Editor’s Note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
News that Alexis “Scrappy” Hopkins, the first woman ever to be drafted for an on-field position with Major League Baseball, will be joining the Atlantic League’s Kentucky Wild Health Genomes as a bullpen catcher is a milestone for the sport.
It’s also a major turning point in the hearts and minds of former softball girls like me, and hopefully a move in the right direction for gender equity in sports at a most urgent time. With legislative attacks aimed at blocking access to healthcare and sports for LGBTQ people and women, any moves toward greater gender equity are most welcome.
I played softball from the age of 3, all through my youth and adolescence and in bar leagues well into my 20s. I can still feel the relief of a cool, summer night’s breeze on the mélange of sweat and dirt caked on my face after a hard-played ballgame. I was a catcher, perpetually close to the ground and with perilous proximity to the backswing of the baseball bat. I spent hours squatting wedged between batter and umpire, ready to face the runner rounding third or stave off that steal to second base with my best long-range throw.
For someone who spent most days with a nose in a book or in front of a computer, softball was the one physical, visceral constant in my life that forced me to be in the moment, to sync my mind and body and be present, agile, collegial.
As much as I loved the game, I went to enough Major League Baseball games to know from an early age that softball was only ever intended to be a hobby for girls like me, because boys were the ones who could consider pursuing baseball or any professional sport as a career.
It’s hard to measure the impact of being told you can’t do something, that part of the world is closed off to you before you’re even aware of all the possibilities, simply because of who you are. It’s deeply unfair. In this day and age, when we’ve acknowledged that gender inequities plague Wall Street and STEM, government and Hollywood, progress is being made.
Professional sports are making strides, too, but are still slow to follow. If I could have seen a woman like Hopkins on the field growing up, I may have taken a different path. Or I would have at least known that more of the world was open to me, that I might see myself and girls like me reflected in it.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Women’s sports and their fans owe so much to the 1972 law that banned discrimination based on sex in any educational programs or activities facilitated by any institution receiving federal funds. Some sports have made greater strides than others, owed to ferocious women who didn’t give up, like Billie Jean King and Serena Williams in tennis and Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, who recently settled an unequal pay lawsuit in US women’s soccer.
Everyone who benefited from Title IX also stood on the shoulders of other women who broke glass ceilings before its passage. In baseball, that includes people like Effa Manley, the first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, who managed and co-owned the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues, Olivia Taylor, the first woman to own a Negro Leagues team, and Toni Stone, the first woman to play baseball regularly in a men’s professional league.
Of course, the north star is for women to be drafted in equal measure for equal roles at equal pay rates as men in MLB, but Hopkins’s edging into MLB history is tremendous news, not only for women in professional sports, but for those searching for hope at a time when women’s sports are being used as a political weapon.
The attack on women in sports is playing out most visibly with NCAA swimmer, Lia Thomas, the latest to be ensnared in the fearful jaws of those who aim to stamp out anything that deviates from our traditional understanding of gender.
Thomas made history when she became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title in the women’s 500-yard freestyle event recently. Not long after, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – who just this week signed the so-called “don’t say gay” bill into law – issued a ridiculous proclamation declaring Emma Weyant, an Olympian and Florida native who finished second to Thomas, the winner.
Meanwhile, a likely future US Supreme Court justice was interrogated before the Senate Judiciary Committee by Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who – along with Sen. Ted Cruz, demanded the nominee provide a definition of “woman.” She rightly would not answer in biological terms, saying only, “I know that I am a woman.”
It seems clear that Jackson understands that questions like these are about far more than women’s sports. They are about who we are, and what it means to be an American.
We can’t separate out women’s athletic achievements without acknowledging the treacherously contested landscape we continue to face. “The Queen of Basketball,” a short documentary about Lusia Harris, the first woman NBA draft pick and first woman to score a basket in Olympic women’s basketball, won the Academy Award for best short documentary on Sunday.
When director Ben Proudfoot took the podium to accept the award, he dedicated his airtime to calling on President Joe Biden to bring WNBA player Brittney Griner home from Russia where she has been detained for weeks after allegations she had hash oil in her carry-on luggage.
Griner is a poignant example of how stark the disparities remain between women and men in professional sports. The average NBA player earned $7.9 million a year, according to RunRepeat, which crunched salaries from 2021-2022. Griner, in contrast, has a base salary of $227,900, some 40 times lower.
Would she have felt compelled to play in Russia to make more if she were paid on a level with her male peers? Her identity as a Black, queer woman in Russia renders her more vulnerable, and it’s hard to imagine that outcry for her safe return wouldn’t be louder if she were, say, LeBron James or Steph Curry.
As the former US senator and professional basketball player Bill Bradley once said, “Sports is a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and achieving against great odds.” Indeed, what happens on the field, including who is even given a chance to win, is a microcosm for broader society.
Sports represents culture and vice versa – providing collective access, for our children especially, to self-expression, leadership, achievement and (at their best) joy. It’s no surprise that culture warriors and anti-LGBTQ+ activists have set their sights on sports. It’s where so many of us live.
And yet, when I feel frustrated by the slowness of progress, I remind myself that Hopkins and Thomas and Griner and Rapinoe are the latest in generations-long line of women who refused to settle for the roles we’ve been told we must fill. They’re not going to stop, nor will the ones who come after that.
That’s what I told myself as I signed my 4-year-old up for his first tee ball league this spring. I can’t help but feel both excitement and hope. I can’t wait for him to get a taste of the pure adrenaline of connecting the bat with the ball.
I also hold hope that Hopkins is the foot in the door that will edge open even wider for the next generation of women and gender diverse athletes. I am hopeful that the toddlers, both boys and girls, playing together on the tee ball fields across America today, will see themselves reflected in equal numbers – in representation, treatment and earning potential – when they are grown.
If I squint, I can imagine the little girls on my child’s team becoming women, competing under the bright lights in major league stadiums, dirt in their cleats, sweat on their brows, crowd cheering for them, not as second-rate players, but as professional athletes, taking up the same space as the men who came before them.