Feminine Sports Reel
Feminine Sports Reel
By: Bobbie Rosenfeld
Date: January 10, 1941
Source: Jewish Women's Archive. "Resource Information for Feminine Sports Reel." 〈http://www.jwa.org/archive/jsp/presInfo.jsp?resID=24〉 (accessed March 1, 2006).
About the Author: Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld (1903–1969) was a pioneer in female athletics—a dominant force in a number of sports at a time when the concept of organized, high-level competition in women's sport was a novelty. Born in what is now the Ukraine in 1903, as a child Rosenfeld immigrated to Canada with her family. In the early 1920s, Rosenfeld established herself as a talented, all-around athlete, excelling in team sports such as basketball, ice hockey, and softball, while winning championships in individual pursuits such as tennis and speed skating. Rosenfeld added track and field to her athletic repertoire, first competing as a sprinter in events in Toronto, and she soon gained acclaim as the fastest female sprinter in Canada. At the 1928 Summer Olympics, the first games to sanction female athletics competition, Rosenfeld won both a gold medal with the Canadian team in the 4 × 100 m relay, and a silver medal in the 100 m sprint event. Arthritis ended Rosenfeld's competitive sports career in 1933. From 1937 to 1957, she wrote a regular newspaper column for the Toronto Globe and Mail entitled "Feminine Sports Reel," through which Rosenfeld shared with her readership her views concerning the world of sports at large. Rosenfeld was voted Canada's Female Athlete of the Half Century in 1950, and she also was posthumously inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
The 1928 Summer Olympic Games was the first great watershed in the modern history of female athletics. With a limited number of track and field events the primary focus of female competition, these Games represented the first time that women were welcomed as athletes into the Summer Olympics. Prior to 1928, no female sports of any kind occupied a place of prominence within any of the world's sports cultures. In North America, female athletes were not encouraged to participate in sport; where women did form teams or establish leagues, the public and prevailing media sentiment was to regard such sports as a novelty act.
The 1928 Olympics made a star of Bobbie Rosenfeld, whose double medal performance at the Games was a natural extension of the superb athletic talents that she exhibited over a range of sports throughout her adult life. However, the brief period in the international spotlight that followed the 1928 Olympics did not suddenly elevate women's sports to a position of equality with male athletic pursuits. With the exception of individual competitors such as figure skater Sonja Henie (1912–1969) and tennis player Althea Gibson (1927–2003) garnering a measure of media attention, female track and field competitors remained the most significant and the most visible international example of female athletes until the 1970s.
The Toronto of 1941 was not a city that encouraged female sports. "Toronto the Good" was the quintessential WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) haven, with an overwhelming air of decorum and sobriety. In 1941, Toronto had its notorious "blue laws," which prohibited sports of any kind being played on Sunday. Ice hockey, baseball, and football were the prominent sports, and there was very little room on either the playing fields or within the public consciousness for female athletes of any kind. Thirteen years after her Olympic triumphs, Bobbie Rosenfeld and her views concerning athletic equality remained decidedly outside the mainstream.
The Feminine Sports Reel of January 1941 was published against a societal backdrop in which there were few, if any, facilities dedicated to female sports. There were no organizations or administrative structures to assist female athletes. To place the attitudes of a superlative athlete such as Bobbie Rosenfeld in perspective, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of American college athletics and the largest such organization in the world, did not formally sanction women's athletic championships until 1980. The Boston Marathon did not have a female participant until 1967 (and then only through the subterfuge of Kathryn Switzer, who entered the race using a man's name); the first women's Olympic marathon competition took place in Los Angeles in 1984, fifty-six years after the triumphs of Bobbie Rosenfeld and the first female Summer Olympians.
One of those periodic diatribes against Eve has burst into print again. Its author is Jack Miley, chivalrous two-fisted scribbler with the New York Post, who once earned himself a black eye from the fist of the Dizzy Dean in an encounter in Florida. It's the same old malarkey flavoring most all misogynistic articles levelled at women athletes. Just in case you're not familiar with the trend of thought, we print typical paragraphs: "A female flushed face over a hot stove is not only prettier but more practical than a purple face produced by puffing and panting from participation in some masculine sport for which nature never intended her." "Women's place is in the home, and I never saw a girl yet who didn't look a sight better with a frying pan than a tennis racquet." And more about girl athletes' legs looking like turkey gobblers' and the fact that girls in sport never get any place.
Why these gentleman of the press insist on taking a few cobwebby tales about women competitors, giving them new twists and endowing them with universality and delivering them as proof that women are physically, mentally and morally unfit to traverse the field of sport with their boy scout brothers beats us. What is more beautiful in sport than this: Colored ice surface, a blazing beam light spotlighting the whirling figure of a human doll, spinning in rhythmic perfection, effortless, without strain, a symphony of grace. What is more beautiful in sport than a graceful figure poised atop a high diving board, leaning forward, arms arched, and floating off into space, coming down to the water like a great sea bird, a thing of infinite grace, striking smoothly, without a splash, and streaking into the depths, leaving hardly a ripple? Or watching Alice Marble gliding over tennis courts, or the sight of some graceful girl golfer swing with precise rhythm and a certain power on a teed-up ball.
Having offered, for the umpteenth time, our defense of women athletes, to Jack Miley we say: "Aw nerts!" (This is for the want of something more expressive.)
The comments of Jack Miley that so stirred Bobbie Rosenfeld in 1941 sound hopelessly old fashioned to the modern ear. The image of the harried housewife toiling over a hot stove has been replaced variously by the modern "Super Mom", or more accurately, by the working mother who battles to balance the obligations of career, home, and family. The dynamics of the modern North American family make female sports participation a difficult proposition for many adult women.
There is an irony in the Rosenfeld argument that is the product of war, not sport. Women's sport may have been either scorned or ignored by the general population, but, in January 1941, Canada was at war with Germany, a worldwide conflict in which the United States would be joined less than one year later. Until 1945, North American women would take employment by the tens of thousands in the munitions factories and arms manufacturing industries, work of tremendous societal importance that was previously as secure a male preserve as the sports fields. Women demonstrated through the war effort that they were entirely capable of driving rivets into the frame of an aircraft and other essential work; as in the business world, women have never attained equality in either compensation or management representation in the over sixty years since the end of World War II; women similarly continue to strive for athletic equality today. The proverbial "glass ceiling" is as evident in the public recognition of the accomplishments of female athletes as it is apparent in business.
The sports equality desired by Rosenfeld and other female athletes found its first legal manifestation in the 1972 passage of Title IX to the United States Civil Rights Act. On one level, Title IX has achieved much for female athletics in terms of greater participation; at the NCAA level alone, by 2006, over 825 percent more women played intercollegiate sports in the Unites States than in 1972.
The greater significance of the desire for equality in sport is whether there has been an accompanying increase in the ever ephemeral respect for the physical abilities of the female athlete. Bobbie Rosenfeld writes from the perspective of one who seeks an equality of respect for the relative abilities of women and men, not a comparison of their absolute levels of achievement. It is for this reason that Rosenfeld points to the sports of figure skating and diving to counter sports chauvinism—each sport the ultimate in subjective judgment, where the traditional attributes of grace and form are essential to competitive success. In 1941, these sports were the closest to male mainstream acceptance achieved by female athletic pursuits.
Rosenfeld's individual sport examples were also a product of the era. Tennis and golf were primarily the preserve of private clubs and were not popular pursuits of typical citizens in 1941. Golf entered the mainstream of North American and then world sports in the 1960s, in part due to dominant professionals Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. However, while the Ladies Professional Golf Association has organized a professional tour for over fifty years, it has never captured the golf fan's imagination or the sponsors' check books to the same extent that the male PGA tour has.
The American war effort and the resulting mobilization of millions of servicemen after 1941 also prompted the formation of the first women's professional baseball league. The All American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL), which operated from 1943 to 1954 and was popularized in the film A League of Our Own, was the first prominent exception to the exclusively male control of organized team sports in North America.
The title of the Rosenfeld column is also of significance. In modern parlance, the word "feminine" is synonymous with ladylike, soft, and womanly, images distinct from those associated with the word "female", the more clinical term that would no doubt headline the Rosenfeld column today.
Dublin, Anne. Bobbie Rosenfeld: The Olympian Who Could Do Everything. Toronto: Second Story Books, 2004.
International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. "Fanny 'Bobbie' Rosenfeld." 〈http://www.jewishsports.net/BioPages/FannyRosenfeld.html〉 (March 1, 2006).
Sports in Canada. "Bobbie Rosenfeld." 〈http://www.histori.ca/sports/rosen.html〉 (March 1, 2006).