Event Title

Ireland’s Separate Spheres? Re-evaluating Female Physical Culture in the Digital Age

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3A

Abstract

Broadly defined as a late nineteenth and early twentieth century interest in the cultivation of the body, physical culture has proven an incredibly mercurial topic for historians of sport and gender. For sporting historians, the non-competitive nature of physical culture has allowed it to slip by the wayside in broader historical works as the focus shifts to more familiar forms of exercise. Similarly though historians of gender have highlighted the importance of physical culture for women, issues of performativity, agency and identity have oftentimes been neglected. It is argued here that although more synonymous with male activity, at least in the popular sphere, physical culture was nevertheless of equal importance to female exercisers as a means of conforming to and challenging broader societal messages of the time. Despite the fact that physical culture extended out to men, women, boys and girls, the health movement nevertheless tended to segregate based upon gender. In the first instance, popular works on physical culture circulating in Ireland during the period 1890 to 1914 were primarily aimed at the male exerciser, be they young or old. Such works encouraged men to build their bodies, mind and leading from this, their societal standing. For men, the message then was clear. A strong man, was a ‘real’ man. When physical culture advocates advised women to exercise, they tended to stress the domestic advantages that a stronger body would bring. Female physical culture could thus be publically encouraged, once it adhered to certain conservative gender norms. This dichotomy of trailblazing men and domesticized women in physical culture works manifested itself in the very photographs attached to both sexes within the popular media. For men, photographs depicted strenuous activity, maximum exertion and feats of heroic gymnastics as a means of publically endorsing specified masculinities. A type of masculinity, which would certainly fall under R.W. Connell’s construct of the hegemonic. Female physical culturists on the other hand were almost unanimously depicted posing placidly as a team neither exercising nor seemingly interested in strenuous activity. Somewhat comically, the weights females used to build their bodies in the gymnasium became ornaments once a camera emerged. Having established the importance of physical culture in Ireland during this period, the present talk explores first how female physical culture was depicted publically in Ireland during the opening decades of the twentieth century through an examination of newspapers, books and magazines circulating at this time. It is argued that such works endorsed a female image that was subservient to men in both strength and societal position. This was not the full story however as the paper is keen to stress. The second half of the talk will thus discuss how the opening up of a series of digitised private sources has helped to challenge such gendered photographs and their messages by providing individual photographs of Irish females during exercise. Hence it will be argued that while photographs of female physical culturists in the popular sphere were remarkably gendered and conservative, such private collections help to highlight a new world of female exercise. A private world, which spoke to issues of resistance, agency and an embodiment of strong womanhood. A private world which acts as a timely reminder that popular discourses were often challenged in the most unique and perhaps subtle of ways.

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Jul 7th, 10:00 AM Jul 7th, 11:15 AM

Ireland’s Separate Spheres? Re-evaluating Female Physical Culture in the Digital Age

Broadly defined as a late nineteenth and early twentieth century interest in the cultivation of the body, physical culture has proven an incredibly mercurial topic for historians of sport and gender. For sporting historians, the non-competitive nature of physical culture has allowed it to slip by the wayside in broader historical works as the focus shifts to more familiar forms of exercise. Similarly though historians of gender have highlighted the importance of physical culture for women, issues of performativity, agency and identity have oftentimes been neglected. It is argued here that although more synonymous with male activity, at least in the popular sphere, physical culture was nevertheless of equal importance to female exercisers as a means of conforming to and challenging broader societal messages of the time. Despite the fact that physical culture extended out to men, women, boys and girls, the health movement nevertheless tended to segregate based upon gender. In the first instance, popular works on physical culture circulating in Ireland during the period 1890 to 1914 were primarily aimed at the male exerciser, be they young or old. Such works encouraged men to build their bodies, mind and leading from this, their societal standing. For men, the message then was clear. A strong man, was a ‘real’ man. When physical culture advocates advised women to exercise, they tended to stress the domestic advantages that a stronger body would bring. Female physical culture could thus be publically encouraged, once it adhered to certain conservative gender norms. This dichotomy of trailblazing men and domesticized women in physical culture works manifested itself in the very photographs attached to both sexes within the popular media. For men, photographs depicted strenuous activity, maximum exertion and feats of heroic gymnastics as a means of publically endorsing specified masculinities. A type of masculinity, which would certainly fall under R.W. Connell’s construct of the hegemonic. Female physical culturists on the other hand were almost unanimously depicted posing placidly as a team neither exercising nor seemingly interested in strenuous activity. Somewhat comically, the weights females used to build their bodies in the gymnasium became ornaments once a camera emerged. Having established the importance of physical culture in Ireland during this period, the present talk explores first how female physical culture was depicted publically in Ireland during the opening decades of the twentieth century through an examination of newspapers, books and magazines circulating at this time. It is argued that such works endorsed a female image that was subservient to men in both strength and societal position. This was not the full story however as the paper is keen to stress. The second half of the talk will thus discuss how the opening up of a series of digitised private sources has helped to challenge such gendered photographs and their messages by providing individual photographs of Irish females during exercise. Hence it will be argued that while photographs of female physical culturists in the popular sphere were remarkably gendered and conservative, such private collections help to highlight a new world of female exercise. A private world, which spoke to issues of resistance, agency and an embodiment of strong womanhood. A private world which acts as a timely reminder that popular discourses were often challenged in the most unique and perhaps subtle of ways.