On the Margins of the Good Oval: Women and Australian Football
Tuesday, July 19 2011 @ 09:33 pm ACST
Contributed by: Stephen Alomes
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.’ 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. In 2007, several different developments suggested that progress was continuing at a rapid pace: an Australian crowd record of around 2500 for the VWFL Grand Final on 19th August; and the first full international, between the USA "Freedom" and Team Canada, in Vancouver earlier in the same month. Structural expansion was even more important with active competitions in most states in 2007, including a ten team competition in Sydney and several regional Queensland leagues. There may also be a women’s division in the Third International Cup to be held in Melbourne in August 2008.
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. 
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.