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Women’s physical and athletic abilities

[This started as a comment on a post [1] about this topic. It’s since expanded.]

One of the side effects of all the discussion around including transwomen in women’s sports has been the regular repetition that women are slower and weaker and can’t compete with the male-bodied. I wanted to add a biologist’s view on that and then mention something I saw about ultramarathoners.

So I’ll start with women being smaller, weaker, and all the rest.

When I was young and foolish I once asked my biology teacher why it was that way. It seems to cause nothing but problems. She pointed out that female physiology and anatomy puts its first priority on producing the next generation. Take for instance menstruation. If you have that level of internal bleeding in any other organ, male or female, you’re in the emergency room. Women’s physiology can withstand it to the extent that some women can even run marathons at the same time.

Males, on the other hand, expend very little physical capital in producing the next generation. In nature’s cold calculations, that means they’re expendable. You don’t need very many of them and you’ll still have a next generation. The tribes that survived the most were the ones where males used that expendability in the service of the tribe: they did the dangerous jobs of defense against other people and wild animals. Obviously, for that task, you’ll last longer if you’re big, fast and strong.

But wouldn’t women last longer too, by the same logic, if they were big and fast and strong? No, for a very simple reason. All that muscle and large skeleton and higher basal metabolism takes calories to maintain. For most of human history, calories were in short supply.

A pregnant or nursing woman with male athletic abilities would have a physiology that required way more calories per day, on the order of over 4000, instead of the 3000 or so she needs if she’s woman-sized. Interestingly enough, athletic men have caloric requirements of around 3000 too.

So the system as evolution worked it out for us is that both sexes have similar peak needs and can survive under similar conditions. Some of the peak work they do differs, but the overall requirements are the same. That allows them to live together in groups, which has lots of survival value itself, instead of living like two different species that have different requirements.

As for the problems caused by strength differences, it’s worth remembering that from an evolutionary standpoint, no tribe would last very long if the bear-fighters in it decided to use their strength to damage the next generation instead of help it. Hurting the mothers of it does exactly that. Evolutionary biologists call that reduction in offspring “reducing evolutionary fitness,” and a very small reduction is enough to wipe out a species.

Misogyny is a luxury available only to rich species.

Point 1 is that women push their bodies and physical abilities to a level like that of elite athletes, with the difference that most women do childbirth and nursing, but plenty of men don’t put large demands on their bodies at all. The weakness people keep yammering on about is pretty much limited to a few specific activities that men excel in.

Point 2 is that the usual solution to significant differences in sporting ability is to segregate the participants into different classes. There are youth leagues and seniors’ events. There are eight (8!) classes in boxing separated by approximately eight pounds, just a bit over three and a half kilos. And there are men’s sports and women’s. Only in the latter case do some people claim that large differences in bone and muscle mass don’t matter. They’ve decided only testosterone levels must approach those found in women. That’s particularly odd given that, for instance, in a sport like boxing fighters will try to dehydrate themselves [2] to pass as a lower weight class and then have the advantage of an extra few pounds of mass (not muscle, just water) during the fight itself.

It’s actually more than odd since scholarships, prize money, or college tuition can be at stake. Taking those away from women on grounds that aren’t applied in any male classes of sport smacks of misogyny.

And, last, point 3. The much-ballyhooed business of being weaker. Turns out that’s not true in some very demanding sports. Are women better ultra-endurance athletes than men? [3] asks Sophie Williams.

“He [Dr Nicholas Tiller, a senior lecturer in applied physiology at Sheffield Hallam University] said that in ultra-endurance races, athletes are never working close to their maximum capacity. It is much more about peripheral conditioning, oxygen efficiency and mental toughness.” …

Fiona Oakes, an ultra-marathon runner and holder of four world records [said,]

“Certainly from when I’ve done races, women manage themselves in a completely different way,” she told the BBC.

Let’s see … tougher, better able to cope with emotions, more stamina … not your usual definition of “weaker,” is it?

Sometimes — well, all the time — I dream of a better world in which we’ve dropped all the stupid boxes nobody really fits in anyway. Instead, we’re in awe of the amazing diversity of strengths we have.

Fiona Kolbinger, winner, 2019 Transcontinental Race

Fiona Kolbinger, whose day job is cancer research, wins the 4000km 2019 Transcontinental (Europe) Race 10 hours ahead of the guy in second place. (Photographer unknown)

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Women’s physical and athletic abilities"

#1 Comment By Branjor On 15 Aug, 2019 @ 12:50

This is a really interesting post. I understand the position most people take these days that women are “naturally” weaker than men in some or most athletic areas, but I am not entirely convinced. I am going back and forth on it, considering this evidence and that. Just as an aside, about me, I have never been a “go along with the crowd” type for as long as I can remember. I have taken unpopular positions and those which others thought they knew were factually wrong. I had the experience starting in elementary school of being the only one in the class to argue for a particular answer on a test and being laughed at by the rest of the class, only to have the teacher tell them that I was indeed right and they were wrong. This happened over and over again, into high school and even college at times. Anyway, I know (or think I know) that men, on average, are larger and have more muscular strength than women. But I am not convinced that this is natural, innate, unchangeable and uninfluenced by the restrictions that patriarchy has put on our bodies. Accordingly, I find this article on the subject interesting and worthy of consideration. (It is the last of a series of 3 articles written about it.):


#2 Comment By quixote On 19 Aug, 2019 @ 14:55

Biologically, yes, the differences between the sexes in muscular strength — on average — are innate. Which is to say, for instance, that Serena Williams is a lot stronger than plenty of men below the top of the male scale.

There was also something I saw recently about archeological finds of prehistoric humans where they looked at the biomechanics of skeletons. They realized that female skeletons showed evidence of, by our standards, massive strength. They went back to reevaluate other skeletons and saw that some assumed to be male based on bone thickness and size of tendon attachments (both indicative of muscle strength) were actually female based on other morphology. Girls and women who do lots of heavy labor are, duh!, going to develop skeletons that show it.

Interestingly, though, being strong, by itself, doesn’t change much in terms of oppression. Russian women generally did much of the heavy work in farming and industry, but they did and do have appalling levels of male violence against women. As Steve Biko said, the first weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

#3 Comment By pdxpat On 29 Aug, 2019 @ 02:03

Several things:

Women broke the hundred year long drought in U.S. Olympic fencing in 2004, with a woman winning gold in saber (that most masculine of the three weapons). U.S. women followed that by resounding wins in all categories in the next Olympics, with the men lagging far behind.

Can’t find the cites now, but I do know that women and men competed in fencing in the same venues until a woman beat the pants off men sometime in the early 1900’s. After that, women were forbidden to fence men in competition (they did anyway, up to to the level of officially USFA sanctioned matches).

Also as a runner for some decades, I knew for male physiology vs. mine, the stats were mostly a matter of built-in VO max. That was something only the most elite runners had to rely on – no one I knew or even knew of – and had nothing to do with endurance.

Women’s bodies are a miracle machine: we give blood every month on a scale that would cause men to pass out, our hormonal system for that and pregnancy is a master level course in semiotics (as a precise coordination of chemical reactions on immutable schedules, it more than fulfills the definition of “displacing events in time”) and we do this while carrying on and just living life everyday.

Also, since at least the 1950’s or so, most “brute strength” jobs have required nothing more than the ability to master machinery. Witness the overgutted males on most road crews – no more strength required than that for pushing a few buttons on their graders, shovels or back hoes. But these are segregated based on “strength”, shutting women out of yet another field of well paying jobs.

#4 Comment By quixote On 31 Aug, 2019 @ 15:27

The bit about fencing is particularly interesting. Gives me visions of an alternate history. One in which women had their rightful place in the high and far off times when well-dressed dudes got huffy about the least little thing and called each other out to swordfighting duels.

Getting the giggles seeing them all wiped out by women saying, “Enough of this stupid shit. Shut up, already.”

#5 Comment By pdxpat On 01 Sep, 2019 @ 22:59

And the men responded by taking their (figurative) ball and placing it in a different competition.

Fencing and soccer are two of the most physically demanding sports there are. U.S. women just happen to excel in both Рtouch̩, boys!

#6 Comment By pdxpat On 01 Sep, 2019 @ 23:23

Just went through too many searches (what’s up with that, Startpage & Google?) to make sure I had the number of years right.

Yep, 100 since U.S. won gold in fencing, and Mariel Zaguris did that in 2004. And then found that a Portland trucking company just this past October negligently crushed her foot, effectively ending this stellar athlete’s career. And of course, in that short article, the Oregonian reporter puts the level of pain on a par with the seriousness of ending this historic woman’s career, describing her only as an Olympic gold medal fencer.


#7 Comment By pdxpat On 01 Sep, 2019 @ 23:47

Ouch. Mariel *Zagunis*. Don’t know how that “r” got in there.

#8 Comment By quixote On 03 Sep, 2019 @ 01:41

Aargh. Horrible about the fencer’s injury!

It’s been weird in a ragemaking way to see what Historiann called the Great Forgetting applied to women in real time. I still remember as a kid and a teenager people pompously saying, “Well, if women have the same talent, why aren’t there any female Shakespeares and Rembrandts” and, and, and.

Then you find out that history is littered with them, but people refused to credit them. But somehow I just assumed they wrote them out of the *history* books. Watching the process happen, I see them suppressing any mention of women’s accomplishments right now, as they happen. There’s some kind of unwritten agreement that We Won’t Discuss Anything Done By Women. It Cannot Count. How did they all get the memo? How is there 99.999999% automatic cooperation with it?

Like this fencer. I’d never even hear of her. Going off to read up now.

#9 Comment By pdxpat On 14 Sep, 2019 @ 00:35

Okay, full disclosure (if it’s even needed – that trail of breadcrumbs was pretty wide)

I was a fencer in college and part of the nucleus of their fencing team. One extraordinary (woman, of course) coach let us all practice after hours. She put in hours every week of unpaid time and sheparded us into the oh-so-moneyed local fencing scene.

I had to drop out when Nixon cut college loans and I had to go to work for $1 an hour to stay in school. My male classmates and peers could work for $4 an hour: a 4:1 advantage, since we all had the same 60 minutes in every hour to study, and our grades did not cut me or any woman any slack for this.

I applied to my state uni’s student employment office for those $4/hr factory jobs and was told, in 1970something that “those jobs were for male students”. Literally. Many years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had supposedly become law. (Again, just why am I supposed to fight for any man’s rights before my own?)

To even stay in school, I had to drop the atheletic love of my life, fencing, and submit to the harassment of waitressing, where it was commonplace for some male drek to demand my phone number or tell me (this was literal) he’d had a hard day and I was there for him to take it out on.

In 1974, the Civil Rights commission finally gave in to NOW’s pressure and started to enforce its laws for women. That summer, I was actually allowed to apply for a trade job and got (lucky me!) painting buildings. I learned a lot about the tedium of manual labor and its rewards: a highly trained mind goes off on its own during those hours -and- I could see, learn and correct a job done well or not. No stupid male peer to tell me I pleased or didn’t please him in order to earn my living.

That job came too late to let me keep my all time athletic love, but the college, with that wonderful coach, went on to form a terrific team and even award scholarships for women fencers.

It’s the one thing, other than taking my Guzzi through linked 25-40/mph turns a hair above my ability, that’s ever pushed me into that trancendent state where one is not even a body, but the mind controlling the body. A tennis player first described this for me, but I recognized it instantly.

Fencing’s been described as “chess at a thousand miles per hour”. I’m very very glad women are finally being recognized as champions in this quintessence of mind and body.

#10 Comment By quixote On 17 Sep, 2019 @ 13:21

Interesting history, pdxpat! I love the description “Fencing is chess at a thousand miles an hour.”

Also this just in as they say: “Sarah Thomas, completed the first ever FOUR WAY Channel swim, England – France, and back, TWICE. Non stop. In the 150 year history of the sport this has never been attempted let alone completed.”

via [5].