Women in Rugby Union: A Social and Cultural History, c. 1880-2016




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


Despite the prevailing interpretation of rugby union as a performance of masculinity, between 1880 and 2016 many women and girls sought or created opportunities to engage with this physical contact sport, either as spectators or participants. The idea that rugby is a site for the production of masculinity dominates the literature on rugby union and gender, while sociological research which engages with female participation principally interrogates the reasons women play a masculine sport. As the first international history of women in rugby union, this thesis examines the social and cultural contexts in which women and girls took to the pitch. Women’s rugby occurred in a variety of formats, evolving from Victorian commercial spectacles and First World War fundraisers through to university clubs, then national teams competing in World Cups and the Olympic Games. An intersectional and interdisciplinary approach highlights the range of involvement in terms of class, race, and age of female participants and the shifts in these demographics over time, impacting the location and longevity of women’s rugby teams. An international perspective with particular attention on France, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States of America reveals an alignment between the broader history of women’s rights and the narrative of female participation in rugby union. The sport’s masculine-coding restricted female engagement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, resulting in fragmentary and discontinuous examples of women playing rugby. Archival sources and first-hand testimonies from former international players and administrators outline growth at local, transnational, and national levels after 1965, further expanded to elite international competitions during the 1990s. Alongside this undeniable progress, sport remained an important arena for gender performance. The history of women in rugby union illuminates the social construction of gender; female rugby players both reproduced and resisted the hegemonic gender order.





Research Institute