The hidden struggle for women’s footy

October 17, 2016
August 2015 match between Melbourne and Western Bulldogs.

Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football
Brunette Lenkić and Rob Hess
Echo Publishing 2016,
324 pages

In a landmark development, the first national women’s Australian Football competition — AFL Women’s — will be launched next February. But a century ago, attitudes to women playing the game were very different.

Early last century, it was feared that allowing women to play Australian Football would be a slippery slope to giving them the vote and other rights enjoyed by men, say Brunette Lenkić (footy fan) and Professor Rob Hess (sport historian) in Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football. More than 100 years of Australian women footballers’ “resilience in the face of indifference, ridicule, hostility and limited support” has won women their right to play the game. Women’s football has had a long, but strictly second-class, history.

Early 20th century games were scratch matches, one-off novelty affairs between work-based teams (mostly seamstresses and sales staff from retail stores). These were used as a gimmick by businesses to market their millinery, including athletically-unfriendly skirts, in fundraising matches staged for the war effort or for support for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

Playing footy from women’s sheer love of it was not a consideration and many barriers to regularisation of the women’s game remained. The Vatican’s 1934 outlawing of women’s soccer as “unwomanly”, enforced in Italy by Mussolini’s fascists, flowed over into official Catholic distaste for women kicking the oval-shaped ball as well as the round ball. Meanwhile Protestant churches, as late as the 1960s, were still denouncing women’s football as a “Godless trend” that violates “the Christian concept of womanhood”.

Religion also decreed against sport being played on Sundays, one of the few timeslots available for women to fit regular club-based matches around the male, even junior boys’, football schedule. Access to ovals and other facilities continued to be monopolised by men. The press was also condescending, mocking and trivialising in its coverage of women’s games, only reluctantly acknowledging the women’s competitive spirit, skill and athleticism. Routine sexism dogged the women’s game.

In 1947, one woman player recalled the women’s teams running onto the field to “a chorus of wolf-whistles”. Revered icons of the men’s game, like the legendary, tough captain-coach of Richmond Jack “Captain Blood” Dyer said women were physically and mentally unsuited to football. “Their minds would be bewildered by the rules”, injuries could ruin their “chance to become mothers”, and the hardening of their muscles would “spoil the shape of their legs”. Women, who had long kept the men’s game going through volunteering, rarely had the favour returned by men.

As post-60s feminism challenged all aspects of a male-dominated society, women’s football gradually made progress. Feminism was invoked by the founder of the organised Victorian women’s competition. The sexist headwinds slowly abated, though not without occasional oppositional gusts — a commercial TV channel filmed one training session of a women’s team in WA in 1988, edited as “a blooper reel set to circus music”.

Momentum for women’s football has continued to grow, however. A big step came in 2007 when the Australian Football League (AFL) Commission, the game’s governing body, formally got behind it.

The decision was based less on high-minded, abstract egalitarian principle, than on commercial grounds. Compared to some other football codes, Australian Football has always appealed strongly to women. Women account for 45% of current AFL attendees, and 284,000 women and girls now play organised competitive football. As a “business enterprise”, the AFL has sniffed market potential and revenue from television rights to the women’s game.

A televised Western Bulldogs-Melbourne women’s exhibition game last year rated its boots off. It drew half a million viewers, more than watched a lacklustre Adelaide-Essendon men’s game the same weekend. Television networks have caught the heady whiff of advertising dollars. It may have taken crude capitalist calculation to make a go of women’s football, but a formal, financially-viable, eight-team, unionised (200 new members of the AFL Players’ Association face their next frontier — pay parity) elite national women’s competition, finally becomes reality next year. Up There, Kaz!

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