The Golden Age of Women's Sports
Nora Young grew up in the 1920s and 30s, during a time of great change for women, in what could be called the first wave of feminism. Women were voting for the first time, moving to cities in great numbers, often living independently and joining the workforce – and experiencing unprecedented personal, political, and economic freedom. And also for the first time, women began organizing and competing in sports on a mass level, an era that has become known as the “Golden Age of Women’s Sports,” and the public and media were taking notice.
During the Golden Age, there was extensive coverage of women’s sports in the media, for example, and all of the major newspapers in Toronto had female sports columnists (such as Bobbie Rosenfeld, Phyllis Griffiths, or Alexandrine Gibb), who were often athletes (or former athletes) themselves. And although female athletes of the time were largely only able to participate in sports as amateurs, they were highly competitive, skilled athletes, resulting in very exciting games for spectators, and they enjoyed large audiences as a result. Sometimes, these audiences were even greater than those at professional men’s events in the same sports.
This is not to say that everything was easy for women in the Golden Age. On one hand, they were appreciated for their skill by many fans, and had more opportunities than before and a much higher profile. But on the other, female athletes were sometimes treated as a novelty act, and they still faced negative and sexist attitudes, barriers, and outright discrimination. For example, there persisted a popular view then that strenuous sports could harm a woman’s ability to have children.
After WWII and into the 1950s, everything changed, and the Golden Age came to an end. Just as female office workers and mechanics found themselves shut out of careers when men returned from the war, female athletes suddenly found themselves pushed out of stadiums and arenas. In the 1950s, the status quo, raising families, and traditional gender roles became very important, and highly competitive or “ungraceful” sports were not seen as appropriate for women. The 1950s and 60s were in many ways a lost period, when women’s sports, to a large measure, disappeared from public view (this started changing again in the 1970s). However to this day, even the most prominent and talented female athletes from the Golden Age remain largely forgotten by the public, and are invisible pioneers.
Banner image: "Bike Racing's Most Attractive Girl," 1935, CNE Archives