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Mill and High School Wrestling

April 12, 2011

I came across this article when it came out in February, and found it very interesting, both because of the actual event and the strong comments by CNN bloggers on either side of the debate. In February, Iowa high school wrestler Joel Northrup forfeited a tournament wrestling match rather than wrestle a girl, Cassy Herkelman. Northrup said, “As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner.” (CNN) This article was intriguing because of its relation to Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women.” Women have generally been thought of as less physical than men. What is really interesting about Northrup’s case is that he was 35-4 before he forfeited—one of the best wrestlers in the state—and it is hard to tell if he was truthful in his reasons to forfeit the match or was just scared that he might lose to a girl. I thought it would be interesting to see what Mill would say if he were around today.

I think Mill would be happy that girls are allowed to compete against boys in high school wrestling, and wrestling is one of the only sports where girls can compete in the same divisions as boys. As Mill writes, “It is held that…the law should…treat all alike….” (Mill, 652) He continues, “…human beings are no longer born in their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties, and such favorable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them the most desirable.” (Mill, 660) If girls want to wrestle, they can wrestle.

Wrestling brings out both positive and negative aspects of equality in sports. Girls are allowed to compete against boys in the same division, which plays into Mill’s ideology that the only way to see if women are really inferior to men, as they were thought of during his time, is to allow them the same rights and freedoms of men in the same context. In this case, the wrestling ring is the context, and the fact that girls can not only wrestle boys, but can also defeat them (Herkelman was 20-13 before the forfeit win), proving that girls don’t necessarily have to be in separate divisions because they can compete with the “big boys.” Mill writes, “As long therefore as it is acknowledged that even a few women may be fit for these duties, the laws which shut the door on those exceptions cannot be justified by any opinion which can be held respecting the capacities of women in general.” (Mill, 679)

I am not a wrestler, but I’m assuming that most people don’t quit their matches unless there are extenuating circumstances, and I think in a violent sport such as wrestling it is hard to say that you don’t want to fight because of your religion, because religions don’t condone violence. I understand that it would be weird to fight a girl, for obvious reasons that probably don’t need to be mentioned explicitly, as well as the fact that that boys are usually brought up to not be violent or disrespectful towards woman. However, in this case I don’t think that Northrup should have forfeited the fight, and I think Mill would agree. If Herkelman couldn’t take the violence, she wouldn’t be a wrestler. To Northrup she should have just been another opponent. Some people might say that girls should have their own leagues, or that they should not be wrestling in general, but that is small-minded thinking. There are usually not enough girls to make an all girls team, and if these girls have proved that they can defeat boys of the same age and weight class, nobody should stop them from competing in the sport that they love?

Hopefully this case raises awareness for gender equality in sports and gets more girls on boys’ teams in the future. If girls can compete against and defeat boys in wrestling, they can probably hold their own and even do better than boys in other athletic competitions, such as soccer and basketball. This movement to gender equality in sports will have to start from the ground up. If more girls compete on boys’ high school sports teams, it might translate to equality in college teams and eventually the pros. What is your opinion on the high school wrestling story and the possibility of total gender equality in sports in the future?



Works Cited

Mill, John Stuart. “On the Subjection of Women.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.

Kavanagh, Jim. “High School Athlete Refuses to Wrestle Female Opponent–CNN Belief Blogs.” CNN Belief Blogs. 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <;.


“Faith, Physicality Reasons Northrup Forfeit to First Female Qualifier.” Eastern Iowa High School Sports. 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <;.

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