With the Crows beating the Lions in the AFLW final on the weekend we couldn’t let the moment pass without dipping into some randomly sourced historical takes on women playing footy.
Women have been playing organised AFL since 1915 in Perth, where, as Brunette Lenkić and Rob Hess describe in their book Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football in 1917 the first photograph was taken of a women’s team, based around employees from Foy and Gibson department store, and including stars such as Doris ‘Dorrie’ Donaldson, Beattie ‘Big’ Binney, and Gladys Golding (p. 5). As reported in the Melbourne Punch in 1896, women were keen watchers of footy too, with some of them ‘sitting stoically in the rain, decorating their prams in club colours, yelling abuse at the umpire, and, quite often, leaning over the boundary line to jab him with a hairpin or strike him with an umbrella’ (p. 8). Despite this long history of women’s involvement in every aspect of the game, there has always been skepticism expressed about women’s abilities to properly act on the footy field.
In July of 1933 when West Indies’ fast bowlers ‘caused a sensation’ with bodyline bowling against England in Manchester, the Sporting Globe also reported that football was ‘too hard for women to play’. The issue arose when ‘several well-known women athletes and basketball players’ were taking part in a charity carnival. While those governing associations didn’t have any authority to stop the women playing, they were ‘extremely disappointed’ as ‘Football is not a game for any woman’. The article noted that while there had been ‘[many] attempts … in the past to encourage the weaker sex to play football’ public opinion and ‘general feeling of most sports girls has forced the movements to be abandoned’. (26 July 1933, p. 14)
School principals of the Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (Merton Hall) and Methodist Ladies College (MLC) in 1921 were both disapproving of football for women. The Merton Hall principal ‘strongly [disapproved] of women playing any game that is likely to bring them into the public eye’. MLC principal declared ‘Grace rather than muscular strength is the Australian woman’s characteristic’ and ‘a leading lady doctor of Collins street’ said ‘Hockey is strenuous enough, and it would be a great mistake for girls to begin football’. (Argus 15 June 1921, p. 9).
Not many of the ALFW clubs entrusted the senior coaching position to women. But we now have proof that women can win in this role with Premiership Crows’ coach Bec Goddard. In 1913, the question was could a woman be a footy umpire? A Yarraville woman had submitted a ‘properly filled in application’ to be an umpire. The Age said it was ‘almost incredible that any woman would aspire’ to such a position. But readers were reassured, ‘there is no probability that the application will be seriously entertained’ (4 April 1913, p. 8).
So while the ‘great mistake’ of women playing and developing footy has a long history, it is now cemented in the public eye of Australian sporting life, supported by the powerful and sometimes surprisingly radical institution that is the AFL.