Tonight, when Collingwood ruck Emma King jumps to tap the ball against her Carlton opponent, the spirits of thousands of women who have played Australia’s national game will be leaping with her.
The game is the first in the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) competition, which kicks off with eight teams in a condensed season. It is an initiative the AFL describes as a “revolution” that will change the game “forever”.
However, there has so far been scant understanding of – or credit given to – the historical background to the AFLW’s creation.
AFLW: why now?
AFLW’s sceptics have questioned everything: the fast-tracked implementation of the competition, the extent of public support, the depth of the player talent pool, and the potential quality and appeal of the female game, which will be 16-a-side and played with slightly modified rules and a smaller ball.
However, the women’s code has been part of a remarkable transformation in Australian sport. There is a new appreciation of female achievements, including in horse racing, cricket, soccer and netball. Increasingly attractive financial and sponsorship arrangements and broadcast deals are also being put in place.
Due to swelling interest, the inaugural AFLW match has been shifted from Olympic Park to Princes Park, so more fans and curious onlookers can attend. Public awareness continues to build on the back of savvy AFL marketing and branding and helpful mainstream media coverage.
Also, a deluge of supportive social media campaigns have been driven by clubs, teams and players and independent enthusiasts keen to encourage an exciting venture in women’s sport.
A long history
But the AFL hierarchy has only reluctantly trumpeted that women first played a series of competitive matches in Perth more than 100 years ago. They have played thousands of matches around Australia since.
Primary sources have thrown up remarkable stories and statistics; these create a rich and fascinating picture of the women’s game.
More than 41,000 people turned out to watch a women’s football match on Adelaide Oval in 1929. Women working in munitions factories, steel mills and on farms during the second world war also played football fundraisers, with teams in Broken Hill being dubbed the “Spitfires” and the “Bombers”.
By 1950, the women’s game had been played in more than 20 towns around Tasmania. A four-team competition was even run in Brisbane in the 1950s, when sides also emerged in Darwin and Alice Springs.
The tribalism of football in Victoria extended to the female game. Where women’s teams in other states grew from workplaces and rural populations, from almost the beginning in Victoria, female teams were linked to established clubs.
In the first game in Melbourne, in 1921, one team was kitted out in St Kilda uniforms – also breaking the tradition of women playing in skirts or dresses.
In 1923, the Richmond ladies football team played in a match against male counterparts to raise funds for the junior team trip away.
In 1933, while Melbourne was still in the grip of the Great Depression, the Carlton and Richmond football clubs hosted a women’s football match at Princes Park for charity. Carlton recruiters were over-run by young girls, older women and those in between, who were eager to wear the Blues’ guernsey.
Administrators from other sports voiced disapproval as elite netballers and track-and-field athletes flocked to train with the Carlton squad, who were coached by senior player Micky Crisp. Thousands of spectators attended and footage of the game was shown on a Cinesound newsreel.
Immediately following the second world war, women kept playing and helped raise funds for the Red Cross Food for Britain appeal.
The South Melbourne, Footscray, Hawthorn and St Kilda clubs formed a round-robin female competition. The games generated significant media coverage, especially when South Melbourne prodigies like 15-year-old Gladys Phillips, who later represented Australia in cricket and softball, were lauded by the Sporting Globe.
Even renowned hard-man Jack Dyer, then captain-coach of Richmond, agreed to umpire a women’s match between North Melbourne and South Melbourne, which was played in front of a crowd of 9,000 people.
Other VFL celebrities also umpired or coached women’s matches. Eminent players like Essendon’s John Coleman and Collingwood’s Ron Todd featured in pre-match or half-time goal-kicking contests. Geelong included a women’s match as part of a past players’ day at Kardinia Park in 1954.
But it was Footscray Football Club that kept the women’s code alive and in the public eye during the 1950s. The impetus seemed to come from high-profile players like premiership captain-coach Charlie Sutton and rising stars Ted Whitten and Jack Collins, who tapped into the ever-present desire of women to play football.
Over several years, interclub games were often played. Whitten’s Wonders competed against Collins’ Cuties, for instance, to raise funds for the local hospital. Or sometimes a combined Footscray team travelled to play an outer suburban or country rival.
A Victorian squad that played the first interstate women’s game and was defeated by a Tasmanian northwest coast team in 1959 was comprised mostly of Footscray players.
Women belonged in the past, too
No biographical profile of Sutton, Whitten or Collins, nor the club’s official history, make any mention of the role they had in fostering women’s football.
The same is true of other VFL clubs. The exception is Carlton, where Myra MacKenzie, who played for the club in 1933, was feted in a number of press articles and features on the club’s website, and was interviewed by academics before her death in 2016.
With the AFL’s seeming indifference to what had gone before, few clubs pitching for a women’s team in the new competition included any substantive historical links to bolster their bids.
However the AFL presents the AFLW, women’s football is not a “revolution” that starts with the first whistle on Friday. Nor did it begin with the advent of the modern women’s leagues in the 1980s. It began in 1915, when 36 pioneering young women in modest and cumbersome outfits took to the field and showed that women belonged there, too.
This piece was co-authored by Brunette Lenkić, lead author of Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football.