"Ontario has a remarkable legacy of intrepid women who defied social conventions by playing hockey in the early decades of the century." - On The Edge: Women Making Hockey History
The authour of this quote, Elizabeth Etue, has an affinity to the women she celebrates in writing. She speaks glowingly about the fourteen ladies who, in 1891, defied cultural resistance and played the earliest recorded game in Canada, on Ottawa's Rideau rink. She is quick to praise the pioneers of the game, women who "competed on outdoor rinks lit by lanterns, the boards piled high with snow." She also describes her own recollections of hockey growing up in modern day Ontario. Although she was born and raised in a small, hockey-mad town, she was never encouraged to participate. To her, the smells of the rink, the "stale popcorn on the floor, the gamy sweat of her brother's hockey gear" were the odours of exclusion. Inspired by the stories of the "lady hockeyists" from the first decades of the twentieth century, she played and loved her first game of hockey... in her forties.
To understand the challenges that restricted aspiring women athletes from playing sports during the Victorian era, you must be aware of the cultural obstacles they faced. Conservative attitudes dictated the wearing of "ladylike," concealing clothing in public; the voluminous skirts of the day were obstructive to physical activity. Men also considered women to be too mentally and physically frail for sports, and forbade them to play.
Fortunately, the activism of women's rights movements slowly led to the social acceptance of women participating in sporting events. Margaret Ann Hall, authour of The Girl and the Game, describes this era of the "New Woman" as "the one leaving behind the fragile stereotype of her earlier, domestic sister and marching determinedly towards more education, work, service and suffrage." By the end of the nineteenth century, women began forming competitive hockey teams in Ontario's universities.
This shift in attitudes also led to a progressive change in women's attire. Skirts became far less billowy and restrictive. The largest influence to the changes in clothing that would allow women to prove their capabilities as elite athletes was, oddly enough, the bicycle.
The bicycle extended her sphere across the threshold, for in loosening her stays and dividing her skirts, the New Woman also took possession of her own movements and achieved a measure of self confidence that carried her into the twentieth century - The Girl and the Game
The Canadian Encyclopedia's History of Canadian Women in Sports explains how "Victorian women rode their bicycles to physical emancipation and dress reform." Riding a bicycle was considered easily learned and enjoyable. Similar to horseback riding (an acceptable pastime for women), cycling was an outdoor exercise that "was robust and healthy yet did not breach late nineteenth century standards of proper decorum."
The right to ride a bicycle was not granted without challenge, however. Some men feared the freedoms the vehicle provided. They believed that the bicycle threatened the removal of women "from the home, along with it's familial obligations and moral insulation." Medical doctors warned of the damage cycling would do to the uterus, or "would cause female orgasm." The Dominion Medical Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal decreed that "public mischief" would befall the "poor woman who rode during her menstrual period."
In spite of these protestations, women rode their bicycles. This eventually enabled women to adopt rider-friendly clothing, including split skirts and "bloomers." The "bloomer," loose pants that were worn under a skirt, also caused societal controversy. In 1898, moral reformer C.S. Clark wrote in Of Toronto the Good that "one girl in a bloomer costume will create far greater and more widespread corruption among boys than a city full of show bills."
Gradually, "bloomers" became accepted in Canada. Women athletes, including hockey players, adopted the attire. Unencumbered by heavy skirts, the stars of women's hockey began to shine. One of the first elite players was the "Queen of the Ice," Eva Ault.
According to CBC's Hockey: A People's History, Ault's "brilliance" brought attention to the women's game. The "fan favourite" played for the dominant Ottawa Alerts, Eastern Canada's champions. It's Our Game author Michael McKinley recalled a 1922 match between the Alerts and another powerhouse team, the Pattesron Pats. The Pats were led by a lady named Fanny Rosenfeld, who would later be named as Canada's "athlete of the half century."
Rosenfeld, from Barrie Ontario, was elite in multiple sports. The Olympian Who Could Do Everything by Anne Dublin claims that "the most efficient way to summarize Rosenfeld's career...is to say she wasn't good at swimming." The sport of hockey was her favourite and first love. "She checked hard and had a shot like a bullet." The Toronto Star believed that she "could earn a place on any OHA (men's) junior team." Rosenfeld helped to form the successful Ladies Ontario Hockey Association in 1922, and served as president from 1934 to 1939. She is enshrined in both the Ontario and Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.
After retiring from athletics in 1933 (due to severe arthritis), Fanny became Canada's first woman sports reporter, writing the "Sports Reel" column in the Globe and Mail for over 20 years. She passed away November 14, 1969, and is buried in Lambton Mills Cemetery in Toronto.