Backstory is a CJN column recalling some of the most bizarre, unique, and important moments in Jewish history. Click here for last week’s instalment.
Recently, the Bank of Canada announced its list of 12 distinguished Canadian women, one of whom will be immortalized on a new series of bank notes. Predictably, the list includes Nellie McClung, who battled for women’s voting rights, artist Emily Carr, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables. Among the long shots – and the only Jewish woman to make the cut – is Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld, one of Canada’s greatest woman athletes.
Rosenfeld, who died in 1969 at the age of 66, would have relished the challenge of the contest. An all-around athlete, she excelled at track and field, ice hockey, basketball, softball and tennis. Her most celebrated achievement was at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, as one of the “Matchless Six,” the six Canadian women who competed for the first time in track and field events. She won a gold medal as a member of the 400-metre relay team, a silver medal for the “disputed” 100-metre sprint, which she in fact likely won, and placed fifth in the 800-metre race and allowed an injured teammate to finish ahead of her in what was considered at the time a magnanimous act of sportsmanship. A Globe sports reporter called her “Toronto’s fleet-footed Jewish maiden.”
She held many Canadian sports records and in 1950 was named Canada’s outstanding female athlete of the first-half of the 20th century. By then, she had been writing a popular sports column for the Globe and Mail for many years.
Rosenfeld was born in February 1904 in a town in the Pale of Settlement. Her parents, Max and Sarah, brought her and her two-year old brother, Maurice, to Canada in late 1905. Max’s elder brother lived in Barrie, Ont., so that’s where the family ended up.
Max and Sarah had named her Fanny. But after she “bobbed” her hair as a young woman – more out of practicality for sports purposes than as a fashion statement – she was dubbed “Bobbie.” Her skills and talent as an athlete were evident by the time she was in Grade 9. “Wiry, strong and quick,” as her biographer Anne Dublin describes her, Rosenfeld started winning track and field competitions in junior high school and never looked back.
The family relocated to Toronto in 1922, where she quickly became a sports star at Harbord Collegiate, the YMCA and later at the YMHA on Brunswick Avenue. In those days, as Dublin also notes, young women, who wanted to compete in sports were compelled to wear long skirts or bloomers. Not Bobbie, however. Causing controversy, she wore her brother’s baggy shorts and a T-shirt or jersey. “What was a gal to do?” Rosenfeld wrote in a January 1940 column on the subject of her attire. “With unflagging effort we tried all over town to purchase raiment in accordance with what the best-dressed sprinter was wearing, so that we could discard our modesty-preserving pup-tent bloomers, spinnaker middy and hip-length stockings. But girl athletes were as yet in the neophyte stage and sporting goods houses proved an absolute blank…so we had to improvise our new and less blush-saving garments.”
Fiercely competitive, she rarely backed down from a sports competition or a challenge. One obstacle, however she could not overcome was arthritis, which afflicted her for the first time in 1929, when she was only 25 years old. Ultimately forced to retire as an athlete in 1933, she reinvented herself as a sports columnist. In her writing, she rarely missed an opportunity to advocate for women and minorities in amateur and professional sports.
Bobbie Rosenfeld Park was established by the city of Toronto in 1991 in an area between Rogers Centre and the CN Tower. In a 2013 academic article about her life and career, University of Windsor historians Christina Burr and Carol A. Reader assert that in the larger perspective, “through her displays of outstanding athleticism and techniques of appearing, Rosenfeld helped to pave the way for the emergence of the modern woman of sport in interwar Canada – a representation of womanhood that was hugely contested at the time.”
Historian Allan Levine’s most recent book is Toronto: Biography of a City.