Who Counts as an American?

This blog post was inspired by a post on Skepchick, entitled “No, Meb Keflezighi Was Not the First American to Win the Boston Marathon Since 1983.”  Author Jamie (no last name provided) shows headline after headline from major news outlets declaring that Meb Keflezighi was the first American to win the Boston Marathon since 1983. Unfortunately, that statement erased the win of Lisa Larsen Rainsberger, an American woman who won the marathon in 1985. Was she not an American? Did she not count because she was a woman?

I wish I could say that this was a rare occurrence and that this particular linguistic tidbit was the first time I’d seen it happen. However, as we discussed before, men are considered unmarked and women are considered marked in our culture. Another term that is useful to know (besides unmarked and marked) is “erasure.” Erasure is what generally happens when one group is marked and one is unmarked. Because the unmarked is considered the “default,” a group containing only unmarked people can be described as “people,” whereas generally a group of only marked people will be specifically called by the name of that marked group. By describing a group of only men as “Americans” while ignoring American women, journalists who discuss Meb Keflegizhi’s win are participating in the erasure of American women.

The erasure of women is an incredibly common occurrence, especially in the language of sports. Why are the two associations called the NBA and the WNBA? Why is there a World Cup and a Women’s World Cup? When was the last time you heard someone refer to MLB games as “Men’s Baseball?” When was the last time you heard the Indiana Fever referred to as just “basketball” and not “Women’s Basketball?” Why do we consistently erase professional female athletes in favor of male ones?

I think it’s important to put these discrepancies into context. For a long time in the US, sports were for men and not for women. There weren’t professional female athletes (apart from unusual circumstances à la A League of Their Own) and even public schools did not have to have any female teams; financial resources for athletic competitions were something only the boys received.Then Congress passed Educational Amendments of 1972. As part of the amendments, any educational program receiving federal funding could not discriminate on the basis of sex. If there was a boy’s basketball team, there now had to be a girl’s basketball team (or equivalent funding in a different sport with more interest). This landmark legislation is known as Title IX.

Things have improved dramatically for girls and women wishing to compete in school sports in the K-12 and collegiate level since 1972, but unfortunately this has not translated to all that much more interest in women’s sports. Language follows culture, and until the culture changes, the language will not change (for the most part).

So what can you do? Well, on a non-linguistic note, you can start following women’s sports. I know that seems hard because they’re not as accessible as men’s sports, but because we live in the age of the internet, I believe it’s possible. Get together at your friends house and watch a rousing game of WNBA (as opposed to the MNBA, naturally). If you’re not that into sports (admittedly, I am not outside of the linguistic issues and the athletes I know personally from tutoring), you can keep a close eye on what you say. Take after an academic counselor I know, who when asked what team she counselled for proudly stated “Men’s Football.” (It should be noted that there was no women’s team.)

Also, congratulations to Meb Keflezighi on being the first American to win a Boston Marathon since 1985!

Share Button

3 thoughts on “Who Counts as an American?

  1. hanoumatoi

    Uh, I appreciate the effort to recognize that women get erased, but what about other erasures? Tatyana McFadden, an American, won the Boston Marathon women’s pushrim this year, and Jean Driscoll won 8 times, 1990-1996, and then again in 2000. I watched her crash in 1997, and was heartbroken for her.

  2. Katie

    I think you confused your terms in the article. You start off saying men are marked and women are unmarked. Then you go on to say the marked group is erased because the unmarked is considered the default. You also say that the unmarked group will be considered “people” where the marked group is call out by what makes them marked.

    While this is the first time I’ve seen this concept called out in these specific terms I am aware of the concept and think you made the mistake in the first reference, rather then the rest of them.

  3. Brad Whistance

    Id like to answer two of the posed questions, if I may.

    1: that statement erased the win of Lisa Larsen Rainsberger, an American woman who won the marathon in 1985. Was she not an American? Did she not count because she was a woman?

    The winner of the race is the first person to cross the line, man or woman. I’ve run road races in my day, and there are plenty of female athletes that can beat me no trouble. I thoroughly support honouring the first male and female to finish in events such as the Boston Marathon, as well as a separate but concurrent set of disabled participants. There remains, however, one, overall winner. This year, for the first time since 1983, that champion was an American.

    2: Why are the two associations called the NBA and the WNBA?

    Both men and women are allowed to compete in the NBA. NBA teams have signed 2 female players, Ann Myers and Lusia “Lucy” Harris. More recently, Mark Cuban raised the possibility of signing Brittney Griner. (Who is incredible and a must-see btw) Men are not permitted to compete in the WNBA, hence the designation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *