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.
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’. 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, including Sam Lane, have written more ‘personality profiles’, illuminating the personal lives, social worlds and off-field careers of footballers. In 2007 the Australian’s Jenny McAsey won Best Feature Writer in the .AFL Media Awards.
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. 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 until 2007 while Christine Ahern left the ABC for Channel 9 sports news. Tiffany Cherry was the main football news reporter for the Fox Footy Channel, and has presented several documentary specials, 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). In 2005, the year in which the VWFL celebrated its 25th anniversary, there were three divisionsin 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. 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'.
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. 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 a Vic Metro vs Vic Country match was played as curtain-raisers before AFL roster matches in 2004 and 2005. 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. By 2006 over 18,000 junior players participated in different competitions, and there were over 900 senior players and their numbers rose again in 2007 to 1200.
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.
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.
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 a different sphere, Herald Sun journalist Cheryl Critchley’s novel Still Kicking (2006) is a book for girls in the same league as a dozen young boys’ footy books.
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. 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 there is much still to be done to strengthen the foundations of the game.