The contemporary history of women’s football, Australian Football games played by women, also has an important prehistory. 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. 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. 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.
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.’
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’.
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'.
‘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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. Just a few years later, even before John Elliott’s fall in football and business, 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. The first female AFL commissioner, Samantha Mostyn, a Sydney corporate executive with a background in media law, was appointed in 2005. 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.