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Thursday, November 21 2019 @ 09:26 pm ACDT

On the Margins of the Good Oval: Women and Australian Football

General News

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.[54] 
 
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.[55] 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), [56] 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’.[57]
 
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.[58] The concurrent emergence of trained women coaches adds another dimension to women’s sporting emancipation.[59]
 
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. 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.[60]
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