You got me. I’ve never cared about women’s sports before. I was a mediocre high school track athlete at best. I mostly ran on the team to prove to colleges that I was a “well-rounded student.” 

I’ve never advocated for women’s sports before, and now I’m suddenly interested because male-bodied athlete Lia Thomas just crushed the female competition at Ivy and NCAA women’s swimming championships. 

A slew of articles and social media posts allege that people like me, who’ve only recently developed an interest in women’s sports are hypocrites who don’t really care about women, and worse, transphobes. Here’s a sampling of the language from these posts:

“To the handful of Facebook friends expressing outrage over trans athlete Lia Thomas accompanied by the hashtag SaveWomensSports:

I was a little surprised by some of you, to be honest, because I’ve never known you to be concerned about women’s sports before.”

And this one, from “Feminist News:”

“It’s almost as if these people don’t actually care about women or the integrity of women’s sports at all, but only speak up when there is a chance to voice hatred for a group of people they have no interest in accepting.”

The progressive left can pat themselves on the back for a unified response to Lia Thomas’s smashing of women’s swimming records. “The other side doesn’t really care!”

But this position represents a profound misunderstanding of why people like me, and organizations like my employer, Independent Women’s Forum, have taken a “sudden” interest in women’s sports. Our mission is to develop and advance policies that are more than just well-intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, opportunities, and well-being. I never thought I’d see the day that we were petitioning USA Swimming to change its policy; usually we focus on Congress.

But here we are. The reason? Because the situation in women’s sports today touches on two principles that we have long been interested in: 1) fairness and 2) sex differences. 

Fairness is a value shared by many people. In fact, when psychologist Jonathan Haidt studied the “moral foundations” behind people’s political views, fairness was a foundation shared by liberals and conservatives, but importantly, those two groups tended toward different definitions of fairness. We see this clearly in today’s woke obsession with “equity,” which is focused on equal outcomes. We find this trend alarming, because we feel strongly that fairness should instead be about equal opportunity. 

IWF has a long history of standing for equal opportunity (examples: every child should have an equal opportunity to choose the best school; every worker should have equal opportunity to compete in the marketplace without onerous licensing requirements, etc.) Female athletes who must compete with males simply don’t have an equal opportunity to compete and win. 

And we are clear-eyed about what Lia Thomas represents for women, even outside of the world of sports. For decades, the progressive left has worked toward the abolition of sex differences. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Many people have sex and gender confused, and they believe that being a man or a woman is just a sociological construct. This notion, if applied to our laws and our society, would have dire consequences. For a long time, those of us who understand that the differences between the two sexes are innate and immutable have been concerned about efforts to erase those differences. 

We have applauded Ukrainian men who have stayed behind to fight, and pushed back on efforts to require American women to enroll in the military draft, because we understand that men and women are different in physical strength, risk-taking and aggression. We have pushed back on efforts to close the gender wage gap, because we understand that this gap is largely the result of different preferences and choices of men and women. We have defended single-sex educational environments because we know some girls do better in an all female educational enviroment , just as some boys can only thrive when educated with other boys. We have opposed requirements to open women’s restrooms, battered women’s shelters and women’s prisons to male-bodies as a matter of safety and privacy. This issue is not new to us. 

In this larger debate about the nature (and definitions!) of sex and gender, I fear transgender people are being used by the left as pawns. I don’t want Lia Thomas to be deprived of the opportunity to live the fullest life possible, but I also don’t want women – as athletes or elsewhere in society – to be deprived of basic fairness, privacy or safety, either.

“You don’t really care about women!” sounds like a desperate attempt to change the subject, because it is. It echoes the accusation that parents opposed to school closures “never cared about minority kids before” (which was an equally unfair slander), but this turned out to be exactly the concern that everyone – left, right and center – should have shared. Minority kids did suffer the most from Covid school closures, and women will suffer the most if we destroy any policies that distinguish between the sexes.

Whether or not you think my concern for women’s sports is sincere is besides the point. What brings me to this issue isn’t my fervent fandom for women’s swimming but my concern for fairness and equal opportunity, as well as my long held belief that while the law must treat men and women equally, we are not “fungible” (to use the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s formulation). 

No, I never cared about women’s sports before. But I care now.