By Anna Park
This summer, with funding from the department of undergraduate advising and research, I traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand to research gender biases and stereotypes in rugby culture. On a day-to-day basis, this meant going to practices and games of a local rugby club where I participated, observed, and talked to as many people as possible about all aspects of rugby, focusing on how and why they are involved in the sport, and what challenges they face as a result of that. As someone who has completely fallen in love with the sport since joining Stanford Women’s Rugby two years ago, it was a dream come true to be able to play and study rugby in New Zealand, where rugby is the national sport.
My main research questions focused on the experience of female rugby players at the amateur level. I asked a lot of women why they play rugby, and a common theme in their responses was empowerment. “Playing rugby makes me feel confident” one teammate told me, because “even though I’m a small woman, I know I could take you down.” But the empowerment that the women describe is not just due to the physical aspects of rugby. For many female players, rugby is a way of redefining what it means to be a woman, questioning the boundaries of traditional masculinity and femininity. After a game, they walk off the field covered head to toe in mud, comparing bruises and scrapes, but later that night at the clubrooms they are dressed up in heels and makeup. These two pictures – at odds with one another – represent a resistance by the women to be put into labeled “masculine” or “feminine.”
A rejection of traditional notions of masculinity and femininity does not mean that rugby culture is free of gender-based stereotypes and biases. In fact, the club culture that I experienced revolved around the men’s teams, and the women’s team was repeatedly overlooked. Some evenings after games, we would be invited back to the clubrooms for speeches, where people of all ages would come together and socialize. The women’s team would sit off to the side, not really a part of the speeches and traditions of the club. Integrating a women’s rugby team into an old boys’ rugby club will also take more effort on the part of the women. It means participating in the traditions and interacting more with the other members. “Until we get a woman standing up there, talking to the club, it’s not going to change” a former player told me over coffee one morning.
Despite the male-centric rugby club culture, the community surrounding rugby in New Zealand had a way of bringing people of all ages together. On the field I played side by side with women 20 years older than me, becoming good friends with a few of them. Rugby brought us together in a way that no other group or community could.
After my season of club rugby in Christchurch, I feel lucky to come back to Stanford where we are fortunate to have a club that’s equally supportive of the women’s and men’s teams. I am also looking forward to being able to share some of the highlights of my experience in New Zealand with our club. Although gender biases persist within rugby culture, female involvement in rugby is rapidly increasing on a global scale, and with it the perceived masculinity of rugby as a sport is changing. It’s an exciting time for women’s rugby.