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Aussie rules football still has a way to go to be considered ‘feminist’

Establishing unique voices from various female perspectives will help create a united front on issues of specific female concern. Dean Lewins/AAP

There was some unwitting irony in the commentary about the growth of women’s AFL in 2016, when Penny Cula-Reid was given credit for her contribution. Herald Sun journalist Paul Amy explained:

She’ll be a trailblazer in 2017 just as she was almost 15 years ago when, as a schoolgirl, she went to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and effectively forced AFL Victoria to create a youth girls’ competition.

This was not a case about participation in a newly developed girls’ junior league – it was a case about the continued participation in an established junior Aussie rules league with the club Cula-Reid had played with since the age of six.

Cula-Reid and the other two female footballers did not win the case. At the same time, a worthwhile by-product of this loss was that it forced the creation of a youth girls’ competition.

In 2016 alone, there was a 56% increase in the number of female community club teams to 983, and a 19% increase in the total number of female participants. This continued a trend that has accelerated since 2013.

The numbers are a little rubbery, because when you discount the 53,409 female Auskick participants (up 21% in 2015), you end up with an average of just over 332 players per community team. So a lot of female participation occurs outside formal community competitions, in school competitions and in other forms of the game such as AFL 9s.

Regardless of this quibbling, there is no doubt there has been an explosion in female participation in football, particularly since 2013.

Politics, feminism and sport

Feminism is a broad church, made up of a number of different positions, all of which share a desire to improve women’s authority over their own lives. As sport remains the most evocative public demonstration of difference between the sexes, its importance to feminist politics cannot be neglected.

In an Australian sporting environment that has a history of few well-paid jobs in female team sports, the new league in women’s AFL, along with the Big Bash, netball and football leagues, may open up careers for women (admittedly not as well-paid) that have previously been exclusively available to men.

The maxim “a rising tide lifts all boats” might apply to the economics of women’s sport generally, especially if established sports continue to lose players to the new women’s AFL league.

The danger is that the relatively poorer wages offered to women participants suggests the participants are likely, in the long term, to come from very specific social classes. Regular training, weekend games and drafting to distant clubs may necessitate home relocation, sacrifice of educational and work opportunities, the need for more expensive childcare, and the loss of local support networks. Such sacrifices are more easily made by players, or parents, of independent wealth.

Unless some extra forms of support can be put in place at all levels of football (this may be where affirmative action is important), then other groups of women will miss out. Thus, the AFLW may end up subsidising the leisure pursuits of wealthy women.

At a participatory level, some local football organisations lament that they do not have the ground space and facilities to cope with the introduction of women’s AFL teams, and that local councils should do something about this.

But if men and boys have to play shorter games, or play or train less frequently, to allow women and girls access to playing time, then this is what equality demands.

Costs of incorporation

The history of Title IX in the US has shown that while coaching and administration of women’s collegiate sport was poorly paid, the labour market offered opportunities for females. Title IX of the US Education Amendments Act is a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in any educational program that receives federal funding, including sports at all levels of the US educational system.

Once the women’s collegiate sports system became funded to (theoretically) equal levels to the male system, men entered the coaching and administrative roles – that is, the roles with authority – and replicated men’s sport with women participants.

Will this occur in the women’s AFL? It certainly looks like it could.

Six of the eight head coaches are males, and several management positions are also going to men. It is important to note that most clubs have female coaches in development roles, so there are opportunities for careers in both areas in the longer term. But it is fraught.

The danger is that in this incorporation, the voices of women are lost. To flourish in the newly professionalised world of women’s AFL, will footballers like the enigmatic Mo Hope have to become something different?

More importantly, when voices from various female perspectives help create a united front on issues of specifically female concern, such as maternity leave and on-site childcare, without being shouted down, then we will know that Aussie rules football has become more feminist.

This is part of a short series of articles on equality in, and access to, sport. Catch up on the others here.

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