Last month we saw the very first live broadcast of a women’s AFL game. This generated a great deal of interest which, apart from a few notable exceptions (such as the contribution from Graham Cornes) has been generally positive.
But how long have women been playing AFL? And what is the history of the game? Whilst female participation in footy has been growing steadily, there has actually been interest for some time – in fact, the game in August this year could represent a hundred years of women playing AFL.
Women have been spectators of the sport for even longer. One report from 1911 laments the way in which “ladylike, quiet women excitedly applaud acts of violence committed by players of the club they support, and heard expressions which showed blind indifference to the excellence of the opposite side.” It seems that even since the early days of football, we have had one eyed supporters! Today, it is suggested that women make up about 40% of football members, and are equal in numbers with men for those watching games both at the ground and those that are televised.
However, whilst women were spectators to men’s games since the earliest days, women themselves do not seem to have been able to take up the opportunity to play the game until the advent of World War I.
With great numbers of men conscripted and unable to undertake their usual roles in society, women were doing number of things outside of usual expectations. Alongside taking up new roles in the workforce, one of the ways in which this increased freedom was expressed was through increased participation in sports, particularly those that were generally seen as masculine.
Whilst Victoria might boast the first football league, the first game of women’s football actually took place in Western Australia in 1915. Teams were formed through workplaces who gave support, and the matches were played as fundraising efforts. One such team was that through a large retailing firm, Foy and Gibson, and other local companies followed suit.
Rob Hess has suggested that “patriotic fervor, the need to provide socially acceptable forms of entertainment for an increasingly war-conscious society, and amenable employers supportive of the benefits of workplace sport, therefore underpinned the beginnings of women’s football in Perth.”
It seems that Victoria was not too far behind, with evidence of a similar fundraising game being held in 1918. That charity match seems to have been a one off, and in South Australia again a “patriotic girls football” match was held in September of the same year. According to the local newspaper report, about 3000 people attended that game at the Adelaide Oval.
Just like those who graced our screens in 2015, the women who played at the beginning of the twentieth century played the game in the same spirit as the men. Indeed, in the game at the Adelaide Oval in 1918 the captain of the Marshall’s team (a local company) had to be carried off the ground “as the result of a severe bump”.
Whilst these games seem to have been successful and popular, the teams and competition were one-offs or short-lived. There were the occasional AFL games played between the wars, such as those in 1933 when Carlton fielded a side which, at practice, saw “men spectators who had come to scoff remained in praise.”
Again, the advent of World War II saw the opportunities for women in sport again increase and this time in Victoria there were a number of ‘exhibition matches’ that were used as fundraisers for the war effort. This time clubs rather than workplaces were affiliated, with teams drawn from South Melbourne, St Kilda, Footscray and Carlton (it seems that Footscray, now the Western Bulldogs, has a long history of supporting women in footy).
Games continued to be sporadic. Women played throughout the country; in Tasmania in 1953, under a headline ‘Amazonian Rules’ it was reported that “one of the biggest crowds ever seen on the Queenstown recreation ground saw an Amazonian version of Australian Rules on Saturday, when a football match between married and single women resulted in a win of the former. The standard of play was high throughout, the women’s marking, kicking and play-on style bringing prolonged applause from the crowd.” This was no mean feat, the Queenstown Oval being infamous for its gravel surface.
Calls for a women’s league came for some time and it was not until 1981 when the Victorian Women’s Football League was formed. Other leagues formed throughout the country and today most states and territories have a formal structure in which women can compete.
It seems fitting that in this year, the hundredth since women first played footy in Australia, we had a live broadcast of a women’s AFL match. It is encouraging to see that ever since its inception, women’s footy has had a high standard of play that, once people are given a chance to spectate, they will appreciate. It was no different last month and I expect that with more opportunities to showcase their skills through televised games, women will continue to impress with the footy.