A newly published book, Playing It Forward: 50 Years of Women and Sport in Canada, provides fascinating insight into the erratically evolving views of a women's place in sport. It also gives some context for Walter Knox's role in getting the schoolgirls and Olympic women's team established in the Canada.
A chapter by Bruce Kidd was enlightening. Kidd describes the "first wave of feminism" in Canada, the inter-war years, 1920-39. When the established sports bodies (Olympic committees, track and field organizations, etc) refused to include women, the women organized their own sporting body in 1921 (the Federation Sportif Feminism Internationale) and set up their own world championships. Only four years later there was a Women's Amateur Athletics Federation in Canada and in 1928 even the stuffily traditional International Olympic Committee invited women into the Olympics. It was a remarkably fast evolution. It was known as, "the Golden Age of Women's sport".
Walter Knox was a big part of that movement. Starting in 1921, he was setting up his tour of coaching clinics at Ontario public schools: promoting athletics and physical education, training teachers as coaches and lobbying to get physical education included in the curriculum. His goal was "to develop the schoolboy" as a way to "get better material" for the Olympic team. It was a massive grassroots identification program.
But after his first year, and only a few months after the French women had formed their FSFI organization, Walter insisted the schoolgirls had to be included in his coaching clinics along with the boys. That first year the boys, with great anticipation, got the day off class to attend Walter's program while the girls, with decidedly less excitement, stayed in class and likely got some special instruction in home economics or some other "feminine" subject.
Understand, in 1922 there were not yet any competitions for girls, there was no reason to include the girls, there was no societal pressure for inclusiveness or equality between the sexes, a woman's place was still in the home. But Walter was adamant they should be included, this was a program about health. Starting in the spring of 1922 the schoolgirls joined the boys in the gym to watch Walter's training films of Olympic athletes and then raced out to the field with the boys for some personal instruction from the great Olympic coach.
Coaches and medical experts all warned of the girls damaging their reproductive organs, of them becoming "manly". Walter very publicly disagreed. Quoted in the newspaper, Walter once commented, "Some people claim that such strenuous athletics unfit a girl for married life and motherhood. That is not borne out by facts."
In 1922, before there was any Canadian women's sport organization, Walter held his own track meet for the women in Toronto and selected four to enter one of the first big women's track meets in Philadelphia. Later he coached two of the "Matchless Six" women who dominated the first Olympic women's track meet in 1928, and consulted as a coach with three of the others. He spent the rest of his coaching career focussing as much on the women as men.
Women in Canadian sport owe a lot to Walter Knox.
But the Golden Age did not last. In Playing It Forward, Ann Hall and others describe their experiences in discrimination against women in sport in the 1950's and 60's. They were decidedly second class citizens, relegated to inferior facilities and equipment, given far less opportunity to succeed as athletes, limited in the events offered to them at competitions, all in the name of protecting their delicate female bodies.
The second wave of feminism grew out of the revolt in society in the 1960's against the entrenched conservative worldview: anti-communism, anti-civil rights, anti-equality for women. The status quo for men as the lords of society was just fine, it seemed, at least to the men in power.
Hall describes the struggle that took a determined political and organizational campaign over 40 years to attain a semblance of equality. Sure girls and women could do sports, but it was really all about the boys, the true athletes, and that's how the money and facilities were allotted.
I was a high level athlete through the 70's and 80's and was blissfully unaware of the subtle discriminations the girls had to accept. In my high school there was a big gym for the boys and the small gym for the girls. The boys had more and better basketballs, volleyballs and so on. Sure they girls got opportunities to play, but it wasn't always as good an opportunity, and we boys were blind to that fact. I bet the girls weren't.
Bruce Kidd described his epiphany when, after a long, cold, wet run, he and the boys hit the hot showers, the best part of the workout. When he discovered the girls in the group had no shower facilities and had to walk home, cold wet and stiff, he was surprised and began listening to the feminist arguments. He became an outspoken advocate for the women.
After retirement from her academic career, the remarkable Ann Hall devoted herself to writing the definitive history of woman's sport in Canada: The Girl and the Game: A History of Women's Sport in Canada, a remarkable book I read in researching Walter Knox's story. She talks about Walter's contributions, one of the relatively few men she talks about.
Walter, in many ways, was a conservative, no-nonsense, self-centred capitalist. But he was a realist and pragmatist too, and ideological, traditional thought held no value to him when it was weighed against real world observation and experience.
Should women be able to partake in sport? Of course they should! It develops strong, healthy and able people - in both sexes. Walter could then trot out example after example of fit, athletic women who had healthy babies, and women, like Rosa Grosse, who returned to athletics successfully after having a baby. Of course they should be included in sport.
Walter was a feminist. He could even be described as a leader in the first wave of feminism after 1920. But don't tell him so, it might ruin his reputation as a man's man.