In reflecting on International Women’s Day last month, and the theme of #BalanceforBetter, I wanted to explore how female teenagers were represented in the sports pages of St. Catharines High School yearbooks. Due to traditional ideas of gender roles, athletics in North America have a long history of being male-centered and male-dominated. How did students work to address this imbalance in St. Catharines high schools in the twentieth century?
In flipping through the yearbooks in the St. Cathaines Museum Collection, I was not surprised to find that for much of the early twentieth century, female students had very little opportunity to participate in sports. The “Girls Athletics” yearbook page first appeared in the St. Catharines Collegiate’s Vox Collegiensis as early as 1927, and featured the school’s female basketball team, the singular female sport offered. There were some instances of female athletes participating in track and field events in earlier years, but these were not considered team-based. If a young woman wanted to join a competitive sports team, she usually had the choice between basketball or volleyball up until the 1960s.
As more young women expressed interest in athletics over time, schools worked to create more athletic opportunities. By the 1960s, many high school yearbooks featured competitive all-female teams in curling, field hockey and gymnastics. Interestingly, cheerleading, despite being female-dominated, was consistently featured in the “Boys Athletics” pages, usually after the football page, across most yearbooks in the Museum’s Collection.
It seems that one of the most popular opportunities for female students to get involved in sports was the Girls Athletic Associations (GAA). Rather than getting involved in sports themselves, the GAA was responsible for selling refreshments and merchandise at athletic events as well as organizing school spirit activities. Most St. Catharines yearbooks published to 1969 feature some type of GAA. The GAAs would raise money at athletic events to fund and organize special school activities like the Sadie Hawkens Dance, teacher-student sports games, and other spectacles.
One such spectacle was the “Powder Puff Football” game. Named after the soft-plush material used for cosmetic make-up application, Powder Puff Football typically referred to a special sporting event where female students play a game of flag football against each other while male students act as mock-cheerleaders. The Girls Athletic Association of Merritton High School organized their first “Powder Puff Football” game 1969, while St. Catharines Collegiate organized their first in 1968.
A trend starting in high schools in the United States in the 1940s, Powder Puff Football events helped raise money for school activities and was usually intended to be a fun play on traditional gender-roles. Though this event gave female students the opportunity to play a traditionally male-dominated sport, the spectacle made out of the game, with mock-male cheerleaders on the sidelines, almost diminished the important opportunity it provided. Despite the efforts and athletic abilities of the young women playing, Powder Puff Football was more about entertainment than skill. For these reasons, Powder Puff Football could be seen as actually a re-enforcement of gender stereotypes and delegitimizes the real struggle female athletes face to receive equal athletic recognition and to compete in male-dominated sports. This is an issue that still continues today.
As a museum, it is important for us to recognize and bring attention to such stories of inequality and unbalanced representation in our community’s history. Something as simple as high school sports can tell us a lot about the obstacles faced by certain members of our community at certain moments in history. Though this work requires us to dig a little deeper in the Museum Collection, we have a responsibility to uncover previously overlooked parts of our past in order to foster learning, facilitate constructive conversation, and help break down barriers in our community for a more balanced future.
Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.