Women’s sports are more popular than ever – so why are there only three statues of female athletes in the UK?
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Since the ancient Greeks and their Olympians, statues have been a way to commemorate athletic achievement. In recent decades, the global inventory of sporting monuments has grown to include a wide range of sports. There is no rulebook governing which athletes deserve commemoration – but those chosen for such an honour can tell us much about the values and priorities of modern sporting culture.
One notable theme in sports statuary is how few statues there are of women. The sporting statues project database has recorded statues around the world of more than 750 different football players and managers – but only seven are from the women’s game – and all were erected in the past decade. This includes the current England women’s coach, Sarina Wiegman, who is Dutch, at the Netherlands football HQ in Zeist.
The US has more than 300 baseball statues, yet only two are of female players. Across the UK, of the 220 sportspeople who have been honoured by statues, only three are women. Dorothy Round, twice Wimbledon ladies singles winner in the 1930s, is commemorated in her home town of Dudley. Dame Mary Peters won Olympic gold in the pentathlon in 1972 – her statue now overlooks the Belfast athletics track that bears her name. Lily Parr was the goal-scoring star of the boom in women’s football following the first world war. Her sculpture was commissioned by the National Football Museum in Manchester and unveiled in 2019.
An immediate and cynical reaction to this would be to assume that organisations, groups and sponsors who organise and pay for these monuments have a deeply misogynistic streak. But I don’t think this is the case. The lack of statues of sportswomen does reflect discrimination, but not necessarily in the discussions about choosing who to honour with a statue. Rather, it is a symptom of historical marginalisation of women within sport, the sports most likely to have their heroes cast in bronze, and the motivations of sports organisations, civic authorities and fans when erecting a new statue.
Team sports players are far more likely to receive a statue than athletes within individual sports. Of the UK’s 220 subject-specific sports statues, almost half depict footballers (106), with rugby players (15) or cricketers (10) also featuring regularly. Team sports organisations such as football clubs have money to pay for statues, land to erect them on, and the fan base to campaign for them. They also have a variety of motivations for commissioning a statue, such as increasing fan attachment through nostalgia and a sense of their club’s authenticity, or giving their shiny new stadium a sense of club-specific visual identity.
In the UK and elsewhere, women have historically faced resistance to their participation in the most popular team sports. For example, between 1921 and 1971, the Football Association banned women’s teams from playing at FA-affiliated football grounds. Therefore, the sports most likely to have statues of their heroes are the very same sports in which female participants have been marginalised. And, even when they do take part, women are starved of the professional competition and media coverage that could elevate them to popular heroes.
Where are the statues of sportswomen?
While women’s team sports have received a much higher profile in the past decade, this hasn’t boosted the numbers of sportswomen with statues. This is likely due to the influence of fan nostalgia when selecting statue subjects. Sport statues are as much about memory as history – famous athletes who retired 20-30 years ago are the most likely to be honoured. This works against our current barrier-breaking women’s footballers, whose exploits are too recent to generate a sense of nostalgia.
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On the other hand, there are far fewer statues depicting legends from individual sports, due to the lack of a cohesive club-centric infrastructure and fan base. Where such statues do exist, they are most likely to feature combatants from the more dangerous sports, such as motor racing (22 such statues in the UK) and boxing (16 UK statues and many more worldwide). These sports generate a strong sense of community within their participants and fans. They also often have an additional motivation to erect a statue – the death of a competitor. The small village of Ballymoney, Northern Ireland, has sculptures of three champion motorcycling members of the Dunlop family, all killed in action while road racing.
As with team sports, there have been historic barriers to female participation in such risky individual events, reducing the probability of a female statue subject. The first woman received a UK licence to box professionally in 1998 and only a handful of women have ever raced in an F1 grand prix.
The events in which women have had more opportunities to display their talent in front of large crowds and seep into popular culture are non-dangerous individual sports – notably athletics, swimming, equestrianism and tennis. Overall, there are relatively fewer statues of competitors from individual sports as compared to team sports, regardless of gender. When they do exist, however, there is less bias against women as statue subjects.
Globally, and in the UK, there are roughly equal numbers of statues of male and female tennis players. Around the world there are more statues of male track and field athletes, but female athletes make up between 25% and 30% of subjects, reflecting the smaller proportion of Olympic events they have historically been able to compete in (until 1972, the longest distance race open to women was the 800m). This suggests that, where women’s sport has been elevated to a level similar to equivalent men’s events, heroes have emerged that the public want to celebrate, and their gender is not counting against them being monumentalised.
The lack of statues of female athletes should make us think about the merits of sporting achievements. Heroic performances, popular acclaim and nostalgic sentiment are often placed above pioneering organisational work, breaking down barriers and inspiring others. Breaking the “bronze ceiling” calls for a change in these priorities.
Chris Stride does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.