Wednesday, 12 October 2016

PLAY ON! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football by LENKIC & HESS

PLAY ON!  The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football

Brunette Lenkić and Rob Hess

Echo Publishing, 2016, 324 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


It was feared, over a hundred years ago, that allowing women to play Australian Rules football would be a slippery slope to giving them the vote and other rights enjoyed by men, say Brunette Lenkić (footy fan) and Professor Rob Hess (sport historian) in Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football.  It was to take a century, and then some, of Australian women footballers’ “resilience in the face of indifference, ridicule, hostility and limited support” for them to  win their right to play football.


Women’s football has had a long, but strictly second-class, history.  Early twentieth century games were scratch matches, one-off novelty affairs between work-based teams (mostly seamstresses and sales staff from retail stores), used as a gimmick by businesses to market their millinery, including athletically-unfriendly skirts, in fund-raising matches staged as fund-raisers for the war effort or forsupport for the unemployed during the Depression.


Playing footy from women’s sheer love of it (including their “often overlooked” love of the ‘unladylike’ physicality of Australian Rules football) was not a consideration and many barriers to regularisation of the women’s game remained.  The Vatican’s 1934 outlawing of women’s soccer as ‘unwomanly’, enforced by Mussolini’s fascists, flowed over into official Catholic distaste for women kicking the oval-shaped ball as well as the round ball whilst Protestant churches, as late as the 1960s, were still denouncing women’s football as a ‘Godless trend’ violating ‘the Christian concept of womanhood’.


Religion also decreed against sport being played on Sundays, one of the few timeslots available for women to fit regular club-based matches around the male, even the most junior boys’, football schedule.  Access to ovals and other facilities continued to be monopolised by men whilst the press was condescending, mocking, trivialising and patronising in its coverage of women’s games, only reluctantly acknowledging the women’s competitive spirit, skill and athleticism.


Routine sexism dogged the women’s game.  In 1947, one woman player recalled the women’s teams running onto the field to ‘a chorus of wolf-whistles’.  Revered icons of the men’s game like the legendary and tough captain-coach of Richmond (Jack Dyer, aka ‘Captain Blood’) said that women were physically and mentally unsuited to football, ‘their minds would be bewildered by the rules’, injuries could ruin their ‘chance to become mothers’, and the hardening of their muscles would ‘spoil the shape of their legs’.  Women, who had long kept the men’s game going through volunteering rarely had the favour returned by men.


As post-sixties feminism challenged all aspects of a male-dominated society, women’s football gradually made progress.  Feminism was invoked by the founder of the organised Victorian women’s competition, and the sexist headwinds slowly abated though not without occasional oppositional gusts – a commercial television channel filmed one training session of a women’s team in WA in 1988 but edited it as “a blooper reel set to circus music”.


Momentum for women’s football has continued to grow, however, with a real spurt from 2007 when the Australian Football League (AFL) Commission, the game’s governing body, formally got behind it.  The decision was based less on high-minded, abstract equalitarian principle, than on commercial grounds, however.  Uniquely amongst the football codes, Australian Rules has always appealed strongly to women, with females accounting for 45% of current AFL attendees whilst 284,000 women and girls now play organised competitive football.


As a “business enterprise”, the AFL has sniffed market potential and revenue from television rights to the women’s game.  A televised Footscray-Melbourne women’s exhibition game in 2015 rated its boots off, drawing half a million viewers, more than watched a lacklustre Adelaide-Essendon game the same weekend.  Television networks have caught the heady whiff of advertising dollars.  It may have taken crude capitalist calculation to make a go of women’s football but a formal, financially-viable, eight-team, unionised (two hundred new members of the the AFL Players’ Association face their next frontier – pay parity) elite national women’s competition, finally becomes reality in 2017.  Up There, Kaz!

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