Gender Representation in Professional Ice Hockey

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The shift from agricultural to the industrial revolution, urbanization and the change of the family structure from extended to nuclear families changed the ideal view of men and women in the society. A majority of men began working outside their homes and farms, and even most of them shifted into the cities where there were factories to offer them employment. This meant that women were left with the sole responsibility of raising children. It created the illusion that there was the feminization of the society as young boys were mainly raised by their ‘soft and feminine’ mothers and they had no male role models to look up to. Sports was seen as a way to counter-balance this effect and help them transition from boys to men as they competed. A majority of mainstream sports such as football, basketball, rugby, and hockey are considered to be aggressive and physical. Besides, sports, in general, has been used to epitomize the ideas of masculinity in terms of strength, aggressiveness, competitive nature and domination. Canadian hockey is seen as a representative of the masculine hegemony in the society mainly because of its physicality and aggressiveness levels. Gender disparity has existed in Canadian hockey from its inception based on the overall experience of the female players in comparison to men, and it has limited the progress and popularity of women’s hockey in Canada, which is the country’s national pride.

History of Women’s Involvement in Canadian Hockey

Canadians largely identify themselves through the sports of hockey, and Canadian women as part of this society have actively been involved in this sport since its inception. Indeed, the first ever recorded women’s hockey match took place at the Rideau rink in Ottawa in 1891. Although the number of recorded games of women’s hockey matches was scarce, they were considered to be quite popular given the number of fans who attended these matches. For instance, in a match that was played in Barrie in 1892 attracted 400 fans, while another one that took place in Kingston in 1896 has 1200 people in attendance.

There were also specific Canadian towns which supported their local teams such as Cobalt and Haileybury. The four-game series for the O’Brien Trophy in women’s hockey was extensively covered by the Canadian newspapers, which was an indicator of the popularity of the sport in the early 20th century. In 1924, the Ladies’ Ontario Hockey Association was formed to organize and regulate the women’s hockey clubs that were in that province. In the 1930s, the women’s teams began traveling across the country to play teams that were in other provinces, during which the Preston Rivulettes established the reputation of being the greatest women’s hockey team of all time with a 348-2 win-loss record. However, the expansion of the women’s hockey league nationally in Canada lost momentum in the 1940s as a majority of women entered the workforce during the World War II period. Also, a majority of the funds and resources concerning Canadian hockey were dedicated to the National Hockey League, a professionalized men’s hockey league. Despite an increase in interest in women’s participation in hockey from the 1970s, there is a large gender gap in terms of the hockey league participation in the country.

Challenges that Face Women’s Hockey Teams in Canada

Historically, Canadian hockey has largely been regarded as a masculinizing project whereby the ideal masculine traits are instilled in boys and helps them transition to men in society. This was meant to create a counter-balance of the perceived moral degeneracy and social feminization that was brought about by industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century, and later on (in the 20th century) by World War I and II. During this period, women’s involvement in the sport of hockey was perceived as a disruption or rebellion to the set social order. Secondly, although a majority of the women enjoyed playing hockey, their involvement in the sport has always been considered a controversial subject. The primary roles of women in society were to give birth and raise children in the society. This limited the types of athleticism among the women that were seen or deemed as appropriate. Ideologies of women as wives and their primary function of childbearing is used for arguments on women’s physicality, and concerns on their reproductive health with a focusing on their ability to increase the population of the country. The concerns were supported by a majority of the white, middle-class and also men in the medical profession who defined women’s physical and intellectual standing as being inferior to that of men, which served the hegemonic men ideologies.

The safe and acceptable ‘extremities’ of the allowed physical activities of women have been continually been reinforced by the media, which shaped the societal assumption in the 20th century that the primary function of women was child-bearing. The portrayed version of the women’s physiology has been regarded as a limiting factor to their involvement in strenuous physical activities that are associated with hockey, and also a waste to the vital energy that is essential for the childbirth process. The physicality of the sport was seen as a 'danger’ to their reproductive system. The early maternal feminists who justified the role of women in the society as of mothering and nurturing qualities felt that the involvement of women in sports instead of fulfilling their duties was a waste of their free time and energy. In addition to that, even for those who felt that women’s involvement in sports was beneficial for their physical and mental well-being provided a narrow range of physical activities that they could undertake.

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For instance, women’s training in a gymnasium was encouraged as it would assist them to develop healthy bodies and therefore was regarded as beneficial to their reproductive capabilities. In addition to that, sports such as rowing and archery were encouraged because they personified the ideal female physiques. For instance, it was believed that rowing for women resulted in women with ‘full chest and graceful shoulders,’ while archery brought about the graceful nature of women. Hockey failed to fit into the category of the acceptable female sports and women were discouraged to participate in it. For instance, in an article that was published in the Chatelaine in 1933 stated that ice hockey is not ideal for women because of the level of physicality, the skill required, and temperamental level needed to be successful in the sport. In addition to that, it resulted in a high level of fatigue and exhaustion that women could not handle.

Women’s participation in sports such as hockey was seen to be detrimental to their overall sexuality. These sports were seen as being responsible for the masculinization of women, which means that for women who played sports such as hockey, they began assuming male sexual traits such as being more passionate, assertive and uncontrolled. It was assumed that their involvement in sports would increase their sexual desires, and such perspectives contributed to the ‘lesbian stigma’ that is still witnessed in sports globally. In addition to that, the idea of women masculinization created a new fear in the Canadian society of gender transference. A majority of the society was afraid that if women are interested and involved in masculine interests such as playing hockey, will men be ‘forced to become more interested in feminine interests such as raising children. It reignited the society’s perception of ‘feminization’ of men as a result of more women being involved in sports, activities that were meant to make men from boys through competition and physicality.

Sports has been the most visible way or manner to assert male superiority in the society that has given so much of the gender equality measures in different aspects such as education and employment. It is also used to reinforce masculine hegemony. Increased involvement of women in the traditionally male-dominated sports is a threat to male superiority and masculine hegemony. Largely, the society has dealt with this threat by diminishing feminism athleticism and using comical strategies to describe what they are wearing in terms of uniforms and how they are playing.

This has been witnessed in the supporters and critics of female athletes. For instance, in 1929, Alexandrine Gibb of the Toronto Star wrote about the LOHA championship. Gibb described the female hockey players as ‘beauties picked from in and around Ottawa.’ Majority of the news coverage on hockey describe the female players' beauty instead of focusing on how they performed in the field. It can be regarded as an effective way to discredit the sport, where the focus is not on the appearance, but on the physical appearance of the players. Their uniforms were considered from a fashion, rather than a functionality perspective. This meant that the sport was not taken seriously concerning the men’s hockey league in the country.

The main stakeholders in the sport were a challenge to women involved in the sport. For instance, until 1914, the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada did not allow women to participate in any athletic activity that was under their control. Women’s hockey was first played in the Olympics in 1998. Also, there were occasions when women were forced to participate in the sport in isolation with no spectators allowed to attend to their matches. The rules of women’s hockey reinforced the idea of women being inferior to men from a physical perspective. The use of extreme force and physicality was considered a foul. For instance, while intentional body-checking is prohibited in the women’s hockey league, it is a fundamental part of the men’s game, which gives it its unique identity. Such rules are meant to reduce the rate of injuries among the players and contribute to ‘clean’ play.

However, it makes it less appealing and considerably inferior in comparison to the ‘real’ game. Conclusion Women’s desire to participate in the sport of hockey in Canada has not only been frowned on, but it has been discouraged by placing obstacles, which make it hard for women to actively participate in the sport in comparison to their male counterparts. Sports is largely regarded as a counter-balance measure against the feminization of society. It is a symbol of masculinity and male superiority in comparison to the women in the society in terms of strength, aggressiveness, assertiveness, domination and competitive spirit. Male Canadian hockey is also regarded as more enjoyable to the fans because of the physicality and aggressiveness that is allowed within the game’s rule book as opposed to the women’s version where intentional contact is considered a foul and its portrayal of a ‘clean’ sport makes it dull. Women have been allowed to participate in the sport from its inception, however, they faced a variety of challenges, which hampered the progress of the sport achieving a national or an international status in comparison to the men’s hockey. These challenges include perceptions in the society of wives and mothers, and that their involvement in such an aggressive and physical sport is a challenge to their two main duties. Women were discouraged to participate in hockey because of the physicality threat of the game on their reproductive system. It was regarded that it could harm their child-bearing abilities and therefore threaten the sustainability and growth of population in the country.

Also, it is considered to harm their nurturing abilities as they will devote most of their time practicing and participating in the sport, rather than raising their children and attending to their husbands. Women involvement in male-dominated sports such as hockey could lead to masculinization of women. It is assumed that it would make them develop masculine sexual traits such as being more passionate, uncontrolled and assertive. It will also contribute to gender transference whereby men are ‘forced’ to take care of children and domestic and household activities. It reiterates the theme of this study that gender disparity has existed in the Canadian hockey from its inception and has limited the progress and popularity of the women’s hockey league in a country whose national pride in the sport.

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