Looking more like they’re wearing dancing clothes than basketball uniforms, the eight members of Windsor Collegiate Institute’s (later Patterson Collegiate) 1905 girls’ basketball team pose jauntily on the school steps. WCI was located on Goyeau Avenue in downtown Windsor. The only identified team member is Florence Northwood (bottom left).
Their coaches/teachers, including Norah Cleary (at right), appear on the top step. Norah was the daughter of noted Windsor lawyer Francis Cleary (Windsor’s Cleary Auditorium – now the St. Clair College downtown campus — was named in his memory).
Basketball, introduced around the turn of the century, was the most popular sport for girls in high school and was likely their first chance to participate in an active sport requiring some exertion. Invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a Canadian teaching physical education at the YMCA Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts, it was designed to help keep his young male students in shape between the football and baseball seasons. The game was taken up almost immediately by girls in a nearby school and soon spread to women’s colleges and YWCAs throughout the U.S.
Norah Cleary taught French and Physical Culture to her female students at Windsor Collegiate. She introduced basketball to them after sending away for a ball and rulebook advertised by the Spalding Sporting Goods Company. Her girls became so good at the game they began traveling to Detroit to play other teams.
Women’s basketball has certainly come a long way since these early days. Long gone are the hot, uncomfortable “uniforms” and the calibre of the players has grown by leaps and bounds. The University of Windsor’s women’s basketball team, coached by Chantal Vallée, won their third CIS (Canadian Inter-University Sports) championship in a row in 2013.
But gaining the right to play sports of their choosing has not been an easy slam dunk for women. Women were excluded from the Olympics in track and field competition until 1928. The longest race at the time was the 800 meters and despite a world record by the winner, many of the competitors were not properly prepared and several collapsed in exhaustion. This led Olympic organizers to consider the race too strenuous for women and the president of the IOC even suggested the elimination of all women’s competition from the Games.
Such a drastic move was not taken, but it wasn’t until 1960 that races over 200 meters were once again contested by women in the Olympics. In 1984, local athlete, Dr. Andrea Conlon Steen, made it to the semi-finals in the 400 Meter Hurdles—the first time women were “allowed” to compete in that event at the Olympics.
Female ski jumpers were barred from participating in every Winter Olympics and had to go to court to win the right to compete. 2014 was the first time we saw Olympian women soar off the jumps. The 2015 Pan Am Games are being held in Toronto. Canoeing has been added as a new event, but it took a global pressure to ensure that female canoeists were included.
In 2011, Laura Robinson, author, athlete and the 2011 University of Windsor Distinguished Visitor, was the keynote speaker at the Distinguished Visitor Annual Community Dinner in Windsor at the Caboto Club.
In her address, “Too Many Men on the Ice – What the World Would Look Like if Don Cherry Were a Woman”, Laura explored a mythical land where attention regarding issues that affect women everywhere: equal pay, a harassment-free workplace, an end to violence against women, equal opportunities for women on the playing field and in the boardroom – matches the focus men and their sports receive.
Laura’s books tackle many issues in sport including, “Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport”, and “She Shoots, She Scores – Canadian Perspectives on Women and Sport”.
Photo from the Tony Techko Collection, digitized by the University of Windsor, Leddy Library. (Many thanks to Katharine Ball, archivist at Leddy Library, for locating this team photo for me.) To access the libraries digital archives click on http://swoda.uwindsor.ca/swoda.
The University of Windsor’s Norah Cleary Entrance Award Scholarship was established in 1963 through the benefaction of the late Miss Norah Cleary to Assumption University.
My information on women’s basketball came from “The Girls and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada” Margaret Ann Hall, University of Toronto Press