Races for women play an important role

6 May 2019

Races for women play a significant role for women and have created new ways for both men and women to take part in sports. These are some of the results from a completed research project.

Participating in a race for women plays an important role for women and increases self-confidence among participants. Women aim to perform as well as they can, and they place most emphasis on their physical performance, despite the organisers’ often stereotypical framing of the popular festival as something in which to indulge yourself.

That is one of the conclusions of research on races for women conducted by Karin S. Lindelöf and Annie Woube from 2011 to 2018 at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University. The research has now been completed.

“The participants focus on and are encouraged by their physical performance. They appreciate the women’s races because they perceive them as a more equal competition and like the fact that a woman comes in first,” says Karin S. Lindelöf, ethnologist and senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University. “They do not feel that people stare at them to the same extent as in mixed races; what matters is the feeling that their bodies are functioning. The fact that a great number of women take part means that the significance of gender disappears.”

Beginning in the 1980s, races for women developed around the actual reality and responsibilities of women. Gender inequalities, such as expectations that women had and still have greater responsibility for the home, has meant that men have had more access to leisure time than women. Prevailing male athletic norms also signalled that races were not something for women.

Related side events may be problematic

Each year hundreds of thousands of people participate in some of the Swedish races for women, such as Vårruset (Spring Race) or Tjejmilen (Women’s 10-km Run). Organisers often market the competitions using terms such as solidarity, celebration and joy – without hustle and bustle – something done with colleagues or friends. Ever since the 1980s, the target audiences for the races have been based on the organisers’ perceptions of what women are interested in or want to have. The major races often have been surrounded by related side events such as shopping tents, entertainment and social activities that some participants think are problematic.

“Many participants feel a great ambivalence towards the concept of ‘girl’ (the Swedish term ‘tjej’ means girl) in this context,” says Annie Woube, ethnologist and researcher at the Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University. “Organisers frame the events with a set of preconceptions and prejudices about gender and femininity that not everyone agrees with. But the participants themselves focus on their physical performance and experience this as encouraging and confidence-building. Participants in the study repeatedly comment that sports in a single-sex context is liberating.”

A kind of modern housewife holiday

For several years Karin S. Lindelöf and Annie Woube have studied how recreational races for women work and what makes them so popular. Previously they have stated that many of the participants see trips to women’s races as an escape from everyday life – a kind of modern housewife holiday. Now they are reporting all their conclusions – their entire, fully analysed, complete materials – and conclude their research on women’s races with the book I tjejers spår – för framtids segrar: Om tjejlopp och villkor för kvinnors motionsidrottande (“In Women’s Footsteps – for Future Victories: About Women’s Races and the Context of Women’s Recreational Sports”)

The researchers have interviewed participants and have had access to accounts from more than 600 women who participated in the races called Vårruset, Tjejmilen or Tjejvasan (a ski race). Most have shared their experiences through written accounts in response to a call for submissions that the researchers issued during the 2011–2013 period in cooperation with Nordiska Museet. They also have their own autoethnographic reports from when they have participated in women’s races themselves.

Has created new ways to take part in sports

Women’s races have changed the world of exercise and created new ways to participate in sports. While both male and female racers focused on performance and competition before, now there is a large group whose exercise is moderate, inclusive and functional.

“Women’s races introduced a different perspective in which pride in performance, in executing races and being able to use the body in a functional way are more important than cutthroat competition. What started in races like Vårruset and Tjejmilen, which focused on making it easier and fun to exercise, has been followed by other races that are for everyone, including the Blodomloppet and Midnattsloppet races. “You can let go of the idea that it’s about being the best and that performance is all that is measured,” says Karin S. Lindelöf, ethnologist and senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University.

Summary of the three main findings

  1. Participation in women’s races is what creates encouragement and builds confidence. For the participants, taking part in the race and their own performance are the driving force, and they focus on the sport itself. Solidarity with other women and taking part in sports together in a single-sex context is also important. This is true despite the fact that races for women are portrayed as a wimpish variation and “a fun thing” for which you do not need much training.
  2. For many women the races serve as an introduction to a sports world they have not known or been familiar with. Women’s races often serve as an introduction to longer and mixed races.
  3. The races have created new ways to engage in sports, with the emphasis on using the body in a moderate and functional way. These ideas have become more widespread, leading to the emergence of several single-sex and mixed-gender races with a more inclusive context, unlike male-coded sports where winning is the only goal.

In the coming years the researchers will continue to study gender aspects of participation in extreme races, ultramarathons, the Iron Man and various types of races under extreme conditions.