Almanac Women’s Footy History: On the margins of the good oval

On the Margins of the Good Oval: Women and Australian Football[1]

Stephen Alomes

* Later published in Peter Burke and June Senyard, eds., Behind the Play: Football in Australia, Maribyrnong Press, Hawthorn, 2008      


Since its beginnings in 1858-9 women have always been involved in Australian Football. This gender difference distinguishes it from other forms of football:  the traditional all-male crowds at many English and European soccer matches, and the massive male predominance at rugby league and rugby union matches. At the same time, women have been on the margins, outside the sacred turf found inside the boundary line, or not allowed into the inner sanctum of the male clubrooms.


This article begins by, briefly, raising general questions about social and cultural change and gender. Focusing primarily on Victoria, it then maps the field, documenting the rise of women in football since the 1980s. [2] It demonstrates the pattern of change whereby women now take the field in women’s football leagues, preside over clubs, coach and umpire, and provide specialist support as physiotherapists, fitness advisers, nutritionists and trainers, journalists and presenters, as well as comprising over 40% of the crowd at Australian Football League (AFL) matches. The article suggests patterns which mirror both a changing society and a continuing older Australia.[3] Traditionally, in a sports-oriented culture, women have always been involved in the game, but primarily as club members, supporters and enthusiasts, or in unrecognised background roles. Today, in a more inclusive Australia, women, like Indigenous Australians and overseas players of Australian Football are coming in from the outer, from the margins of the good oval. Those changes are happening off the field and on the field, including women’s football and women umpires. While sometimes almost unrelated they have effectively worked together to change male and female attitudes and to enhance opportunities for women in football.


Contexts: Gender and Embodiment, Globalisation and Culture


In a 2003 Age article entitled ‘Women in footy, they’re everywhere’, Samantha Lane reflected on more than the experience of an inherited love of football, as she was beginning her career as a football writer. She remarked that ‘female footy journos [had to] earn…their stripes’, and once this was achieved they were treated as any male journalist would be. However, there were also ‘plenty of observers’ who were ‘still almost willing them to fail’.[4]


While woman had always involved themselves in football, privately and in clubs, these observations offered the nub of the fundamental change that women in football were making, whether in the media, the ‘football industry’, as volunteers, or as players.  Women in football challenged the most traditional of gender divides in what had been one of the most gender-divided societies in the developed world, the once pioneering colony Australia. As a legacy of the Victorian era, male and female roles were seen as even more distinctly different than in other comparable societies. The ‘Populate or Perish’ ideology had cast women as mothers procreating the race in the first decade of the Commonwealth and the baby boom 1950s suburban ideology reprised the gender divide. Change has come slowly in subsequent decades, although in consumer culture the toyshop still replicates traditional gender roles with sections for action toys and others for Barbie and other fashionable friends.


In a gender-divided society, football was supposed to be about male rituals, including initiation rites into adulthood and the society of other males. Traditionalists could not come to terms with enlarged roles for women in the game, on and off the field. Now, in the 21st century, women have been claiming a place on the traditional male, but also communal, stage, particularly in Victoria where Australian Football was the most powerful of all organised secular religions, challenged only by the informal rites of the house and the ‘One Day of the Year’, Anzac, for ‘sacredness’. This also involved broadening conceptions of female roles, not only in work and leisure, but also regarding the repertoire and skills that could be carried out by the female body. Casting aside the cultural assumptions notionally based on biology (women = mothers = feminine = could not perform physical roles or fly planes &c), women’s football allowed women to extend their range of bodily pleasures, as they were already doing, despite opposition, in surfing, in cycling, in winter sports and in the new range of women’s Olympic sports.[5] Such emancipation also built on the challenges successfully thrown down to rigid stereotypes about female dress and its anti-sport constrictions, and arbitrary restrictions,  by the ‘New Woman’ of the late Victorian era, and on a century of subsequent evolutionary change, intensified by second wave feminism from the Sixties..  It might also challenge the worst of traditional ‘young male’ behaviour and its contemporary manifestations, but that is a larger long-term story. [6]
Varied perceptions of women’s roles were found in the media, despite the rise of the strong muscular female, the Glamazon in popular culture, or rather socially and culturally closer to home, Megan Gale as ‘the face’ of retailer David Jones in 2005-7 marketing campaigns. In sport, these models were also influenced by the high profile success of Australian women swimmers such as Leisel Jones and Jodie Henry, themselves following Dawn Fraser half a century earlier. Often the trends in the wider culture were contradictory, as in quite different global debates about waif models as a female stereotype.


Traditionally a Game for Men and Women


The situation of women on the margins of the sacred turf of the football oval were mirrored, at least metaphorically,  by Australian Football’s situation as a geographically peripheral sport in a world increasingly dominated by metropolitan (aka ‘global’) cultural tastes. The two subjects would become intertwined in the late 20th and early 21st century. In the contemporary history of women and Australian Football two phases were important. The first comprised the hesitant steps and the breaking down the walls of prejudice in the 1980s-1990s. The second, which followed, combined popular participation and a larger corporate embrace of women in football and of women’s football by leagues, clubs, football personalities and, with qualifications, the media in the early 21st century. In this footy dance, pressure from below has elicited free and forced support from above. Reformed and more open policies arose in reaction to changing laws and social attitudes, and also responded to other tendencies: the general rise of women’s sports around the developed world and the competition for the future of the game in Australia. [7]  In a globalising era, women are not just 50% plus of the population, and worthy of respect and recognition in equity terms. They may also be crucial for the long-term future of arguably the world’s most exciting form of football which is, however, played predominantly in one of the world’s most isolated and uninfluential countries.


Australian Football has been a women’s game from its earliest years.[8] First, women have always been prominent amongst the legions of Australian Football supporters and spectators. From the beginning, when early football matches in Melbourne drew crowds bigger than those for all other sports, women were amongst the passionate partisans and comprised a significant part of the crowd. The historic experience of women watching Australian Football has been documented from the beginnings of the game. The Melbourne Herald reported in July 1859 that ‘a large contingent of the fair sex’ could be seen amongst the 2000 spectators at a game.[9] In historian Robin Grow’s summary ‘By the end of the 1860s women were not only attending in large numbers but were joining the men in encroaching on the playing field’. [10] This contrasted, for example, with the smaller female attendances at early rugby league matches. As clubs and leagues developed women were amongst the season-ticket holders; according to Richard Stremski comprising as high as a quarter at Collingwood in 1900.[11] Photographic images of women and children just behind the picket fence, where it was easiest to see the game without other spectators blocking the view, contrasts with the photographic evidence of English soccer. In contrast to the nearly all-male crowds at soccer matches in Mannheim or Glasgow, Manchester or Rome over the last century (English soccer crowds have been often less than 15% female), women have often comprised around 40% of Australian Football crowds.[12]


Despite such measures of female enthusiasm, the situation of women in the sport reflected ruling gender power and conflict. In many sports clubs and societies eg golf clubs, women were viewed as ‘associates’ rather than full members. In football clubs, ‘ladies tickets’ or ‘ladies memberships’ were sometimes cheaper, only in part because of women’s generally lesser access to economic resources. However, women’s ancillary roles, particularly club fund-raising and social event organisation, had begun even at a much earlier early stage.[13]


A Women’s Game


The contemporary history of women’s football, Australian Football games played by women, also has an important prehistory.[14] Women’s football appeared briefly during the two world wars, when women were liberated from traditional roles, or sometimes as a one-off exception, sometimes linked with novelty games at fun and fund-raising days which offer Bahktineseque or carnivalesque inversions of normal male and female roles.  That women played after the wars has been noted, but often in clichéd male comments in the humorous press or in lighter columns about the incongruity of the ‘fairer sex’ playing such a rough and/or vigorous ‘manly game’. Peter Burke has shown how pressures from below and from above came together in matches in Perth during World War One: a genuine desire of ‘football mad’ employees on the one hand and novelty conceptions of charity matches as ‘sensations’ to raise funds for charitable purposes on the other.[15] The qualified nature of the embrace of women’s football from male authorities and institutions ensured that experiments in women’s football were short-lived. Underlying such conservatism was the persistence of biological as well as cultural conceptions of women’s role as mothers and wives, which most women shared. Such ideas mirrored biological conceptions of race, which excluded Aboriginal Australians from the game, and from other sports, (with significant exceptions) for most of the century from the late 1860s to the late 1960s.[16] Biological-cultural restrictions on women’s sport encouraged masculinist scepticism about women playing football. After second wave feminism they have now faded, but have not disappeared entirely. [17]


Sport is ubiquitous in Australian life as well as providing the drama played out on the great arenas and telecast on our television sets. However, the private often differs from the institutional and the public or now media realities. An untold story is the omnipresence of women playing football. The important informal history of women playing football includes several fields – the backyard, the street and the park, one which precedes the current period where in single parent, one or two child families, or families with fathers working at weekends, mothers have a kick with son and daughter or with son(s) or daughter(s). Mums and daughters have become even more essential in kick-to-kick in this era of smaller and divided families. This has been recognised recently in oral testimony about childhood experiences of the game, in Brian Nankervis’ collection Boys and Balls and in AFL Record interviews with women about their football memories.


Childhood experiences and memories of football were never the sole preserve of boys as several musicians have reflected. Singer and football fan David Hobson recalled that his four sisters ‘were all quite good footballers’. Michael Thomas, who wrote Weddings Parties Anything’s song ‘Monday’s Experts’, was conscious of the persistent gender divide: ‘Girls really love a kick of the ball and things like that and often it is just that they haven’t been allowed…When I was a kid it was like “Ah come on you girls, you aren’t allowed to be here, you can’t kick.” There is no reason that they can’t kick…They say in terms of comparative strength up until the age of seven a girl, on average, is as strong as a boy.’ [18]
Several prominent women in football and public life recalled that they had access, if not always equal opportunity, in childhood football. Carmen Lawrence, ‘like a lot of country kids’, had played the game ‘often with other kids (male and female) in the rough paddocks (and without shoes!)’. The federal M P and former West Australian Premier had football on both sides of her family. In the dry West Australian bush her father played for the ‘Gutha’ team on ‘a hard red-dirt oval’, while her mother was a fanatical East Perth follower who ‘listened regularly to the ABC broadcasts to the bush’. [19]


Women also enjoy playing and coaching football. In primary schools, a predominance of women teachers has made women of major importance, even in football coaching. Kevin Sheedy recalled that Sister Rupert at St Joseph’s Primary School introduced him to football while Veronica Nolan, a teenage girl, was his first football coach who ‘instilled in me and my teammates her passion for the game’. [20]






‘Backstage’: Women Breach the Barriers and Unbar the Changeroom Door


The 1980s


Women’s footballing advances would be made in three areas: in the backstage world of football clubs, from changerooms to boardrooms; in the media; and on the field, playing the game.


The first foray into the forbidden territory, the male inner sanctum of AFL club change-rooms, came from two different sources. Women admitted to the inside, at first slowly but then readily, by the clubs have included physiotherapists, fitness experts, nutritionists, trainers and podiatrists, many of whom declared to the shock of the old guard, that ‘Yes, they had seen a male body naked before’, whether it was their brother, father, or another adult. Female roles expanded from the 1980s as even suburban club ‘pleasant Sunday mornings’ and presidents’ lunches lost their ‘all male front bar’ quality, as women joined the convivial throngs. Women would play increasingly active roles in football clubs, although some traditional gender divisions continued through ‘chardonnay clubs’ and the like which held women’s lunches and other functions.


In football clubs gendered institutional amnesia has left a legacy of a forgotten story of women’s support roles in clubs, in social organisation, on committees, and providing traditional support services, and more.[21] Perhaps that history will be rediscovered in the current era when women’s roles have gone beyond the mother who makes the muddy footy shorts whiter than white with some miracle detergent, helps out at the kiosk on match-days or provides ‘Mum’s taxi’ to training and the game. As Kevin Sheedy and Carolyn Brown have shown in Football’s Women, women trainers, physios, nutritionists and running coaches are at AFL level not at all unusual in the clubrooms, while women secretaries, team managers, presidents and club historians are common in senior and junior local football.[22] In the AFL itself, women have occupied important positions. Jill Lindsay has been the VFL/ AFL Ground Operations Manager for over 30 years, while Elaine Canty was a disciplinary tribunal member until its 2004 restructure.[23]


In many societies women maintain the culture. In football, a growing number of women perform the essential and demanding, but inadequately recognised (even  ‘thankless’) task of secretary, play the crucial role of team manager for junior, and some senior, teams, write and ensure publication of the newsletters, keep the books in order as treasurer, and maintain, through club museums and displays, the historical memory of the club.[24] Such involvements commonly begin at junior level, as a son, or sometimes a daughter, progressed through the age groups, or in the mixed football and netball clubs that dominate the culture of country towns in Victoria. They often culminate in involvement in the club’s central administration.[25] This new phenomenon, women in another inner sanctum, the Board, on local and AFL clubs, contrasts with the time-honoured male culture of the boardroom captured in David Williamson’s 1977 drama, The Club.[26]


In 1998, the appointment of the first woman goal umpire at AFL level, Brisbane’s Katrina Pressley, was sometimes treated as a novelty story in the media.[27] As women rose to club committee or association board positions, Tracey Long became President of the Nagambie Football Club in rural Victoria, and several women were short-listed for the AFL Commission, they met the prejudice of the neanderthals, who embodied the values of yesteryear. Typical, as noted above, was then Carlton President John Elliott’s declaration that there was no way a woman could make it onto the board at Carlton, unless they had played 100 games of football.[28] Just a few years later, even before John Elliott’s fall in football and business,[29] Lauraine Diggins, the Carlton art gallery owner and member of an old Carlton football family, was elected to the board, making Carlton the fourth of the 16 AFL clubs to have a woman director. By 2006, several AFL clubs, including Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton, Geelong and Melbourne, had a woman board member.  By 2006 Melbourne had three female board members and a membership of 50% male and 50% female. [30] The first female AFL commissioner, Samantha Mostyn, a Sydney corporate executive with a background in media law, was appointed in 2005.[31]  This appointment reflected the AFL Commission focus on ‘corporate’ skills in the ‘football industry’, as it was about to negotiate a 5 year television contract (which at over $700 million was the biggest ever media contract in Australian sport). They also ticked two other boxes – Sydney/New South Wales and gender – as factors supporting the appointment.


Fourth Estate rather than Fifth Column


In a media-obsessed society victories won by invading the male tribal territories of the ‘sports journos’ newsroom, and the desks of the television studios have been important. Even more than the image of the young girl as engine driver or engineer, they present to a wider audiences evidence that women can do anything. They may have had a disproportionate role in supporting women’s football as well, even though the general news stories on women playing the game have been mainly written by news reporters, not sports reporters. Women’s rise in the media has been the most dramatic or ‘high profile’ change, particularly as football journalists on the Melbourne Age and on ABC TV, but rather less so on the Herald-Sun and the Australian. The move to break through the barriers was initially more difficult. Women journalists were doubly outsiders when they entered the clubrooms for the coach’s after-match press conference. They had to confront the often gruff, old-fashioned doormen, or sometimes even testy coaches, who occasionally barred their access. That charge was led by several women journalists, particularly Corrie Perkin and Caroline Wilson at the Age. The rise of women football reporters would also have the biggest impact of all in lifting the female profile in football, simply because it involved a media role, at first in print, and then on television and, less often, on radio.


The battles, often for basic access as well as respect, in the once all-male worlds of football clubs have been documented in Football’s Women while the AFL website’s ‘Women in Football’ information sheet summarised the achievement in the print media:


In the press, individuals such as Corrie Perkin and Caroline Wilson have blazed a trail for a succession of female reporters. In the early 1980s, Perkin was the first woman to enter the rooms of an AFL team to report on a match. She was still writing about AFL football in 1996 as editor of the Football Record. Wilson is the chief football writer of the Age newspaper in Melbourne and one of the most respected analysts of the game. Currently, The Age has female football writers in Karen Lyon, Emma Quayle and Melissa Ryan, while News Limited has Jackie Epstein and Rebecca Williams.[32]


In the profiles of women football-lovers, from the professionals such as journalists to the team loyalists, one strong theme was that football was not about any alleged fetishism focused on the male bottom, also known in the 1980s moment of Warwick Capper as the appeal of tight shorts. It was about the game, about the spectacle and about the club, not about the ‘tight bum’.[33]  Today, leading women football journalists write match analyses and study club politics and a changing game, as well as compiling player profiles. They may also have changed the character of football writing, with the hard-working Caroline Wilson writing incisively about football club politics in a way similar to the ‘insider’ revelations in political journalism of Michelle Grattan and Laurie Oakes a little earlier. In a second change, women journalists have written more ‘personality profiles’, illuminating the personal lives, social worlds and off-field careers of footballers.[34]


While prejudice has not entirely retreated– especially on the part of several male radio and television commentators and some male and female talk-back callers – the number of women in press and television football journalism has increased.  In August 2004, Kelly Underwood became the first women to call an AFL game on mainstream radio station 3AW. She then joined Channel 10 as a sports reporter.[35] ABC TV Victoria’s sports news’ pioneered primary roles for women sports journalists, Angela Pippos and Christine Ahern, until the Sydney powerbrokers of the ABC relegated local sports reporters’ on-screen work to the weekend, providing a ‘national role’ for the lacklustre Peter Wilkins from Sydney. Angela Pippos continued at the ABC while Christine Ahern left the ABC for Channel 9 sports news.[36] Tiffany Cherry was the main football news reporter for the Fox Footy Channel, and has presented several documentary specials[37], Christi Malthouse is an Around the Grounds and sports news reporter for Channel Ten, and Samantha Lane writes match reports and feature articles for the Sunday Age and is a panellist in Ten’s TV footy comedy-talk show, After the Game. At the same time television’s preference for visual beauty (himbos as well as bimbos) is apparent in the visual appeal and on-screen image presentation of several of the faces of sports TV.


Running onto the Oval, Breaking through the Banner: The Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL) and the Rise of Women’s Football


The 1980s was a time of change in world sport. It saw the rise of women’s participant sport around the world and the emergence of Australian Football as an international game  – through local competitions, end of season VFL matches and television coverage by free to air and new satellite channels. The emergence of women’s sport recognised not so much a post-feminist masculinisation of female roles, but instead a wider repertoire of potential roles. In sport, in bodily self-expression, assumptions about social roles and forms of play were becoming more diverse.


In Victoria, the contemporary women’s football competition began in 1981, while other leagues were also formed during the decade, including Western Australia (1987) and then South Australia (1990).[38] In 2005, the year in which the VWFL celebrated its 25th anniversary, there were three divisions in the Victorian Women’s Football League. In 2004, the Football Victoria Youth Girls competition for girls aged 13 to 17 was created, filling the vacuum between juniors and seniors.[39] For many women, the game was a revelation. One women’s football stalwart, Rohenna Young, had tried football at her boyfriend’s suggestion. At first ‘I was worried, thinking I might get hurt. Then I played a practice game, kicked a goal and never looked back.’ Having previously played individual sports, she found ‘the team part of the game is amazing’. Even more significantly, ‘it is such a complex game with so many intricacies – a team game, your own skills, fitness – always something to learn’. [40]


In its early years, the VWFL’s slow progress was also linked with initially limited skills and fitness. With strong representation from working class areas, class and gender prejudice came together when smug traditionalists assailed the women’s game as a game ‘for fat, ugly sheilas’. After the early difficulties, the rise of women’s football has in most respects been a success story, especially in the new century. Its evolution has had several milestones. These include: the first interstate carnival in 1991 in Melbourne (followed by carnivals in each year since, in Adelaide (1992, 1994, 1996), Perth 1999, ACT 2000, Sydney (2002, 2006) Darwin 2003, and Melbourne (1993, 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2005); with over 7,000 women playing Australian Football around the nation, the participation of all mainland states and territories, an Australian Defence Force team and a Victorian Under-19 team in the 2005 carnival; increased media reporting of women’s football, especially the carnival.[41] In Victoria, expansion was expressed in: the formation of the VWFL second and third divisions in 1997 and 2003; the appointment of Football Victoria’s first Female Football Development Manager, Nicole Graves, in 2004. The first Mother’s Day matches were played before AFL games at the MCG in 2004 and 2005 and Vic Metro vs Vic Country match was played as curtain-raisers before AFL roster matches in 2004 and 2005.[42] The signing of several sponsors, including ANZ bank, for women’s football in Victoria and a budget of over $80,000 by 2004 confirmed that the VWFL was now a mature organisation, celebrating 25 years of women’s football in 2005.  The twenty-six teams of 2005 played fifteen rounds and finals whereas in 1997 the two divisions, seniors and the new First Division Reserves competition, played only twelve rounds and finals.


The league played its matches on Sunday afternoons, which not only usefully filled the ground vacuum at weekends, but  resulted from the fact that weekend football had long been structured around Saturday morning Auskick, Saturday juniors, reserves and seniors and Sunday morning junior football. It confirmed, indirectly, that women’s football had begun, and often still remained, on the margins of the traditional men’s game. It was also strongest in Victoria, the traditional heartland of football passion, leading to uneven interstate matches. [43]


The emergence of women’s football since the 1980s occurred in two social contexts, the changes and continuities in cultural values in the social macrocosm, and the partial challenges to traditional attitudes in the sporting microcosm. The story of the rise, and the difficulties, of women’s football, and then schoolgirls’ football, is also typical of the story of new sporting competitions and clubs. In the early stages clubs rose and fell and even successful clubs disappeared.[44]


Reality television, a fashion from the late 20th century, also played its – indirect – part in the evolution of the women’s game, as well as expressing the cultural and gender contradictions of the times. The Kensington Hill Hammerheads Football Club, created for the reality television show The Club, a media-invented football team playing in the Western Region Football League (WRFL) second division in 2002, had one woman amongst the three candidates for coach (she lost). The program wanted to reach as many demographics as possible. It also had two women players. The ‘high kicking’ Debbie Lee, a tall, strong blonde athletic top woman’s footballer and Jamie Nemorin, a short, cute teenage player from Perth made the club’s final list, although it also had American-style ‘high kicking’ ‘cheerleaders’, the dancing girls otherwise rare in the Australian game. Debbie Lee played in practice matches, but the WRFL refused to allow her to play in roster matches. Despite this setback, one of the top players in the Victorian Women’s Football League found that her ‘Fifteen Minutes of Fame’ on television enlarged the profile of the women’s game. The TV ‘melodrama’ at ‘The [television footy] Club’ also challenged the male social conventions of the game.


In more down to earth suburban sports club spheres, other complications, those faced by all new sports clubs were significant. Generational turnover, and the need for renewal, is greater in a physical sport such as Australian Football, in which most players retire before, or soon after, they turn 30. The ban on girls playing higher level junior football made the problem of renewal even greater. The flow-through of players from junior and school/teens to senior was stemmed by a legal dam, even aside from a contemporary general trend, reduced sporting participation in the mid-teenage years

. When girls compulsorily gave up football at the age of 12 they drifted away to other sports or pursuits over the next few years, not waiting until they were old enough to play in the women’s competition in their late teens.


New women’s clubs, like all new sports clubs, also face another problem. A stand-alone club has to establish everything – organisation, uniform, budget, grounds, footballs, coaching &c – from the beginning. A club linked to an existing local Australian Football club has the problem of whether it will be treated as second fiddle to the senior club, and even sometimes third fiddle to its junior teams and levels. A submission to a state parliamentary inquiry into country football, made by Cameron Dole, the former male coach of the North Ballarat Roosters, documented the problems in finding grounds and of being peremptorily kicked off grounds. Their experience was one of lack of respect.[45] In the early years the result was instability. Yet the number of teams is still small and, even with the work of Football Victoria’s full-time Female Football Development Manager[46] there is much still to be done to strengthen the foundations of the game.[47]


Girls Just Want to Play Footy: Change in a New Century


Generational change is breaking down the barriers, ensuring that the progress of girls’ football is even faster than that of women’s football. This has been evident in the development of the Youth Girls League in Victoria, Under 17 football, and in high school competitions in Victoria and interstate. Grass roots demand and top-down central organisation have come together in this phase of development.


The Youth Girls competition resulted from a political, legal and social struggle. Girls had long been able to participate in Auskick and play in pre-teen under-age teams. Earlier female physical development meant that many girls were more than competitive against boys in the early under-age groups. However, girls were barred from playing against boys from over the age of twelve.  In Melbourne, the battle for female football rights continued in the 2000s on other grounds – in the arena of the courts.  In 2003, Emily Stanyer, Sally Roberts and Penny Cula-Reid, who had played almost 300 games in the Moorabbin Saints Junior Football League, legally challenged through the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria the ban on girls over twelve playing football in mixed, but predominantly male, teams. As Emily Stanyer remarked, she had ‘played with virtually the same people for five years now and, like, even right from the start they saw me getting in, doing all the hard work, tackling, all that kind of stuff, they just thought, “She can play, let her”‘. She didn’t like to ‘go to the game and you’ve got to sit there behind the gate and just cheer your team on [which is] totally different.’ ‘I just want to go out there and kick the ball around with my teammates and stuff…’. An interim decision allowing them to play in the finals meant that she could play full-back for Hampton Rovers against Melbourne High. Justice Morris contrasted this with other court cases involving football and suspended players’ right to play in the finals. Those cases were about club or individual advantage. ‘But there is a difference. Those cases were about pushing or kicking or striking. ‘These cases are about a more fundamental value. These cases are about human rights and in particular whether three able-bodied teenagers can be excluded just because they are girls.’[48]  After the case Football Victoria lifted the maximum age for girls playing in mixed competitions to fourteen.


Popular demand and demographic progress followed the legal advances as Football Victoria established a Youth Girls Competition to fill the vacuum for teenage girls. Football Victoria and VWFL annual reports demonstrated the statistical measures of that progress. The 2004 increase in female participation in junior football was across the board from Auskick to junior, Youth and Secondary School competitions and programs. There were 11,975 players in the Victorian Secondary School Sports Association’s 469 teams, 122 players in the first year of the Football Victoria Youth Girls competition, 339 girls playing in junior football competitions around Victoria, 2876 girls in Auskick, while 52 female only football clinics were conducted during 2004, reaching 1146 students around Victoria.[49]


Discovering Football, Confronting Cultural Challenges


The cultural and practical challenges facing women’s football were summarised by Kate Lawrence in her pioneering 1997 article ‘Making our Mark’. She captured both the traditional prejudices and the impact of the footballing experience on the players:


The greatest barrier to women playing Aussie Rules comes from the traditional mores which define and limit what women can do. This translates into societal disapproval and rejection when a woman steps outside the confines of traditional femininity. There is a stigma attached to women whenever they break traditional male barriers. This is particularly so in football because of its identity with “male”. It is easily described as the last bastion of male exclusivity.

When women say they play football reactions range from disbelief or laughter down to downright derision. Disbelief is the most common reaction, which indicates the simple concept of women playing breaks people’s fixed perceptions of how the world operates, i.e. women don’t play football. [50]


Paradoxically, for many women the nature of football as a passionate game transcends and overcomes the barriers:

Women love playing football. The excitement and passion they feel for the game when they discover there is a place they can play is extraordinary. Other sports pale into insignificance to the point of women leaving State level in other sports to play footy. They become obsessed with developing their skills beyond a good kick. As one woman described it, ‘it was like being let out of a cage’ ….    And then on the field, kicking a goal, bringing her down in a tackle, taking a mark… It becomes a way of life, but one where women are actively participating rather than watching and listening to men.[51]


In Lawrence’s summary, ‘women’s football adopts all the rituals of men’s football in other sports’. These include running through a banner before finals or to recognise a player milestone, club songs after victory, gathering at sponsoring pubs after the game, winners photos with premiership medals, end of season trips and T-shirts, nicknames and even, in the tradition of Scanlen’s gum, player cards. Equally significantly, it modifies some of them.[52]


Women, coming newly to the organised game, and having had to break down walls to do it, describe more eloquently than men the appeal and excitement of football and the social experience of the team. They talk enthusiastically about a sporting and communal experience often qualitatively ‘deeper’ in character than that engendered by many less demanding sports. Their remarks capture the transcendent nature of the Australian Football experience, the highs of the game and the emotions engendered by team bonding. As with the grass roots appeal of the game as a playing and social experience overseas, footy clubs usually have stronger traditions of ‘after the game’ camaraderie than found in other sports.[53] Unlike many netball, basketball or soccer teams, players socialise together, rather than just arrive, play and go home.


As several Ainslie footballers remark in Rommel Lenon’s documentary film, Women’s Aussie Rules (2003), [54] they were inspired by on-field experiences: by teamwork and tactics and more: ‘It’s really amazing that twenty people can work together…and tactics and be involved in singing to the same tune of music [and by] the fitness’ (Valerie Thomas). By excitement: ‘It’s so addictive…on footy mornings your stomach’s so full of butterflies and you’re so nervous…the adrenaline – there’s no other sport can in the world you can feel so excited and nervous and scared and longing all at the same time…it’s so passionate’…it’s unbelievable – you’re hooked’ (Alison Mills). By the tackling: ‘we could tackle …we’ve both got brothers and no sisters!’ (Lizzy Rutten & Jane Layshon). And by the mutual on-field support, the trust: ‘I’ve never felt closer to friends…trust…friendship and [protecting] one another’.


This discovery was happening, as remarked by the Ainslie players,  despite impediments: warnings from mothers that ‘you’ll get hurt’; their need for a steep learning curve in the skills of the game; Canberra winter cold; and training under poor lighting at that ‘shithouse oval’, Reid. As in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Sydney, their critics – sometimes mothers, brothers, boyfriends – were finally beginning to accept their commitment to the game.


Breaking down the ‘gender wall’…brick by brick


The story of cultural change and of demographic progress has not been an unqualified one, despite the AFL establishing a National Women’s AFL Advisory Group in 2004 and holding the first Female Football Forum, held at Telstra Dome and attended by several hundred women (and some men) in 2005. It has often been a tale of success won against the odds. In the AFL Record report of the forum, ‘Women of Football’, several phrases such as ‘getting a foot in the door’ (Western Bulldogs communications manager Rebecca O’Riley) or grabbing opportunities and the need to ‘knock down a few doors’ (Karen Lyon, Age football journalist) emphasise that cultural change had to be fought for. Only over time would football club traditionalists in their various roles accept that it was ‘skills and experience that matter, not gender’. [55]


One major question for women’s football teams and clubs was whether they went it alone or were linked with a local traditional male football club. In the VWFL, some clubs, including the Berwick Wickers, the Lalor Bloods, the Diamond Creek Demons, the Parkmore Pirates, the St Albans Spurs, the North Ballarat Roosters and the Parkdale Seagulls, were linked up in 2004 with traditional clubs. The university clubs (Melbourne University Mugars and Deakin Devils), received support from their university student sports associations. The St Kilda City Sharks, the North Heidelberg Bulldogs, the Eastern Lions and the Mordialloc Redbacks also affiliated with large district men’s clubs. The Darebin Falcons took a different approach, instead being part of the Darebin Women’s Sports Club, which also fielded teams in five other non- traditional female sports.


Men were important, however, playing roles at the top and the bottom of the football team tree. Thirteen VWFL teams had male coaches or assistant coaches while numerous male supporters, parents, boyfriends or just enthusiasts, did other jobs as boundary or goal umpires, drivers and team managers. In the 2004 annual report, for example, many men are thanked for their contribution to skill development, and others for being the medical trainers or just general support staff such as team managers, runner and water carriers.[56] The concurrent emergence of trained women coaches adds another dimension to women’s sporting emancipation.[57]


Change and Continuity?  Footy in the Pink


Similar contradictions shaped the AFL Mother’s Day round, one of several theme rounds in 2004, one also devised partly to increase usually weak attendances on that Sunday in May. There were problems with nomenclature and the May round lost, as well as gained, from its sponsorship by cosmetics manufacturer, Maybelline. Was Round Seven in May 2004 ‘Ladies Round’, ‘Women’s Week’ or the ‘Mother’s Day’ round of matches? In practice, most women football followers, who entered the competition by writing in 25 words or less ‘why women make footy great’, might place a higher priority on the most valuable part of the prize, grand final tickets and travel/accommodation, rather than the other part of the ‘Ultimate Grand Final Pamper Weekend for two’ – ‘a $1000 shopping spree, beauty treatments and more’.  However, the AFL Record of 7-9 May 2004 carried an intelligent forum on women’s experiences of football clubs, involving a coach’s wife, a team physiotherapist, a television journalist and a club PR. Also, the VWFL was invited to play a Mother’s Day curtain raiser on the holy ground of the MCG before the Melbourne vs West Coast match in Round Seven. At the same time, it seemed that older ideas of women’s role in football, once expressed in fund-raising ‘Queen Carnivals’ (on the model of the ‘Miss Australia’ beauty quest) at local clubs or the “Carlton Bluebirds’ (dancing girls known as ‘cheerleaders’), had not entirely gone.[58]




Gender and Australian Football both have other contemporary contexts. Both are influenced by globalisation and by the related desire of the AFL to be an acceptable, family-friendly sport in touch with progressive social values, regarding race, gender, fitness and health and alcohol.  Although Australian Football remains Australia’s leading sport (one in 39 Australians are AFL club members the AFL trumpeted in 2005), and Australian Football is the team sport of premium interest for women, exceeded only by cricket, and 36% of AFL club members are female, the future may be uncertain. In a globalising world, Australian Football is now under challenge from other sports, including soccer and basketball, as well as the two rugbies.[59] In a country like Australia, which usually cringes, or defers, to that which is from overseas as better than the local, the game is under challenge. As Australians eat, drink, wear, watch and follow whatever is ‘global’, that is whatever is fashionable overseas, women’s active role may support the national game in an era with tendencies towards global homogenisation. This suggests an interesting and related paradox. The experience of women playing larger roles in Australian Football on and off the field does involve the sporting liberation of women. It may also challenge the remaining ‘Old Testament’ or frontier ‘male’ values in the sport and in its administration. As a result, it may also enhance the vitality and continued primacy of a dramatic and distinctive form of football. Other changes have created a more permeable boundary line, broadening participation on the larger playing field of Australian Football. New groups are coming in from outside the boundary line, from beyond the margins of the good footy oval. The Australian Football development officer of AFL South Africa in Cape Town is Allison Simons, who had when younger pulled on the boots with the Heidelberg Tigers, and had also done a PhD in anthropology at Latrobe University.[60]   The widening roles of women on and off the field are important for Australian Football. Along with the new influences of indigenous players, the AFL ’s multicultural reach and the emergence of international Australian Football competitions from New Zealand to Denmark and Spain to South Africa,[61] women in football may help ensure the future of the Australian national game in a globalising world.


*                     *                      *





* I would like to thank David Cooney, Nicole Graves, Kate Jones and Kim Toffoletti for their comments on this article and Rommel Lenon’s video documentary for the initial stimulus.


[1]   The title draws its inspiration from a different account of Australian settlement, one now lost in an era of fading historical memory, D. W. Meinig’s concept regarding South Australia of the ‘margins of the good earth’, the margins of settlement. The word good might also be a moral word.

[2] It addresses both cultural questions and factual detail which are only touched on in the special issue of Football Studies, 8, 2, May 2005.

[3]  A growing literature documents women’s historic experiences of discrimination in sport (including J. Hargreaves, Sporting Females:  Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports, Routledge London, 1994; M. K. Stell, Half the Race:  A History of Australian Women in Sport, Angus & Robertson Sydney, 1991; L. Bryson,  ‘Sport and the oppression of women’,  Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, vol 19, no 3, 1983, pp. 413-426. An evolving body of literature on women playing traditionally male sports includes A. Carle and J. Nauright, ‘A Man’s Game? Women playing Rugby Union in Australia’, Football Studies, 2, 1999.

[4]   Samantha Lane, ‘Women in footy, they’re everywhere’, Age, 5 May 2003. A talented writer and football reporter, she is also the daughter of leading football caller Tim Lane, as Caroline Wilson’s father was a leading Richmond administrator, Ian Wilson. Growing up in a football family is often significant, as with players such as Michelle Dench and Tanya Baker (2003 VWFL President), the daughters or former North Melbourne 1970s players David Dench and Phil Baker. Chloe Saltau, ‘Women in a league of their own’, Age, 31 May 2003.

[5] On women, bodily empowerment and football as a contact sport see N. Wedgwood, ‘“Kicking Like a Boy”: Schoolgirl Australian Rules Football and bi-gendered female embodiment’, Sociology of Sport Journal, no 2, 2004, pp. 140-162.

[6]  Women in football, as in other sports such as swimming and athletics, may also challenge the gender divide that involves the worst excesses associated with teenage and young adult male bonding, as in the sexual assault problem facing all football codes. See: Ian Warren, ‘Footballers, Culture and Sexual Assault’, pp. 133-146 in R. Hess, M. Nicholson and B. Stewart (eds.) Football Fever, 2005.  Regarding the even greater problem in rugby league, see Roy Masters, ‘In the eye of the hurricane’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 2004 and other articles by Masters, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February  2004, 3 March 2004, 4 March 2004 and his book, Bad Boys, Random House, Milsons Pt, NSW, 2006. The AFL in 2004-5, having earlier enacted policies against racial vilification and introduced player education on the subject, decided to introduce similar policies regarding a sexual code of conduct for players.  Mark Dunn, ‘Sex education plan’, Fox Sports on, 7 December 2004.  The policy, entitled Respect and Responsibility: Creating a Safe and Inclusive Environment for Women at All Levels of Australian Football, was released in November 2005. Cameron Dole advances the argument about the change in swimming in the submission noted above.

[7]  See statistics on the growth of women’s sports since the 1980s in N. Wedgwood, ‘We have contact!’,   Football Studies, 8, 2, May 2005, pp. 31-33.

[8] Rob Hess, ‘Ladies are Specially Invited’: Women in the culture of Australian Rules Football’, pp. 111-141 in J. A. Mangan & J. Nauright, (eds.) Sport in Australasian Society: Past and Present, Frank Cass, London, 2000.

[9]  Hess, op.cit., p.116.

[10]  Robin Grow, ‘From Gum Trees to Goalposts, 1858-1876’ in R. Hess & B. Stewart, eds, More Than A Game, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1998, p.21.

[11] Hess, pp.121, 130-2. See: Richard Stremski, Kill for Collingwood, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1986, p.50. Ladies tickets cost half the price of these membership tickets, so the number of women members was much higher.

[12] Hess, op.cit, p.115. In the current era of the bourgeois and celebrity discovery of professional sport, and the introduction of expensive ticketed seats this is changing.

[13]  ibid, p.132.

[14]  ibid, pp.133-4.

[15]  Peter Burke ‘Patriot Games’: Women’s Football during the First World War in Australia’, Football Studies, 8, 2, May 2005.

[16]  On the exclusion and the exceptions regarding Indigenous Australians, see: C.Tatz  et al, AFL’s Black Stars, Lothian, Port Melbourne, 1998;  S. Alomes, ‘The AFL and the Movement Against Racial Vilification’ in Gus Worby and Lester-Irabinna Rigney, eds., Sharing Spaces: Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Responses to Story, Country and Policy, API Network, Perth, 2006.

[17] See: L. Sandercock & I. Turner, Up Where Cazaly? The Great Australian Game, Granada, Sydney, 1981 see ‘Women: Appendages to the Game’, p.248 and Mary Brady, ‘Miss and Mrs Football, but no Ms Football’, pp.249-56; Hess, op.cit., pp.116-117; Kate Lawrence, ‘Making our Mark: Women Playing Australian Rules Football in Melbourne’, in Victorian Women’s Football League 1997 Yearbook, Melbourne, n.d.  c.1998?, pp.31-6 (later also published in Occasional Papers in Football Studies, vol 1, no 2, August 1998, pp.115-122).

[18] Brian Nankervis, (ed.), Boys and Balls, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1994, pp.171, 231.

[19] ‘Women and Football’, AFL Record, Round 21, 23-25 August 1996, pp.5-11.

[20] Sheedy & Brown, op.cit., pp. vii-ix, 197-203. In a different era, today Football Victoria (in 2007 rebadged ‘AFL Victoria’) encourages primary school teachers, mainly women, to obtain Level One coaching certificates.

[21] Even before the current era of women presidents and secretaries, women have often provided the institutional glue necessary to keep the culture and society of a club alive. While this began with ‘traditional roles’ such as food provision, guernsey cleaning often it went beyond them. Sometimes it is still necessary. ‘I wash the guernseys so they don’t walk’, remarked one club devotee in the Essendon District Football League (communication to author, August 2006).

[22] ibid, passim.

[23] In 2005 the completely restructured Tribunal, comprised of ex-players and former umpires on its panels, ended this appointment. Women continue to sit on other leagues’ tribunals.

[24]  For example, Barbara Cullen’s central role in developing the very successful Essendon FC club history museum.

[25] Victorian Country Football League (VCFL) submission (no 10) to the Inquiry into Country Football,

p.21. The VCFL has 870 affiliated football clubs fielding 2,722 football teams and 2,465 netball teams (96,000 players) across all junior and senior levels. (

[26]  This article addresses voluntary roles, a different subject to the newly elaborated AFL club administrative departments analysed by gender in M. Nicholson et al, ‘Are we there yet? Levels and Patterns of Employment in Australian Football League clubs’, Football Studies, 8, 2, May 2005.

[27] The second female AFL goal umpire, Chelsea Roffey was also a Brisbane appointee.

[28] Australian, 14 August 2000.

[29] John Elliott lost his roles with Carlton, was banned from being a company director for four years, broke and facing bankruptcy, had his name removed from a stand at Carlton in 2004 and was queried by the AFL Players Association over “offensive conduct”, alleged drunken behaviour  towards a woman staff member at an AFL dinner.

[30]. Age, 19 January 2006.

[31] There was debate about whether this was tokenism as the AFL Commission decided on a women commissioner, before making the choice. Several critics believed that while the structure of the decision was tokenism, it would transcend this if the commissioner was more than a token. Sam Mostyn, a Sydney  insurance company executive and former media lawyer with experience working for Optus Vision, was appointed at the time the AFL was negotiating TV rights. She declared that “I have never done anything in my life that could smack of tokenism. I am intending to make a valuable contribution to the team of commissioners already in place and I hope to bring complementary skills to the skills that sit there already.” Paul Gough, ‘AFL appoints female commissioner’,

(Sportal for AFL, 25 June 2005)

[32] Sheedy & Brown, op.cit.;  information sheet, ‘Women in Football’, first accessed 18 May 2004. Today, Nabila Ahmed, Linda Pearce and Chloe Saltau are also Age football reporters. In 2005, three of the Melbourne sports news presenters on the four local TV stations were women: Beverley O’Connor, Christine Ahern and Angela Pippos. See: Stephen Alomes, ‘‘The Barbarian Invasion: ABC TV sports news and the battle against Sydneycentrification’, in R Hess, M Nicholson and B Stewart (eds.), Football Fever: Crossing Boundaries, Maribyrnong Press, Hawthorn, Vic, 2005.

[33] See: Margaret Lindley ‘Her Beauty and Her Terror: Australian Football and the Community’, in Dennis Hemphill, (ed.), All Part of the Game: Violence and Australian Sport, Walla Walla Press, Melbourne, 1998.

[34]  In 2006-7, particularly Samantha Lane, although several women journalists have written about life beyond the game. Other writers have also innovated, including Greg Baum and the different storytellers, Martin Flanagan, John Harms and Paul Daffey.  Women football journalists, seeking to prove their credibility as AFL reporters, rarely write about marginal sports or minor competitions during the football season, including women’s football.

[35]  Her role as a caller became a mere cameo as a result.

[36] Alomes, 2005.

[37]  Until Fox Footy’s demise at the end of the 2006 season. She now reports on football for radio SEN.

[38]  The ACT came later, in 1998. See: (seen 8 April 2007)

[39] See: Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL); Victorian Women’s Football League 1997 Yearbook, VWFL, Melbourne n.d. [1997?].

[40] Rohenna Young, in discussion at Victoria UT Fortnightly Football Feast seminar, 13 August 1999.

[41] Victorian Women’s Football League Annual Report 2005, VWFL, Footscray, Vic. 2006, pp.20-1.

[42]Before Carlton vs West Coast Eagles match at Optus Oval on 24 April 2004 and Carlton vs Richmond at the MCG in 2005.

[43] At the 2004 Adelaide carnival, Victoria defeated ACT, South Australia, Northern Territory, Australian Defence Forces and New South Wales and easily won the final against the ACT, with only two goals kicked against it in seven matches.

[44] The Scorpions were the most successful women’s football team in VWFL history with ten premierships in the first fourteen years of the VWFL, including back-to-back premierships in 1993 and 1994, only to fold in 1995.  The main reason was lack of administrative support which led to players moving to other clubs.  Over nineteen of their players played with other teams in the first year after they folded. Information from Nicole Graves, January 2006. The Scorpions were also peripatetic, with five different areas/grounds forming the other part of their name. Teams without secure grounds/locales are often under threat e.g. Fitzroy in the AFL in its last years.

[45]  Cameron Dole, coach North Ballarat-University of Ballarat Roosters, submission 54 to the Inquiry into Country Football (Rural and Regional Services and Development Committee, Parliament of Victoria, 2004, The final report is: Inquiry into Country Football, Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004.

[46] From 2007, the new Women’s Football Development Manager is Chyloe Kurdas, who is also a life member of the VWFL. She played over 100 games for Parkdale and Melbourne University Mugars. While at Melbourne, she was club secretary 2000-6, internal media officer and assistant coach. She founded and coached the Mugars Youth Girls team and was VWFL Director of Registration and later Director of Media during 4 years on the board. From:  seen 8 April 2007.

[47]  In rural Victoria, the lack of a vacuum in women’s sport in the form of the thousands of combined football and netball clubs have mitigated against the development of women’s football.  Football Victoria, the governing body of non-AFL football in Victoria has been re-badged AFL Victoria.

[48] Herald-Sun, 26 July 2003.

[49] Undated Football Victoria report, entitled Female Football Development Manager- Nicole Graves, on 2004 developments and achievements.  In 2005, summarised in the short report, ‘Female Football 2005’, numbers increased dramatically: to 278 players in Youth Girls, and to 467 in junior football. A new primary school competition had 1425 players in 57 schools.

[50] Lawrence, op.cit., p. 34.

[51] ibid, p. 33.

[52] The 2004 Victorian State team was depicted in traditional player football cards, with many sets sold to collectors and family members.  Examples of emulation included: a 25-year DVD; selection of the best teams of each decade and of the quarter-century; a 25th anniversary gala dinner; team group huddle photos after grand finals’; and VWFL branded umpires’ uniforms.

[53]  See: S Alomes, ‘Australian Football the International Game: The Danish Australian Football League and the Internationalisation of Australian Football 1989-1996’, Sporting Traditions, 13, 2, May 1997, p. 9.

[54] Rommel Lenon, Women’s Aussie Rules, Canberra, 2003.

[55]  Miriam Kauppi and Sean Callander, ‘Women of Football’, AFL Record, Round 7, 6-8 May 2005, pp. 8-9.  A second women’s football forum was held in May 2006.

[56]  VWFL Annual Review 2004, Football Victoria, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 23-35.

[57] Female coaches increased from 120 to 162 between 2004 and 2005. Female Football 2005 ts.

[58]  AFL Membership Department, Ladies Round E-Update email to AFL members, 4 May 2004.  Fox Footy’s Living with Footballers, 2004, usually involved spouses discussing domestic trivia, and its successor in 2005, AFL Love Match, was no more profound.

[59] VWFL Annual Review 2004, p. 38. Women’s soccer and rugby at international level, including World Cups, add another dimension to the global challenge.

[60] The Age (Melbourne) Magazine, April 2007, pp. 104-5.

[61]  See  and , and their links, for a summary of international game development and the 2002 and 2005 International Cups.



  1. Great historical account.

    Further to Sheeds’ recollection, I can recall hearing a story from some old school mates how a sister at St John’s Primary School, West Footscray (only a couple of blocks away from the Western Oval) had coached their footy team for years, with some success.

  2. bring back the torp says

    Thanks for sharing this. Very informative.

Leave a Comment