Above centre, Nora Young readies herself for competition at the 6-Day Race event at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1936. Credit: Nora Young Collection/Julia Morgan
Nora Young blazed a trail on two wheels
Now a film about her aims to combine local history, cycling, feminism, and art in a new animated film about this unknown cycling pioneer
Nora Young (1917 – 2016) was a Toronto-based female cycling pioneer from the 1930s. Never heard of her? Enter Julia Morgan, a filmmaker working on an animated short documentary called Undeniably Young: Nora Young and the Six-Day Race. The project is about Nora and an unusual, gritty, fun, and historically significant cycling race she was involved in at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1936. Julia’s interviews, coupled with other research, has already been used as the basis for a successful application to have Nora inducted into Canada’s Cycling Hall of Fame. Julia says meeting Nora changed her life.
Julia is currently crowdfunding (www.igg.me/at/NoraYoungFilm) for her film, which she plans to release sometime in 2019 so dandyhorse caught up with her to offer support and find out more.
When did you first meet Nora and find out about her cycling history?
It was in 2005. I had recently moved to the Danforth. Nora was holding a garage sale, and offering her neighbours gin and tonics! It was about 11 in the morning, and it felt more like a party than a garage sale. Later, I happened upon a young adult book called Great Girls about some of Canada’s most important female athletes by feminist sports journalist Laura Robinson, and it had a chapter about Nora. That’s when I started to understand the tremendous scope of her cycling accomplishments.
What made you want to tell Nora’s story?
Becoming friends with Nora herself. Her spirit was incredible. She was so lively and fearless, curious about everything, and someone who clearly made the most of every moment. The second reason was because in learning about her cycling legacy, particularly in the 1920s – 40s, I found out about what is called the “Golden Age of Women’s Sports.” And once I dug further into this Golden Age, I was fascinated, and I couldn’t believe that hardly anyone knew about it, and I wanted them to.
Tell us more about this Golden Age.
What has been called the “golden age” of women’s sports took place between WWI and WWII when women started playing sports on a widespread level in North America, which caused a huge amount of media and fan interest. It really was this wonderful time to be a woman in cycling or other athletic endeavours. It happened because in the 1920s women were suddenly experiencing many new freedoms, so many had the opportunity to get involved in sports for the first time. But there was still – of course – a lot of discrimination.
For example, there was this idea that cycling and other strenuous sports might damage a woman’s reproductive ability,. and male sports journalists would write things about female athletes that were quite disparaging (like calling them “leathery limbed flat chested girls” – and a lot worse). And there were events held for women that combined athletic competitions with beauty pageants. In fact there’s a vintage photo from one such event called “Bike Racing’s Most Attractive Girl” that I’ve turned into a perk in my film’s campaign.
Tell us more about Nora’s love for cycling.
Nora rode everywhere! She had a girls’ one-speed coaster bike, the kind where you pedal backwards to brake, and it was her main method of transportation. She had some interesting stories about riding around the city as a woman then. For example, she told me of one instance where a police officer stopped her and gave her a hard time when she was riding on College Street at night. The implication being proper young ladies don’t stay out in the evening, especially on bikes!
Nora road her coaster bike in competitive races too, or she would borrow a racing bike from one of her male cycling colleagues. The pinnacle of competitive racing for women in the 1930s were the Friday night races on dirt tracks at the CNE grounds – the best female cyclists in Toronto gathered there weekly to compete. Nora appears often in the newspapers as winning or placing near the top of these weekly races. In fact, journalists covering these races often said this kind of thing about her: “A rider to defeat Nora Young’s sensational time … would have to be a topnotch performer. There are 100 men riders right in Toronto now who have been training steadily who can’t beat her time now.” (Toronto Daily Star, 1936)
There were also a number of long-distance road races that Nora competed in during the 1930s on the streets and environs of Toronto, and sometimes she was the only woman in them. There’s a great story about Nora’s experience in one such race, which she tells herself, in a video our film team contributed to the Bike City exhibit at the St. Lawrence Market Gallery.
It’s worth mentioning Nora was involved in a lot of advocacy and education work to support female cyclists in the 1980s and to encourage more women to take up cycling in general. (Nora’s favourite route, by the way, was the Taylor-Massey Creek trail, which she would ride regularly all the way to Sunnybrook stables.)
Tell us more about the film itself. Why animation?
It’s a short film that will introduce audiences to Nora and the Golden Age, and then transition to the story of the time in 1936 when a small group of that era’s top female cyclists, including Nora, were invited to put on a demonstration race as part of a men’s six-day race at Maple Leaf Gardens. Men’s six-day races themselves were this wacky phenomenon – it’s going to be a great atmosphere to recreate on film.
I’m not going to say much about the race itself and how it turns out, except to say that it will be exciting and have lots of surprises.
The film is going to be a collage of live action footage, archival images, and animation, with animation being the bulk of it.
I’ll have Nora telling the story wherever possible on film and voice over. The race itself will be animation, because there’s no footage from this event. I get to recreate what it looked and sounded like, and that offers an incredible creative opportunity and control.
Why do you think it is important to celebrate women and cycling?
It is empowering for women and girls to know about early female cycling pioneers and role models. And obviously it’s important for men and boys to know about them too. Nora had some profile in her life – but nothing anywhere near close to what she deserved. I mean, she really was one of the first and best female cyclists in Canada – how can we not know about her?
How can people help?
Thank you for asking! dandyhorse readers are this film’s kind of people – who would be interested in stories where local history, cycling, feminism, and art intersect. I really would love the community’s support. So I’d love it, of course, if people could contribute and help to make my crowdfunding campaign wildly successful. My goal is to raise $15,000 by November 6, 2018. Every donation helps, even $1!
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