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Physical Activity, Health, and the Making of Young Women

December 16, 2014

Jessica Dunkin

SSHRC Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Jessica Dunkin

In late nineteenth-century Canada, there were few spaces in which women could be physically active. With the introduction of physical culture classes in the 1880s, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) became one of the few, if not the only public institution in many cities, to offer physical activity programming for women, but specifically working-class women. By 1920, the YWCA, which began its life as an evangelical Christian reform organization, was a leader in the field of women's physical education. Dr. Jessica Dunkin's SSHRC-funded Postdoctoral Fellowship research explores the arrival of physical culture to the YWCA and the new opportunities afforded to women of the labouring classes in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century.

This project grew out of Jessica's doctoral dissertation, completed in the Department of History at Carleton University in 2012, on the annual meetings and encampments of the American Canoe Association. For two weeks each summer, canoeing enthusiasts from Canada and the United States came together to camp, race canoes, and socialize. "One of the more remarkable aspects of that research was the largely overlooked team of workers that made the events possible, including cooks, carpenters, servers, and performers." explains Dr. Dunkin. "As I explored the labour of leisure, literally the work required to make a sporting event happen, I couldn't help but wonder about the leisure of labourers. Given its focus on working women, the YWCA seemed an ideal space in which to explore this topic." The new research also allowed Jessica to return to her first love, women's history.

Boston YWCA 1902

Boston YWCA in 1902. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

In August 2013, Jessica joined the Queen's School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, where she is supervised by Mary Louise Adams, a historical sociologist who has written on youth sexuality, figure skating, and walking. Research for Jessica's project on the YWCA has taken her to Hamilton, London, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Halifax. She has also had the opportunity to travel for conferences. Most recently, Jessica attended the Annual Meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) in Portland, Oregon, with the assistance of a Queen's Post-doctoral Travel Award.

Drawing on social histories of architecture and historical geographies of sport, Jessica's paper for NASSS explored the different spaces that Canadian YWCAs used to accommodate a growing roster of physical activities in this period. The two case studies, Toronto and Montreal, revealed how the institutionalization of physical work resulted in material changes to association buildings (organizations quickly realized that dining halls weren't ideal for gymnastics) and reconfigured gendered geographies of leisure and fitness in the late nineteenth century city.

Jessica looks forward to presenting on another aspect of this research, YWCA summer homes for working women, at the American Society for Environmental History in Washington, DC, in March. You can find Jessica on Twitter @dunkin_jess.