham writes a letter concerning an ill individual who decides to try his newly discovered health fad. He states, “in the short space of four months she has changed from a poor emaciated diseased creature, to a healthy, active girl of fair countenance, and days she now enjoys better health than she has at any time before for five years” (The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity 125). Although this does not verify that this régime was a cure-for-all, it did aid as an advertence to reflect the likelihood that one could live a healthier life by embarking in the new fad. The patient’s physical limitations were fixed which could have authorized her to display that prowess in sports—if permissible at that time. The new health findings helped her body to be able to endure physical activity. However, now in today’s society, we don’t necessarily view someone participating in vegetarianism as a symbol of prowess. We would typically not think anything of their dietary restriction, since today many individuals have even more complex dietary trends they follow religiously.

Moving onto another signal of prowess in the 19th century, was the sport of football. Football originated due to the impression that “American culture had become feminized” (Oriard 190). This belief goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of women in both the sports baseball and prizefighting. On the football field, women were considered “an ornament on male prowess” (Oriard 250). A major reason that football was invented was due to the working-class males feeling that their power was lessened in the home and the workplace, the middle-class males losing freedom, and upper-class males feeling a decline in control and rank (Oriard 190). The upper-class society gathered they were not displaying their authority and control due to the work they were doing was not considered hard labor—in short, the lower class was working more exhaustively than the upper-class. Football was able to provide a definite violence that would allow these men to endure enough masculinity in their physical attributes. In order to keep football more exclusive and elect from the working-class, it was select amongst college men, which were typically upper-class individuals, since they could afford the expenses of college. In doing so, this permitted men to display their high social status and how much more enhanced they believed they were than the lower classes. Football essentially followed in the tracks of prizefighting and baseball in the sense that it started as an disorganized game that was immensely unsafe. Football soon developed into a debatable sport due to critics and fans of prizefighting believing football possessed the same amount—or more—violence.  Regardless of critics’ opinions, football provided men the ability to showcase their prowess and status in some way, by playing an elite and exclusive sport that possessed much violence. This is somewhat relevant in today’s society, as playing in the NFL is considered a high status honor and football still possess dangers in the game.

A major concept in the 19th century that sports shared was the predominant forbiddance of women. Because these women were not allowed to partake in common sporting events, there was an opportunity for them to work out in a safer and more accepted way. Although the development of the bicycle was originally for young men to ride, the structure of the bicycle changed to accommodate everyone, including women. An article specified, “American girls are receiving much better physical training than their mothers, and the time must come when, in spite of what is called the nervous American climate, they may compare favorably in physique with their English cousins” (Smith 318). This signified the environment of competition in which the demonstration of physical attributes and skill expanded to women, instead of just men. Competition became progressively widespread and bike racing tournaments soon developed, allowing women to participate in sporting events. However, now in today’s sporting community, women and men are equal in partaking in sporting events. Men and women can enjoy the same sports, and both genders have their own sporting leagues.

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Now that the gender restrictions with participating in sports were diminishing, women were able to play basketball, a sport that flourished on competition. Although not as physically tedious as baseball, football, or prizefighting , basketball ultimately required immense amounts of intelligence and physical strength. Basketball required intuition because it included hand-eye coordination while simultaneously running up and down the court. Basketball was a cooperative sport that forced people to view competition in a wider range versus on a individual level. For example, in Basket Ball for Women when Sends Berenson wrote, “by team play I mean the play of individuals in such a way as to advance the interests of the tram as contrasted with the interests of the individual” ( Berenson 13). Berenson additionally describes that basketball is a sport consisted of individuals who may or may not be the best at the game independently. However, when the players come together, everyone plays at a more superior level as a team. Basketball follows the fad of needing the “team play” feature to be the most effective aspect of the game. Berenson described that she believed it was “more difficult to get women to do team-work than it is to get men to do so” (Berenson 15). This thought might be a reason why women were shunned from recreational and sporting activities during the 19th century.  Women, in that time, possessed many duties in the home setting and did not receive the chance to mature in a competitive and rough atmosphere like most men did. Women soon discovered the sport and recreation of gymnastics which led to the creation of a guide covering preliminary exercises—walking on tiptoe, good posture performance, running, leaping, balancing, vaulting, throwing, and much more (Jahn Contents).

In order to link recreation and sporting events together, we must analyze the concept of spectators. Spectators remained a significant part in the progression of sports during this time. When a spectator possessed an understanding of the players and guidelines of the game, that knowledge was viewed as superior intelligence. The site where these sports resided altered tremendously through the 19th century. Once sport and recreation began to gain more popularity, the need for fans to continue coming back increased. Spalding’s Baseball Guide gave specific rules on how viewers were meant to act and represent themselves during games.  Spectators also encompassed the true sense of competition due to the way they acted towards the opposing team players and fans. In all, Spalding’s Handbook of Sporting Rules and Training remained a vital document because it included important and common facts on all sports.

Overall, during the 19th century, men possessed the need to display their power and demonstrate their status within sport and recreation. The sports we know today originated because of the emotions of the three main social classes at differentiating periods throughout the 19th century.  Sports and recreation were able to demonstrate power and status due to prizefighting and baseball—the first sports that aided in the shaping of the structured and safe games we know today. Lifestyle changes in respects to health fads also helped to prove one’s self-control and could aid to create a healthier athlete. Additionally, football and basketball assisted to create more organized games, as well as stricter rules, ultimately resulting in safer games. Ultimately, women were permitted to partake in the sport and recreational lifestyle, but it was not completely accepted until later. The key ideas predominant in the 19th century comprised of manliness, power, the aspiration to demonstrate authority in social class, and how this desire aided in the alteration of certain sports.

Works Cited

  • Adelman, Melvin, “The First Modern Sport in America: Harness Racing in New York City, 1825-1870,” Journal of Sport History 8 (Spring, 1981).
  • “Baseball At Delmonico’s,” New York Times, 4/9/1889.
  • Basket Ball For Women (New York: American Sports Publishing Company, 1905).
  • Jahn, F.L., A Treatise on Gymnastics (Northampton: Simeon Butler, 1828).
  • Kaplan, Michael, “New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 591-617.
  • “New York City Base Ball,” NY Times 9/27/1856.
  • Oriard, Michael, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
  • Smith, Minna Caroline, “Women As Cyclers,” Outing June 1885.
  • Spalding’s Base Ball Guide (Chicago: A.G. Spalding, 1880).
  • The American Fistiana (New York: H. Johnson, 1849).
  • The Graham Journal of Health and Longevity vo. III no. 8 (Boston: 1839).


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