Oral History and Feminist Knowledge Production

Empowering women in sports: Interview with Assistant Coach Eva Townsend

      Eva Townsend is a former athlete, a cross country coach, and one of the most supportive, empowering woman I know. She graduated from Occidental College in 2018 majoring in Spanish and as a four year cross country runner. During her time as an Oxy student, I admired Eva’s cheerful warmth whenever we interacted at school, and her passion for cross country that has constantly made my experience better. As a postgraduate student of Oxy, she has worked in an organization helping young moms support their own children and as the only female cross country and track and field coach. While I participate in both cross country and track and field, Eva has been a spirited women’s coach that has improved my confidence tremendously on the team. Even though cross country is one of the most mentally and physically hardest sports and is one of the few co-ed sports, her voice has encouraged each female athlete on the team giving them the strength to power through each workout and race. Last semester, the women’s cross country team had experienced many conflicts and issues that had broken up the women’s team and our collective spirit. However, Eva has chosen to return back to the Oxy cross country team as a coach to rebuild, mentally strengthen, and empower the women’s team. I have chosen to interview Eva because her mission to motivate and improve women’s confidence in sports has been prevalent and inspiring to me. Even though the team has struggled with its own personal conflicts, Eva’s choice to return and represent the only female voices in athletics where atheletics has always been male focused and publicized has been influential but recognizably challenging at times. Eva has embodied a feminist consciousness while focusing her attention on the women’s team and creating positive energy where is has been lacking before. In the interview,    Eva outlines her different approaches in supporting women in sports and the difficulties working with mostly men in atheletics on a daily basis. This interview happened in the afternoon outside of her office in athletics at Occidental College.
      While starting off the interview, I wanted to gain a sense of how her childhood shaped her perspectives today. Eva grew up in Berkeley, California where she claimed was a pretty liberal place. Regarding her parents, she described her parents as “my mom was a firecracker. She and both my parents played a big role in being whoever I wanted to be as a woman in anyway shape or form.” Later in the interview, Eva highlights her mom’s confidence in advocating for herself which helped Eva learn how to support and speak up on her own, especially when she started playing sports. Throughout the interview, Eva describes her passion for supporting women out of the emergence of playing sports herself . She states “I loved to play sports and be active. It formed me into being a strong woman in advocating for myself. Playing sports helped me build confidence and adversity and working towards trying to improve and be my best self. Working in sports and athletics is a big part of my life now.” In forming a feminist consciousness, Eva creates her own personal narrative that depicts her admiration for encouraging women and her enthusiasm in working athletics. By working as an assistant cross-country coach, Eva states that she would like to pursue the notion in creating the opportunity for women to participate in sports and break down the stereotype that women are incapable of the same athletic ability compared to men. With a background in being a woman who has played sports most of her life, this experience encouraged Eva to give back to female athletes and inspire to work towards their strongest selves.

Female Representatives in Sports
      Eva expresses her feminist perspective and subjugated form of knowledge when she claims that in order for women to be encouraged in a male dominated sports field, women must be seen in high positions of power. In reflecting about her own job and her experience, Eva admits that she thinks it is “much more complicated to have women in sports to be treated equally as men,” but she is very hopeful. She reflects her own experience being on the cross country team where “there wasn't a stable female figure.” In outlining her decision to becoming the only female representative in cross country, she states “I think it's important to see women in positions of power within sports in general and seeing females in positions like athletic director or head coach. I think it's important to see women in those positions seeing that as something they want or having that mentorship. I think that is one of the reasons that I am here now.” From Eva’s own experience being on a sports team without stable figure on the cross country team, she builds off her own experience by allowing herself to be the support for the woman that she would have benefited from in the past.hares from her own experience that seeing women in positions of power in sports can encourage other women through mentorship and inspiration. Her experience contributes to forms of knowledge production emerging from women. In creating feminist epistemologies from women’s lived experiences, Sharelene Nagy Hess Biber in Feminist Research: Exploring the interconnections of epistemology, methodology, and method states “feminist perspectives also carry messages of empowerment that challenge the encircling of knowledge claims by those who occupy privileged positions “ (Biber 5). While epistemologies can be male driven and focused, female perspectives can challenge these forms of knowledge production by alternatively centering on women’s lived experiences to unearth subjugated knowledge. Eva provides a feminist perspective on the power of female positions because historically, females have been silenced in sports where it has only focused on men. Eva’s perspective that “women must be in positions of power in order to encourage other women” serves as form of feminist knowledge that will attempt to dismantle the domination of male authority in sports. By gaining Eva’s perspective of empowering women in sports, her perspective will link activism and women’s everyday lives involving sports. Through Eva’s feminist perspective, women can question and “disrupt, interrogate, and modify” (Biber 5) the existing epistemologies about gender positions in sports.

      Eva shares the particular women in her life that have taught her the importance of advocating for women which is now a main attribute in her life. When I asked Eva who her main female influences were, her first response was “my teammates have made big influences on me.” By Eva acknowledging her teammates first, this reflects her positive experience from the team. Additionally, Eva’s statement outlines her choice to return to the cross country team and teach her athletes the importance of fostering a supportive environment. She also states that “ I played soccer growing up and Mia Hamm was a huge role model and advocate for women in sports and she also includes “Professor Raney for sure. She is awesome. She is a very consistent support which I think is super important for female distance running.” In all of these examples, Eva includes women role models who have been involved in some degree in sports. She first mentions her teammates who she has competed with, motivated, and devoted a large amount of time to in college. Eva then chooses a famous female athlete who has broken the gender stereotype for female skill and strength in the professional soccer world. Additionally, she includes Professor Raney who specializes in human physiology and provides the women’s cross country team with advise in maintaining women’s health while playing high intensity sports. These three examples of women role models exemplify that she has been influenced by women who have created an encouraging environment for female athletes but also challenge the stereotypical perspective of women’s ability in sports. These choices of role models support Eva’s perspective in her job position today.

Female Athlete’s Body Image
      During the interview, one conversation that surprised me was when Eva began to talk about the ideal female distance runner’s body. The images of the strongest and fastest bodies are never addressed in women’s cross country because it has led to pressure many girls to develop eating disorders and mental health issues. There is a stigma for female cross-country runners to be small, slim, and very light but this discussion is avoided in cross country partially because it is a co-ed sport. However, I was surprised when Eva began to express her opinions on the pressures of the female body image. She states that “I think its interesting dynamic for what the stereotype is being a female distance runner- like stereotypical body and hopefully that will change soon. I have the stereotypical body for a female distance runner, but I think if people think too much about that, it will hurt them. Seeing social media and big runners in that way are influential.” Touching on a surprising topic, I thought it was fascinating that Eva admitted that she had the stereotypical body for a female runner. Typically, women athletes have a more difficult time addressing body image and self-confidence which can arise from images in the media and fixed mindsets on perceiving every aspect of your athletic ability. However, Eva openly challenges the issues with body acceptance in cross country and hopes to change in the stigma. This statement reflects Eva’s courage and openness in speaking her mind which is apparent in her assistant coach position. Eva is willing express her thoughts and address the damaging issues in women’s cross country which is why I am grateful to have her as a constant support.

Revealing Gendered Perspectives
      By elaborating on her own position as the only female cross country coach, Eva presents her goals to encourage self-value and connection with the female athletes which can be contrasted in a gender analysis compared to male coaches perspectives on sports teams. Not only does Eva speaks about being the only female coach, but she touches upon the fact that she is also responsible for coaching an entire men’s team as well. Eva critique’s her actions as the only female coach when she states “I think I could be a stronger person in a situation where there are three male coaches and me and a whole boys team and a girls team and having a stronger presence. I think me focusing my energy more on the women is how I show up and hope to change and help foster self worth and value. Also connecting to everyone on an individual level. I think that I am able to do that and talk to people and help them see that they are doing really well and valuing themselves in everyday life outside of running.” Eva would like to improve her presence at her job by fostering connections and encouraging self-worth on the team. She wishes that she was able to verbalize her thoughts to all of the women that they are working hard and running well. It is important for a coach to have these beliefs because self-validation and self-worth is especially difficult to believe when one is constantly competing and receiving feedback on their performance. However, there is a different dynamic between a male’s vision of coaching compared to a female’s like Eva. For example, there has a pattern with male distances coaches pressuring women runners to develop eating disorders and over train their bodies. I believe that a female coaches perspective differs from the men as women are able to relate on a emotional and physical level which can lead to positive self-care advise and performance reinforcement. Recognizing gender is prevalent Eva’s statements because it reflects her interactions and her lived reality in relating to female athletes. Judith Cook and Mary Margaret Fonow in Feminist Research Methods states “attending to gender is to locate the researcher as a gendered being in the web of social relations that simultaneously influences the analytical and interpretive procedures of sociology and shapes the life experiences of the researcher (Cook and Fonow 73). By paying attention to the gender of the researcher, we can understand their relations to the social worlds and their lived experiences. While I was focusing on Eva’s statement as a women’s coach, I am able to understand how Eva’s relatability to women that motivates her to foster self-worth and value from her own experience. We can contrast her statements as a female coach to the depictions of male coaches verbally abusing their players and aggressive training. By noticing gender, the origins of toxic masculinity in sports can arise from the lack of female voices in male sports.  Eva’s statements as a women’s coach reflects the importance of having a women’s presence because they are able to relate more certain pressures and encourage self-validation. By paying attention to gender in Eva’s statement, I am able to juxtapose her opinions of encouragement compared to the male dominant field in sports and understand the actions of male athlete without a female presence.

Male Privilege and The Masculinist Knowledge Validation Process
      As Eva expresses frustration with male privilege at Occidental, she reflects on the institutional cycle of the male knowledge validation process. During the conversation, Eva began to express inferiority with the male hegemonic structures at Occidental which is especially prevalent in her job working in athletics. She claims that “Some people do not get it. Some people do not recognize their privilege. I think there are plenty of examples at Oxy where men have power over women because of how society has socialized us to believe. I think that there is this idea that is conditioned in our brain, not by our parents or the people around you.” Eva expresses that some men fail to acknowledge their privilege granting an unequal power dynamic between genders. Throughout Eva’s interview, she demonstrates these unequal power dynamics at Occidental through the domination of male professors, the privilege given to the football team, and the lack of representation of women as head coaches. This reflection connects to the male validation process as men confine their knowledge production within institutions that excludes women. In the examples given from Eva, men are able to create spheres of knowledge that cycles through men in the institution. As Patricia Hill Collins defines the Eurocentric, masculinist validation process as “a scholar making a knowledge claim must convince a scholar community controlled by white men that is given claim is justified. Second, each community of experts must maintain its credibility as defined by the larger group in which it is situated and from which it draws on the its basic, taken-for granted knowledge”(Collins 203). As a result of the Eurocentric, masculinist validation process, forms of knowledge that challenge these cultural beliefs situated by men would be deemed less credible as they would lack supportive perspectives. Through Eva’s examples of the structures of Occidental creating unequal power dynamics between genders, the male validation process is exemplified as men are able to remain in higher authority and credit their forms of knowledge through other men. The “taken for granted knowledge” that is created and validated by men can be expressed through Eva’s statement of male privilege as men inherent a status of gratification for knowledge without any effort. In the example with a lack of female representation in Occidental’s athletics, male head coaches are able to determine decisions within sports and their opinions are most likely approved by other men. This process excludes women like Eva who attempt to create equal opportunities for both genders in athletics. The male validation process can be demonstrated through Eva’s examples of exclusion of women within spheres of Occidental College. 

      At the end of the interview, I gained a deeper understanding of Eva’s role as the assistant cross country coach as she feels empowered every day to encourage the women on the team. As I see Eva on an every day basis, I was oblivious to her role as the only female coach on the team. However after conducting this interview, I feel grateful to have Eva at practice as she challenges the male dominance on the team with voicing her opinions and expressing the needs for the women on the team. After conducting this oral history project, I believe the importance of oral history for women as it reveals the power structures between men and women during their daily lives. Eva expresses these hidden power structures that are difficult to be seen as a student as she claims Occidental athletics is dominated by male authority through “superior” male sports team and fewer women’s coaches. Throughout the interview, Eva shared many parts of her life that have shaped her motivation to be aware of encouraging women, but one of the quotes that she said that concludes multiple ideas in the class was “ I think that women are not taking no for an answer but women still have a lot of work to do.” This quote reflects on the hard work of feminist resistance that many women have devoted their lives to, but this quote also leaves an open-ended stance that there is still more work to be done. Today, we can use the multiple feminist lenses learned in class such as interactional, epistemological, and historical lens etc. to deconstruct the structures occurring today in order to create a feminist resistance.

Works Citied
Collins,Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002.

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy, ed. Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis. SAGE publications, 2011.

Fonow, Mary Margaret, and Judith A. Cook, eds. Beyond methodology: Feminist scholarship as lived research. Indiana University Press, 1991.

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