Field of Dreams: Helen Lenskyj in Profile

By Cole, Susan G. | Herizons, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Field of Dreams: Helen Lenskyj in Profile


Cole, Susan G., Herizons


When author Helen Lenskyj showed her first book on women and sport to her former gym teacher, her teacher could not believe her eyes.

"She practically fainted," says the Australian-born teacher and activist.

Lenskyj, who lives in Toronto, was not the jock type as a schoolgirl, but that didn't stop her from noticing the difference between the ways girls and boys relate to athletics, or how commercial interests can corrupt organized sports. Now teaching women's studies courses on health, diversity and education at OISE, Lenskyj has just release her fifth book, Out On The Field: Gender, Sport And Sexualities (Women's Press, 2003). It deepens the political analysis she began to develop in her first book, Out Of Bounds: Women, Sport and Sexuality (1986).

This time out, she expands and updates her analysis of how sexual harassment by coaches is a barrier to women's success, and she talks at greater length about the invisibility of lesbian athletes in the sports arena.

Lenskyj was one of the key consultants on Justine Blainey's famous 1981 human rights case petition to play on a boys' hockey team. Now, women's hockey has become one of the fastest growing sports in the country.

In fact, if you look at the social construction of the game, women's hockey looks a lot like men's.

"After the Olympic championship game they were sharing cigars in the change room, suggesting they were following their male counterparts' lead," Lenskyj observes. "You see some of the rule-breaking violence, women swearing at each other. Just because we're all girls together doesn't mean there won't be any rules broken."

Over 25 years in the field, Lenskyj has seen other major developments, including golfer Annika Sorenstam playing on the men's tour--another example of a woman trying to pound down the doors of an all-male enclave.

"Both sports put women up against an establishment boys' club atmosphere where girls were traditionally not allowed," she notes. "But the LPGA has relatively generous prize money and there's closer to a level playing field in golf. Many LPGA players could actually compete on the men's circuit."

[Graph Not Transcribed]

One of the main dividing lines, Lenskyj says, is that hockey is a team sport and team sports involve a kind of intimacy. "The men would say it's not homoerotic at all, but girls doing something together is automatically seen as suspect. With track it's different because there's a body type that lends itself to success and fits nicely into the traditional image of conventional thinness."

The conflict between conventional standards of beauty and the image of strong women's bodies is another major theme in Lenskyj's work. Keeping women thin and weak means they'll fail on the playing field, she says. …

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