Female Rugby Players: Resisting Gender Stereotypes

by Danielle A.

Sport has always been something that has been a significant part of my life and has shaped my identification and personality in countless ways. Growing up, I played just about every sport that I could find the time for; but one sport in particular that has had my heart since I first picked up the ball is rugby. Luckily, I am still engaged in this sport by playing for the team here at UNB, as well as coaching during the high school season.

In class, we’ve discussed factors around gender inequality in sport, and during these discussions I’ve brought up multiple examples about rugby. I’ve not only brought these examples to attention because I’m a female rugby player, but I also feel that women’s rugby displays a strong example of women pushing back against the stereotypical actions and expected behaviors that surround them. These are stereotypes such as being gentle, appearing dainty, and being physically weak compared to their male counterparts. Playing rugby totally rejects these stereotypes and women are able to freely display qualities and actions that, historically speaking, would only be performed by men.

Rugby seems to be the only contact sport (that I can think of) that both men and women’s rules are gender inclusive, meaning that both sexes abide by the same rules of the game. Whereas in hockey, women are not allowed to body check while men are. But interestingly, if it so happens a woman is playing on a men’s hockey team, body checking is still allowed. I’ve recently read an article that focused on a study of university women rugby players. It stated that because men and women have the same rules to play by “it was a source of pride” for the women ruggers to be ‘equal’ to the men (Ezzel, 2009). It seemed that the women in this study felt empowered by the fact that the rules were the same, and I can absolutely agree with them as I feel also a sense of pride from this.

Another interesting point from this article that highlighted gender inequality within sport was that sports that are played by both sexes generally do not follow the same set of rules for the game/competition “male athletes, and men’s style of play, are the standard in those sports played by both men and women, good play and good athletes are defined by the men’s game” (Ezzel, 2009). I find this a little offensive, but it definitely is the truth. Most women’s sports (with the exception of rugby) have little to no physical component, and show limited aggression because ‘that isn’t how women are supposed to act’, while men’s sport are granted with the acceptance (and I also believe encouragement) of extreme physicality and aggression, to support the hegemonic masculinity image/qualities men are supposed to display. And from an entertainment perspective, the physicality and aggression is what people want to watch, which is why I think men’s ‘style of play’ is generally the standard of good play and displays the best athletes within the sport.

Although I think the concepts of gender inequality within sport, at all levels, is gathering attention from the athletes, the media, as well as scholars, I still see a large gap that exists. I am hopeful that overtime this gap will close, but in the meantime I will be participating in a sport that allows me to show my athleticism and aggression while resisting the typical female stereotypes.

Reference:

Ezzel, M. (2009). “Barbie Dolls” on the Pitch: Identity Work, Defensive Othering, and Inequality in Women’s Rugby. Social Problems, 56(1), 111-131.

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7 responses

  1. First of all, great post, I too shared this passion for rugby. Especially coming from a small town where rugby is the sport it is known for (Belleisle). There was definitely was a sense of pride and being a part of the community playing rugby for the school.

    I am wondering if you have noticed similar differences that I have over the years. At my high school there felt that the two teams were equal, since both had won titles in the past. As year went on the number of women we were able to get to play for the team shrunk to the point that there is no longer a high school women’s rugby team at Belleisle. There is still enough interested from the men though. What would have caused this extreme decrease in interests just in a matter of 5 years for women? I am unsure of the answer, but it would be interesting to look into.

    I have also noticed that the style of “aggressiveness” can be very different between men and women, not sure how this comes to play, but perhaps it is as well how we are gendered from a young age. Men seem to be more likely to resort in actual fights during the game, where I have not seen women participate in this behaviour. I have noticed while playing women seem to participate in “dirty play” such as; pinching, scratching, and other activities that referees do not notice. What is your thoughts on this “extra aggression” that is not a part of the regular plays.

    Rugby is such an amazing sport to empower men and women, and I have always missed that part of my identity since leaving the sport after playing for UNB in First Year and for the province.

    • In terms of the participation rates at your high school, would alternative interests been a factor? Perhaps other sports, clubs, or societies grabbed the attention of these ladies? Or maybe it was the size of your school? I have only been to Belleisle one time for NB Ruby training camp and it is a really small town and small school.

      Good point on the extra aggressiveness, I haven’t really thought of that.

  2. It is so nice to see other girls sticking to their passion and not feeling trapped by gender stereotypes to avoid participating in the sport that they love most. It is sad that women’s rugby seems to be one of the few contact sports with the same rules and regulations as the male version. Growing up I played hockey on both an all-girls team and had the experience of playing with a boys team for two years. I remember switching to girls hockey and always getting penalties for being too rough in the girls league. I was used to being pushed around by the boys and playing a more aggressive and competitive game compared to when I was playing with the girls. Myself and many other girls that I had the opportunity to play with would all agree that we wish there was body contact permitted in the female leagues. The game was completely different for me when I switched to a female league and I did not enjoy it nearly as much. I felt hesitant in the girls league and felt that I couldn’t play as competitively as I wanted. I also find it unfair how equipment regulations are different for males and females in the same sports. I feel like men in authority positions implement additional safety regulations in women’s sports due to beliefs of women being weak, not as strong or more susceptible to injuries. Women are just as capable and sometimes more capable than men when it comes to playing competitive sport and women should be able to express that and not be limited based on gender.

  3. Great blog post Danielle! I think this is a sport that really shows that women are just as good as men and don’t need to have different rules or regulations, they just want to get out there and play the game.

    When I was in high school, they actually tired to introduce rugby to the girls since we had an intern who was very passionate about the sport. After a couple meeting times and even coming into gym classes to demonstrate what it was, he gave up due to lack of interest from the girls at our school. I have thought about this a few times since this and wondered why no one wanted to play it. In some cases, I think that it was we had never been introduced to this sport before and there would be a learning curve, and I think other girls just did not like the idea of it. Some girls said that it was like football and too rough and others wanted no part in playing. This may be because they thought it was considered a male sport or too aggressive for them to play, no matter the reason, it was never brought to our school because of it which was disappointing.

    In saying all this, I think rugby is a great sport for girls to get into. It is one of the sports where girls can get dirty, be rough, and have fun. They get to push the boundaries of how society thinks girls should act and show them that we are just as capable and tough as men. I think that more girls should be introduced to sports such as this, and if they were they would grow up to be stronger, more confident women in their abilities. I think this is very important because not all girls grow up dreaming of being a princess or wearing pink, some just want to play sport and have fun and your post was an example of this!

    Again, great post!

    Stephanie W.

  4. Interesting post Danielle!

    As a young adult, I played many sports, including rugby. Although I played these sports for many years this post actually made me realize that rugby was really the only sport I played that didn’t have an underlying sexist feel, not only by having the same rules for men and women, but also with interactions between athletes. I played on a coed team and I was considered a good player because I was small and fast and easy for people to lift. I wasn’t afraid of being tackled and I was taught by my coaches how to use my size to my advantage to take down larger opponents. I was never treated as frail or dainty because I was a girl. I was never treated any different than anyone else on the team, whereas in hockey I was flirted with and told I couldn’t skate. Parents would tell their sons to take it easy on me because I was a girl. When I would get in a fight on the ice, everyone would say it was because I “liked” the person I fought with, because of course there was no reason a girl would get in a fight except for attention. It was great to be part of a team that cared more about my skills than what was in my pants. I had never realized until now, but rugby really is the only sport I have ever participated in that actually felt equal.

  5. Great Post Danielle!

    I find it very interesting when I read through your blog post and in my mind, make comparisons to female rugby in the UK. I never actually realized how many women in Canada participated in sports in general, compared to the UK. There are so many females in the UK that do not participate in sport, but are more inclined to go to the gym or go for runs.
    I agree that there is a massive stereotype when it comes to women playing an “aggressive” or “gentleman’s sport”, that rugby is known for (well in Scotland it is). I think it’s awesome that rugby (like soccer) can accommodate to both men and women without changing the rules to suit a gender. There are so many passionate women in Canada who are willing to push their limits and break barriers to prove they are better than their male opposition, a trait I feel that most women in the UK do not have.

    Overall great blog post, and good for you for sticking with the sport! We need women like you to help inspire to younger females who are participating in “rough sports”, not to be afraid of the stereotypes that society has shaped around them. Well Done!

  6. Great post! I, too, am a female rugby player, and passionate about the game on and off the field. I love the sense of camaraderie, enjoy the physicality and the feeling of ‘all-round skill’: being able to handle a ball, strong enough to take and make tackles, having the confidence to make split-second decisions at the breakdown etc, and I really think that playing rugby helps me in all aspects of my life.

    Are you aware of the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU)’s new camapign, #BeTheBestYou, which is aimed at encouraging girls and women into playing rugby? I think it’s a really good example of ‘selling’ a sport without reverting to lazy stereotypes or gendered thinking (although I think they could have done without the pink/purple stuff ;)).

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