One of the greatest challenges to feminist scholars of sport is overcoming sport's important ideological role in demonstrating so-called "natural" physical or biological differences between men and women. Sport is particularly conducive to patriarchal evidence of differences because common perceptions view sport as "autonomous" or not an essential part of social convention and, as such, sport appears to be a "neutral" arbiter of physical differences. As a result, sport has played a powerful role in reinforcing the biological imperative inherent to modern patriarchal ideology -- that gender differences are natural and unchangeable, and therefore unchallengeable. The past decade or so has witnessed a much needed growth of feminist-inspired research theorizing and unveiling sport's role in reinforcing this ideology. However, sport's perceived "autonomy" continues to contribute to the illusion of the free display of athletic physicality, making feminist sport scholars' job of convincing others that the institution is in fact social and political a difficult one.
Nancy Theberge's Higher Goals: Women's Ice Hockey and the Politics of Gender does a wonderful job of advancing feminist research in sport in this regard. Theberge takes current feminist debates on sport's gender ideology and places them squarely in the middle of the real life setting of a Canadian women's elite hockey league. She recounts in great detail the experiences of players competing in a sport historically dominated by men and the men's professional National Hockey League, and exposes the players' thoughts and feelings about the role they play in challenging male privilege. Theberge's insights are based on her two-year in-depth ethnographic study of elite female hockey players on the "Blades" (a pseudonym) hockey team in a top-level women's provincial league. Theberge carefully observed and interacted with the Blades during practices, travel, and competitions during their 1992-93 and 1993-94 competitive seasons. The close relationship she developed with the players and coaches permitted her insights into the inner workings of women's elite hockey and exposed the candid thoughts and feelings of players.
Higher Goals reveals both players' and Theberge's own insights into two important themes, both of which are historically and theoretically framed by the control of hockey by men and the masculine ideal that has been dominant in and reinforced through the sport. The first theme is the creation of community through sport and the players' experiences with a related paradox common in women's sport: its ability to both empower women while at the same time throwing up roadblocks or strains to this empowerment. The second theme is female athletes' experiences of skilled bodily practices or physicality, especially in the context of the cultural challenge female hockey players provide to sport as a masculine preserve. Theberge develops both themes through the strategy of writing around the players' voices. Indeed, one of the main strengths of Higher Goals is Theberge's extensive use of (often lengthy) quotations from interviews and conversations with players during her two-year stay with the team. In the finest tradition of ethnographic research, the subjects' voices are permitted to develop into themes which in turn have an interactive relationship with Theberge's feminist theory -- both informing it and being informed by it. As a result the reader is left with a strong sense of the various ways in which the players build strength and community through sport and deal with the challenges and issues of participating in a sport historically dominated by men.
Theberge develops the main themes logically in well-organized chapters. The first two chapters provide thematic background and a good concise history of the social organization of women's hockey. The middle four chapters of the book describe the internal social and sport-specific competitive dynamics of the Blades, including the team's emphasis on on- ice competitiveness and playing excellence, the daily routines of practice and travel, training regimens, competitions, and dealing with changes in team organization. …