femalestrength · fitness · football · kids and exercise · soccer · team sports

Warren vs The Wolves: What To Tell Your Teenager Daughters About Sports, Power, and Taking Over the World

This week I’ve shared a post with my online teaching community, The Activist Classroom, about Sarah DeLappe’s amazing 2016 play, The Wolves. The play follows nine powerful young women, 16- and 17-year-olds, through their indoor soccer season; in it I find a different kind of future to the one that Elizabeth Warren imagines when she fears, in her primary concession speech on 5 March, that we might need to wait four more years for an American woman to come into real power.

If you’re wondering how to inspire your teenage daughter – OR your teenage son, or young people of all genders around you… and maybe yourself too! – this post is for you.

(Read the post on The Activist Classroom here.)


Last night, Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race, leaving Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to duke it out for a shot at Agent Orange in November. She was the last of a remarkably diverse group of contenders, ground-breaking numbers of whom were women. I read, crestfallen, all the commentary on the “fall” of Warren last night and this morning, as it tried to remind me that, in the end, being smart, experienced, level-headed, and a powerfully galvanizing public speaker was not enough, is never enough, for a women to overcome the “electability” factor.

Sitting at lunch yesterday with a feminist friend and colleague from the states, we commiserated; “I don’t think we will see a female president in our lifetime,” she said.

These are The Wolves; keep reading. (Photo from the Howland Company production at Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, October 2018)

As she reached the final stages of this primary race, Warren stood unabashedly for every smart and capable woman who has ever been asked to stand down, implicitly or explicitly, because of her gender. She was a warrior on the stage, calling out privilege and hypocrisy. In one of my favourite moments from the primary race, she asked an Iowa debate crowd to look around them: “Collectively,” she said, the men on stage with her “have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in, are the women, Amy and me.”

True to this fighting form, Warren’s concession speech last night spoke directly to the pedagogical consequences of her departure. “One of the hardest parts of this,” she said as she conceded the competition, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years.”

Four more years? Or right f#$king now? The Wolves burst forth off Broadway in September 2016.

Given America’s penchant for supporting diversity in theory, and then choosing male, White supremacism in practice, I’m not sure four more years (as my friend and colleague noted) is going to do it. And the US is hardly alone here; Canada has had but one female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and she was the “fall guy” who took the political hit after the collapse of Brian Mulroney’s neoliberal Tories in the early 1990s. There are lots of other examples I could cite from the political landscapes of the so-called “developed West” (Julia Gillard, anyone?), but I’m getting tired just thinking about it.

(Thank heavens for, and long live the reign of, Jacinda Ardern, and shout out to the amazing women fighting for political justice in so many other countries around the world.)

So: let’s turn away from politics for a bit, and let’s think about that charge of four more, long years.

What can, and will, our young women learn in those four years about their strength and their power, as well as about the consequences of that old patriarchal saw, “likability”? How might we foreground – give space and light and air and time to – the former, and use them to challenge the misogynist perniciousness of the latter? What tools are already in place for us to share different kinds of lessons about our collective feminist capability, about young women’s overwhelming strength?

It so happens, this week of all weeks, that I spent part of Monday reading a terrific play, The Wolves, by Sarah DeLappe. The Wolves follows the eponymous team of indoor soccer players, nine 16- and 17-year old young women, through the winter bowels of their season. They warm up, play, and warm down again; get sick and get better; discuss the difficult material they are learning in school (the show opens with a volley about the ethical complexities of the Khmer Rouge!); talk frankly about both their bodies (pads or tampons?) and about their creepy coach (who once asked them to warm up in their sports bras… He never appears on stage; he’s plainly not a factor in their incredible on-field success.). Finally, they weather a terrible accident together.

Contrasting shots of the same moment, Still Life with Orange Slices: off Broadway, left, and at Streetcar Crowsnest, right.

Across five scenes we watch them be, variously, athletes, students of the world, and complex individuals, together; there are tougher girls and quieter girls, the brainy girl and the new girl, but nobody is a stereotype – no-one is just one thing. They are a group, finding their (incredible, near-unbeatable!) strength together, coordinating their play together, growing into their power together. They are vulnerable but they are also a team of winners – and they know it.

I’m currently writing about The Wolves for a collection of essays about sports and performance; I was invited to contribute by colleagues who know I have a side-line in feminist sports writing. (If you’re reading this on Fit is a Feminist Issueplease check out The Activist Classroom, my other online home!) I gamely said yes to this invitation because the topic interested me, but I didn’t suggest The Wolves as my focus; the editors handed it to me, and until this week I hadn’t realized what a remarkable piece of teaching – let alone what a great piece of drama – it is.

Lots of young women have poor memories of grade-school gym class, and conflicted, if not difficult, memories of playing on sports teams as adolescents or teenagers. My own memories of childhood softball and floor hockey, high school track (VERY briefly), and university rowing (ditto) are of a reproduction of failure: I was larger than the average girl, I felt awkward in my body, my hand-eye coordination was a bit crap, and I received the kind of feedback from coaches (as opposed to, say, actual coaching from coaches…) that reaffirmed my cementing view of myself (fat/uncoordinated/not a good enough girl on-field or off). Eventually, even when I think (now) I could have succeeded brilliantly (track; rowing), I gave up, because I couldn’t overcome that inner sense of failure – not just failure as an athlete, but failure as a woman.

(Side note: none of the coaches I worked with helped, not women nor men. Amazing how well we reproduce patriarchy on the sports field, when we aren’t thoughtful about our words and actions! I can empathize fully with the Wolves; I’d have left my coach in the stands too, if I could have.)

Hard play means conflict; negotiation; team work is hard. But these sisters are doing it for themselves – no creepy male coach required.

The Wolves ends with the kind of plot twist you might expect in a lesser piece of work, but as in its handling of young women athletes, here it defies expectations. Nothing gets wrapped up. Fights are not resolved; they are just sidelined while the team holds space for one another, with imperfect generosity. The young women warm up, move their bodies together, and talk. Then, all of a sudden, one of the team’s moms appears.

She is the only “adult” in the show, and she’s onstage only for about five minutes. But this is long enough for her to interrupt this young women’s space, this circle of astroturf and passing games and honest, difficult girl talk. She seizes the space, not aware at all of how she’s usurped it. The teammates sit and listen, stunned but unfailingly kind. Eventually, she leaves, and they elect to chant their battle cry. Huddled together, faces away from us, their song builds, their bodies bounce, then jump, then fly: WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES. WE! ARE! THE! WOLVES!

Rehearsing for The Wolves in New York, 2016. 

I wonder, this morning, whether Elizabeth Warren is maybe that soccer mom at the end of the play. Whether she has perhaps underestimated the circle of women around her, misread the signs. Do we need to wait four more years to put a woman into “real” power, to overcome the ridiculous bullshit that is the “electability” factor? Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps we need to look away from the old messaging, and perhaps we also need to look toward new spaces to locate the women’s power that we can’t yet fully see. In Sweden, Greta Thunberg started skipping school, sat down in front of a government building, and started a global movement. On their suburban astroturf in the dead of winter, The Wolves sounded their battle cry, and changed the shape of “girl plays” forever.

Let’s listen to these powerful young voices, honour them in the spaces they have adopted as their seats of power, and encourage them to re-conceive what power means – over the course of these next four years, and beyond.

Not planning on waiting,



football · men · Uncategorized

Superbowl Sunday: The NFL and the Chilling PSA about Domestic Violence

I didn’t see it on Superbowl Sunday because I didn’t watch the Superbowl. But I was intrigued when I heard on the Friday morning news that the NFL was sponsoring a Public Service Announcement by a group called No More.  No More’s website describes it as a movement designed to end domestic violence and sexual assault:

NO MORE is a movement to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault launched in 2013 by a coalition of leading corporations, advocacy and service organizations. NO MORE is supported by hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault organizations at the local, state and national levels that are using its signature blue symbol to increase visibility and funding to address these critical issues. Any individual, organization, or corporation that wants to end domestic violence and sexual assault can use the NO MORE symbol to show their commitment to this cause.

The Superbowl is known for its big production ads, and the spot donated to the PSA was worth $5,000,000.00.

The chilling ad is  based on a real 911 phone call in which a woman pretends to order a pizza so that her abuser, who is in the room, doesn’t know that she’s calling for help.  Here’s the psa:

Over a hundred million people tuned in the game yesterday, so that’s a lot of exposure for a campaign against domestic violence — an issue that rarely gets its due.

But the ad is not without its critics. First of all, the league responded minimally to the Ray Rice incident.  In a sickening video that went viral last summer, player Ray Rice punched his then fiance (now spouse) in an elevator so hard he knocked her out. A video surveillance camera caught the entire appalling incident on film, including Rice subsequently dragging his partner out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes.

The league’s initial response to the incident: Rice was “suspended for the first two games of this season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following his offseason arrest for domestic violence.”

But there’s more: “Rice also was fined an additional regular-season game check but is eligible to participate in training camp and all of Baltimore’s preseason games, the NFL announced.”

After saying how disappointed he was to be missing out on some games, Rice said:

My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that.

His coach said:

It’s not a big deal. It’s just part of the process. We said from the beginning that the circumstances would determine the consequences. There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake. He’s going to have to pay a consequence.

Yep, he’s one heck of a guy.

Then the video came out. It’s so awful that I’m not even going to link to it. When people saw the film, the league responded more severely with an indefinite suspension.

Airing the No More PSA is one tiny step in the direction of repairing its reputation for tolerating this kind of violence.

In an article in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti notes that  “a 30-second spot doesn’t undo the years of damage the NFL has wrought on domestic violence issues, nor does it change the culture of violence and coverups that plague the league.”

And in an article on Feministing, Mychal Denzel Smith talks about the type of masculinity the NFL promotes. That, he says, is what we need to be talking about. That is what the NFL could take a lead role in re-shaping:

The NFL is in a unique position, as one of the most visible arbiters of the cultural definition of masculinity. That definition of masculinity as dominant, violent, and controlling contributes to a culture in which violence against women is not regarded as a serious enough issue to warrant collective outrage. The NFL could be fostering a dialogue with men about how and why this definition of masculinity is dangerous and oppressive. It could be engaging boys and young men in an unlearning process and re-education around the values embedded in these archaic forms of masculinity, and questioning the health and vitality of those models. It should be starting that engagement and dialogue with its players and personnel.

Not wanting to be completely negative, he says:

Again, I don’t want to completely shit on this ad. Millions upon millions of people are going to see it and be forced to reckon with it during a time in which they’d like to run away from the issue. They will have to remember that some people don’t have the privilege of turning away. Conversations will be had.

However, this ad also doesn’t really demand anything more from us than the status quo. At the end, it says “When it’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen.” But if the only thing we’re being asked to do is have compassion after someone has already experienced violence, we’re accepting that violence as a part of culture. We’re conceding something I’d rather not — that we can’t prevent men from beating women. We can only care for these women’s wounds.

That’s an important observation. We don’t just need to have compassion for women who experience domestic violence, we need to address the cultural assumptions about masculinity that are at the root of violence against women to begin with.  Violence does not need to be part of our culture.

But how much respect for women does football actually promote? I love Mariah Burton Nelson’s book The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football.  Amazon provides this summary of her main thesis:

This eye-opening book links gender-based pay and scholarship inequity with male violence and male domination in sports and society at large. As this book points out, athletes who rape and male coaches who brag of beating their wives are often dismissed by our culture with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Formerly competitive co-ed sports have been replaced with sex-segregated sports after a woman wins against male competitors. Those dubious signals sent to boys such as “don’t throw like a girl” are all designed to glorify masculinity and keep it safe from so-called female interference and contamination.

When did that book come out? Twenty years ago, in 1995.

I heard today that last night’s game was the most watched event in television history, breaking records for tv and social media. You might say that’s a lot of people getting exposed to the 30-second version of the No More PSA.  And that’s true.

But the game is a lot longer than 30 seconds. And what it represents in the fabric of North America society is a fairly entrenched tradition that embraces, with very little critical commentary, a mainstream and disturbing view of masculinity.

It’s that very understanding of masculinity that contributes to a culture in which women count for less and where a first reasonable response to knocking your fiance unconscious is a three-game suspension.



Aikido · athletes · body image · football · weight lifting

Do girls get a bulking season? Silly question….

bulking seasonThe other morning my son, the high school athlete, polished off one breakfast and then went to shower. I started cooking eggs and toast for other family members and when he emerged back on the breakfast scene he also wanted eggs. And toast, 4 slices, with peanut butter.

“Didn’t you just have breakfast?” turned out to be a silly question.

“Mom, it’s bulking season.”

“Bulking season” is a new concept to me. The idea, as it’s been explained to me by a table full of high school aged boys (just so you know the exact limits of my expertise) is that now football and rugby are over for the winter they can work to put on weight. They all want to be bigger. They’re lifting lots of heavy weights and eating a ton. My grocery bills scare me.

Partly, it’s a joke among them. It’s a great excuse for eating dessert and having second breakfast. Partly, it’s serious. Some calorie counting was involved to make sure they’re getting enough. For the first time I heard talk of tracking and calorie counting apps from the perspective of weight gain. Here, have another cookie.

But it’s also a seasonal thing. They’re running so much and training so hard during rugby and football that they can’t easily get bigger. So their plan is to gain over the winter, and lose a bit over the summer.

The internet–I’ve now moved past my dining room  table in my research–tells me this is common.

It’s getting to that time of the year where the summer cut is finally coming to a close and now the fun begins. It’s time to bulk gentlemen (and ladies …)! For those of you just starting out, this is probably all new to you and you really don’t understand the concept of cutting and bulking and why things happen during certain times of the year.

For most, fall/winter is the time to bulk and put on some slabs of meat. If they add a little fat during this time, so be it. They will be wearing a lot of long sleeve sweatshirt types of clothing; therefore, they can hide whatever fat they might gain.

Then come spring/summer is the time to cut and drop the fat that you might have gained during the cold months to show off the new lean mass you added. Not to mention most people go to the beach or go on vacation these months so it naturally makes sense to diet and hit some cardio during this time to get in the best shape of the year. http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/weik26.htm

Now I don’t want to debate the merits and demerits of “bulking season.” Whatever. It’s mostly a joke for them as they’re all also playing basketball and so football and rugby might be over but they’re not really getting an off season.

I do want to note the incredible pressure on young men to get big. There is a young man on the football team who is pretty tiny and the coach yelled at him the other day saying, “Colonel Saunders called. He wants his legs back.” He’s a small guy, just over five foot and he’s got a slight build. I can’t imagine coaches getting away with making jokes about girls’ bodies.

The pressure on men to get bigger continues in adulthood. John Berardi, the person behind Precision Nutrition’s Lean Eating programs for men and for women also has a “Scrawny to Brawny” program but it’s for guys only.

But do girls and women ever get a bulking season?

A funny question, right?

Lots of women gain weight over the winter and lose it over the summer but that’s something about which we’re often ashamed. It’s not really celebrated. Why is that? There are lots of my complimentary terms for big men. My favourite is “brawny.” But you rarely hear these terms applied to women.

I try out the label “fat” for myself from time to time and it doesn’t fit quite right. I wrote about that ambivalence here.

“What’s the alternative? At Aikido the other day I started to notice the vocabulary we have to describe male bodies. We often joke about how much fun it is to throw the “big” guys. Someone commented that I should pay attention to how they roll because they have to do it with more finesse to avoid crashing into the mats. (A mistake I make from time to time. Ouch, sore shoulder.) And the big men are big in different ways. Some are overweight, others are tall, some are extremely muscular such as the power lifter in the club. One of the guys is a Clydesdale weight adventure runner. But there’s no angst in referring to them as “big.””

My sons reject it for me. They say I’m a “tank.” I had to check urban dictionary on that one and here goes:

1. Any person who is exceptionally large, either in terms of height, weight; being built.2. Any person who is exceptionally strong.

Man! He’s a friggin’ tank!

CrossFit is the only fitness environment I’ve ever encountered where women getting larger and stronger isn’t something to be feared.

In my post on CrossFit women, I quote strength training coach Mark Rippetoe, on women’s physiques.

Rip: “You would look better if you gained about 10 lbs of muscle” Woman responds with look of utter horror.

Rip: “Trust me, I’ve been looking at women a long time, and I’m really good at it.”

Wit and Wisdom of Mark Rippetoe


football · Guest Post · rugby · soccer · team sports

In Praise of Physically Aggressive Sports (Guest Post)

I’ll play football today for the first time. One of the women on my soccer team recruited me to play football. Until Sam suggested I write this post, I had not given much thought to my playing “physically aggressive” sports. (She suggested it after I noted that I would love it if she would buy an “Aggressive by Nature, Rugby by Choice” t-shirt for me if she ever found it again on her rugby travels.) When I stopped to think about it, however, I realized that there were all sorts of positive, feminist reasons for my choices of sport. Here are six of them with some commentary that is specific to my own personal experience as a former rugby playing, current soccer and football playing woman.

1. I can be loud; indeed, I am encouraged to be loud.
‘Talking’ on the pitch is a necessity. I am a player who talks constantly on the field of play: who is open, if there is space, when to shoot, the whole vocabulary of positioning and players. I’m confident talking on the field in part because I live and work in a space where my voice is heard, and I would argue that the reverse is just as true.
2. Aggression — in the sense of asserting one’s will, channeling one’s passion, and pursuing one’s aims forcefully — is typically rewarded .
I am on a first name basis with the cliché “work hard, play hard.” I do not want my team sports to be a romp in the park. I have legs that are often bruised (that’s what pantsuits are for, right?) and my osteopath on speed dial. I’m inclined to believe that toughness is a virtue (and I do yoga as often as soccer and football in recognition of this fact about myself).

3. I can take up space.
This is a big one for me, pun intended. I stand a rockin’ 154 cms tall. (That’s almost 5’2” … sounds more impressive in centimetres). I am a physically strong lightweight. I am now accustomed to being one of the smallest, if not the smallest, on any given pitch, and it is now part of my athletic identity that I can take on players who are bigger than me. (Tell me that does not translate into the non-sporting side of my life!) Also, since I might as well be truthful, I like the seeming contradictions of my size and choice of sports. People are genuinely shocked when I reveal I played rugby … unless they know the game, and therefore understand that the position of hooker (typically the smallest player on the field) is rather central to the whole business.

4. I am expected to hold my own and, often, to push back, as a normal part of the game.
I play Masters (+35) recreational soccer and touch football, so contact is not part of either game. But, both sports are physically aggressive, and there is a certain amount of “going toe to toe” in each of them. I like this. I like chasing down opposing players, and I like using my body to defend the ball. I’ve been known to chase down balls that were otherwise lost to possession, just to see if my speed could get me there (although I would never do this if it meant that my team would be compromised in some way). On corner kicks, I am the forward who stands in front of the keeper and does not move. My job is to prevent her from seeing the ball. It is legal for me to be in this position, and she has the option to push me away; I have the ability to get back into a similar position and continue to frustrate her.

5. Failure is an integral part of the game, therefore every game improves my resiliency and ability to bounce back from failures, the big and the small.
You’ll hear my team say “unlucky” frequently. I miss shots. Sometimes the net is wide open and I miss the shot. I flub passes. Sometimes the keeper makes a great save. Sometimes I can’t make the catch. Sometimes I get chased down. Sometimes I juggle the ball in the air and it gets intercepted. And sometimes I score. It’s the same for all of us. We aim for progress, not perfection. Note the active voice: it is a continual process of doing, and doing again, doing, and doing better.

6. I love my girlfriends.
My team sports are filled with other fantastic women who have also made a commitment to their own self-care through exercise and play. They are my role models, confidantes, and teammates. We all get joy from playing. Even if I am running hard for the whole game, getting knocked about, ending up bruised, I still look at the time I spend as self-care just as much as my meditative practice. In fact, when we used to play indoor soccer on Sundays, we’d joke that we went to “Church of Five a Side.” It’s some good therapy, sports.

So, I’ve got my gloves (Youth Medium!), cleats, and jersey ready to go for this afternoon. I’m about as excited as my almost-seven year old is for back to school. I’ll be learning as I go.

Jessica Schagerl is Fit, Feminist, and … well, almost Forty. But what’s a decade among friends? In a week, she’ll also be blogging about the Dirty Girl Run in Buffalo.