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Still we play on: why the stories we tell about women’s sport matter

On the 28th of September in 1918, on a Saturday afternoon in Ballarat, two football teams ran onto the Eastern Oval. A crowd of thousands lined the boundary fence, jostling for the best vantage point. When the siren sounded and the ball was bounced, the players leapt into action and that familiar organised chaos that is Aussie rules ensued for four quarters. Eventually, the home team would be recorded the victors. That’s not an unusual story. It’s one that has been replicated around the country for years before 1918 and for years after too. Except, there’s a couple of very important details about that Saturday afternoon game that make it stand apart, that make it more important, more significant. Worthy of being remembered. The players that day were women. And the game they played was the first recorded game of women’s Aussie rules football in Victoria

Image is a black and white photo of the Lucas Girls, an Aussie rules football team from 1918. The women stand, kneel and sit in three rows. They wear white caps, white tunics and skirts. In the centre of the image, one woman holds a football with the word Lucas written on it. Next to her, a man wearing a dark suit and hat kneels. It's believed he was the coach of the team. Siren Sport. Women's sport.
The Lucas Girls played in the first recorded game of women’s football in 1918 in Ballarat.

Despite growing up just down the road from where that game was played, I only learnt about it, and about the two teams who played that day—the local Lucas Girls and the Melbourne-based Khaki Girls—in the last few years. Today, I have a black and white photo of the Lucas Girls, the team who walked off the oval winners that day, pinned above my desk. I look at it often, marvelling at their uniforms, searching their faces for clues to their stories and wishing I’d been born thirty or forty years earlier so I could have spoken to one or two of them. What do you remember, I would have asked them. How loud was the crowd that day? And the game, tell me everything? What did it feel like out there?

Nearly fifty years before that historic game of football in Ballarat, in April 1874, another significant milestone was happening on an oval. This time, the oval was in Bendigo. And the sport was cricket. But again, the players were women, dressed in white calico dresses they’d had specially made. Those women played the earliest recorded game of women’s cricket in Australia that day. 

I can’t tell you much more about that game or the women who played. But I can tell you that by 1904, there was a Victorian women’s cricket association, with more state associations to follow. And I can tell you that only twelve years after that historic game in Bendigo, a woman named Rosalie Dean would walk out onto the Association Cricket Ground in Sydney in April 1886 and become Australia’s first cricket star. Rosalie Dean was the first woman to appear in Wisden, that hallowed cricket bible. But if you put her name into a search engine today, you’ll find little about her or her story. 

Image is of the Coldstream Ladies Cricket Club, circa 1908. The women stand and sit in two rows with two women sitting on the floor at the front. They wear high-neck, long dresses. Two women at the end of the row of seated women hold cricket bats, the women in the centre of the image holds a cricket ball. In the back row are three men wearing suits. Siren Sport. Women's sport.
The Coldstream Ladies Cricket Club, circa 1908. Image: State Library of Victoria.

There’s hundreds—no scrap that, there’s thousands of stories just like that first game of women’s Aussie rules in Victoria, or that first game of cricket in Bendigo, or the remarkably talented Rosalie Dean. There’s countless women’s sport associations and organisations that sprung up in the early part of the twentieth century. Hockey and basketball and cricket and baseball and rugby league and rowing and the list is seemingly endless. There’s women who built their own fields and ovals, who lobbied for access to pools and grounds and who at every step came up against ridicule and contempt, some of it cruel beyond words. 

Last year I spoke to a woman who has played an important role in the development of a national sport in Australia. Her passion, her advocacy, her hard work over many years has helped to create space for women today to play the game they love. She told me about playing in the early days of the state competitions and about having abuse yelled at her and her teammates by passers-by, about people who threw rubbish at them over the boundary fence. My heart sank as she spoke, recounting those memories—some her own, some described to her. 

In her 1991 book, Half the Race, Marion K. Stell wrote that for ‘two centuries Australian women have struggled against forthright opposition to their participation in sport. They have been trivialised, banned, excluded, ignored, oppressed, degraded, unsung, discouraged—yet still they played on’. Nearly thirty years later, Marion’s point still stands. Her argument is still valid. That opposition, that exclusion, that oppression, that discouragement: it’s all still here. But, we also still play on. 

Image is of a women's hockey team circa 1909. The women stand, sit on chairs and sit on the ground in three rows. The hold hockey sticks.  Siren Sport. Women's sport.
Women’s hockey team in Melbourne, circa 1909. Image: State Library of Victoria.

Moments like that 1918 game of Aussie rules or that 1874 game of cricket matter. Not only because of their place in the historical record, but because of what they say about sport and women’s place in it. They’re hugely significant because they illustrate the very deep foundations of women’s sport in Australia. Far from something with a shallow history, women’s sport, in fact, has a long, often complicated but always fascinating history. Rosalie Dean’s story matters. And the stories like those recounted to me about abuse and rubbish being thrown over the boundary fence, they matter. It all matters. It matters because these moments, these games, these women, are a part of a bigger story. A story that for far too long we haven’t told. A story that explains so much about where we are now. But also, about where we could be. 

The stories we tell matter. When the deep and rich history of women’s sport is ignored, pushed to the boundary line, that has an influence well beyond the cricket pitch. When we don’t celebrate the depth and vibrancy of the history of women’s sport, when we gloss over the passion and determination and perseverance that has long characterised women’s sport, we reinforce broader inequalities in our communities. We tell young girls that their stories don’t matter, that their dreams don’t matter. We tell the many women who have come before us that their sacrifices don’t matter, that their triumphs don’t matter. But when we dive into that history, with all its complexity and beauty, we can start to tear down the hierarchies that have long held women back, both on the field and off it. 

Kirby Fenwick is a fan first and a writer, editor and audio producer second. She is the creator of the award-winning audio documentary, The First Friday in February and produces the regular segment, Voices From the Stands for Triple R’s Kick Like A Girl. You can find her on twitter @kirbykirbybee

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