home Football, Historical, Interview, Sports Books A place of protest and empowerment: Women in Boots and the story of the 79ers

A place of protest and empowerment: Women in Boots and the story of the 79ers

A few weeks ago, we published a review of Marion Stell and Heather Reid’s Women In Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s by Professor Jean Williams. This week, we catch up with the authors Marion Stell and Heather Reid to discuss just why that 1979 series is so important.

In the early hours of last Friday morning, Australia and New Zealand’s joint bid to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 was successful. The 2023 World Cup will no doubt be life-changing for many, both on the field and off. However, it’s not the first time the two countries have come together for women’s football. And it’s not the first time that such an occasion has been life-changing.

On a Saturday afternoon in Sydney in October of 1979, a group of Australian women from around the country played in their first FIFA recognised international against New Zealand. That game was the first in a series of three the Aussies played against the Kiwis. It would be followed by three more matches in New Zealand in 1980. Those 1979 and 1980 matches were significant in the history of women’s football in Australia. They’re also at the centre of a new book from historian Marion Stell and long-time football administrator Heather Reid.

In Women in Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s, Stell and Reid explore women’s football in the 1970s, focussing particularly on that influential series of matches played against New Zealand. At the heart of the book is a series of oral histories from players, coaches and administrators that build a fascinating, and important picture of the state of women’s football in the 1970s, as well as the changes and developments that led to those 1979 matches and their lasting impact. An impact felt not only by the women who played, but by women’s football more broadly. 

Telling their side of the story

For Stell, the use of oral histories was an opportunity to ‘focus the book around the players’ point of view’.

‘In a sense, giving them the voice of telling their own story,’ Stell told Siren.

‘The book deliberately is a popular book as well. It’s not an academic book. There’s not thousands of footnotes and things like that. It’s meant to be readable and it’s meant to be as close as we could get to the women themselves telling their side of the story.’

Close it absolutely is. Reading Women in Boots often feels like you might be reading the private correspondence or journals of the players, or as Professor Williams wrote in her review for Siren, ‘eavesdropping on conversations in the changing rooms or in the bar after a game’.

It’s a closeness Stell attributes to Reid’s role in the sport and her relationships with the interviewees.

‘I truly believe that if I’d approached these women, I wouldn’t have had the same success or the same quality in the book as I was able to do with Heather. Because, of course, Heather’s been involved in the sport for a long time and people responded to Heather herself and [their] respect for Heather in wanting to be involved in this project.’

Image is of a page from within the book Women in Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s. It shows a newspaper clipping with the headline 'gorgeous goal getters'. A photo underneath the headline shows a woman playing football.

A decades long friendship

Stell and Reid played football together in the 1970s in Canberra and have been friends for decades. Off the football pitch, Stell pursued a career as a historian, writing some of the most important and influential books about the history of women’s sport in Australia including the seminal Half the Race: A History of Australian Women in Sport. While Reid went into sports administration, spending time as the National Executive Director of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association, the National Executive Director of Women’s Sport Australia, Director and CEO of the ACT Association for Women in Sport and Recreation as well as CEO of the ACT Football Federation and a member of the Football Federation of Australia Board.

They seem a perfect pair to write a book like Women in Boots, a narrative that considers the historical background and context surrounding the 1979 series as well as the nuts and bolts of the games and the people involved. A dream team, if you will. It’s the combination of their experiences and skills that makes Women in Boots such a compelling and entertaining read.

What stands out as so compelling is the remarkable insights and memories from the players. For Stell and Reid, that comes back to the relationships they had with or forged with the women.

‘You can’t just kind of roll up to someone and plunk a tape recorder in front of them and say, give me your life details. It just doesn’t work like that,’ Stell said.

‘So, what Heather [did] was so crucial in actually already having the relationships in the first place, but then building the relationships, and these women were able to trust us. And I think when you read the book, you realise they’ve trusted us with some very emotional moments in their lives and some things that are very important to them.

‘People sometimes concentrate on the difficulties in sport. But what I found that these women did was actually also trust us with saying: hey, this was really important to me and I found a great deal of joy in it. I mean, you’ve got to expose yourself in a way to say, I really enjoyed this and it was one of the most important periods in my life. Because these women, some of them have families and children and they’ve had great jobs but they still say to us: this was a defining moment in my life.’

Scrapbooks add context to the story

Something that the players also trusted Stell and Reid with were their enviable collections of scrapbooks and albums. That so much had been retained by the players, Stell said, spoke to how personally significant the series was.

‘You get a sense of how important an event is in people’s lives by whether they keep the material associated with it. And I was quite amazed that the women had such good scrap albums and clothing or souvenirs from their tours and things like that. It might have been in a bag in the bottom of the cupboard, but they still had them. And it spoke to how important this series was in women’s lives. There’s some things they can’t tell you about. But by actually showing you this amazing documentation that they’ve still got 40 years later, it really gives a different dimension to thinking about how important this series is.’

The scrapbooks demonstrated that there was mainstream coverage of women’s football during the 1970s. But they also revealed how confronting much of that media coverage was.

‘I was absolutely astonished to actually see and read the sexism and the misogyny and indeed, the homophobia within those press comments. I think I made the point a couple of times in the book that the women themselves didn’t necessarily remember it like that. And that’s where looking at the actual resources of the scrapbooks allowed us to say, well, this press coverage was really unacceptable. It’s really, really unacceptable in a whole range of ways whether they’re talking about women or they’re talking about school girls in such a sexualised fashion,’ Stell said.

‘And I think we forget, we forget how bad it was in the 70s. The level of misogyny and the sexism that comes out through the media is just really really astonishing. And that was one of the big lessons that I took from the research in this book that, that we’ve got to remember that was the atmosphere and the context that these women were playing in.’

Image is from a page within Women in Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s. The page features an image of a newspaper cutting. The headline reads: soccer's definitely going to the birds'.

An amazing drive

As Stell and Reid write in Women in Boots, the book ‘positions the challenge for individual women to create a space for themselves in the masculine world of football in the 1970s as part of a wider social and cultural change’.

The 1970s were a heady time for women’s liberation. With International Women’s Year in 1975 followed by the United Nation International Bill of Rights for Women in 1979. In Australia, there were positive changes around equal pay and rights. Against this backdrop, what the women of 1979—the 79ers as they are affectionately known—were doing was at times quite remarkable.

While the historical context is important in the broader story, Stell and Reid didn’t include much of the earlier history of women’s football before the 1970s.

‘It struck me as I met these women and listened to them and looked through their memorabilia, that they didn’t know anything about the earlier women playing or anyone else playing. And it struck me as amazing that these women had to invent the game themselves almost. They had to invent their teams. They had to work out with a couple of friends how they were going to play football. It was this amazing drive within them, they’re born with this drive that they want to play,’ Stell said.

It’s a drive that is evident in the authors, because the decision to write the book was a simple one.

‘We wanted to write something about the very first team that had participated in a full FIFA recognised international match. We started talking about this probably in 2017 [and] we were conscious that 2019 would be the 40th anniversary of that particular series. So, to recognise those pioneers on the 40th anniversary year would be quite fitting for them,’ Reid said.

‘And because there’s very few books about women’s football, especially in those early years.’

A defining moment

The significance of the 1979 and 1980 matches can’t be understated. It really was a defining moment for the sport.

‘[The series] put the national teams on the map. In the 1970s, there was a lot of talk about a Women’s World Cup and FIFA had first of all sort of mentioned the possibility of a World Cup in 1974. And we had the Hong Kong Ladies Association pushing the Asian Football Confederation to have a World Cup. And so that’s where we had the St George Budapest club team from Sydney go to play in in Hong Kong in the Asian football competition. Because the Australian Women’s Association had only just been formed and they didn’t have the money to do that,’ Reid explained.  

‘But this series, Australia versus New Zealand, really did cement both the Australian Women’s Association and the New Zealand Women’s Association. And I say those two names deliberately because they formed their own associations in the absence of any great support from the men’s federation’s or the parent associations.’

A life-changing match

It wasn’t only a defining moment for women’s football. It was also a defining moment for Reid herself who was there on that Saturday afternoon in Sydney to see the first game in the series. Reid’s trip is recorded in the pages of Women In Boots. She remembers thinking ‘this has got potential, this is what we can have our local players aspire to be part of. This sport can go somewhere, there’s nothing to prevent women from playing the game’. It was a game that ‘spark[ed] a change in the direction of her life’.

Reid repeated the sentiment when she spoke with Siren. ‘To me, seeing that game as a young person, as somebody who just started kicking a football when I was only 22. That that was a lightbulb moment for me and set me on my journey over the next 40 years.’

‘But when you look through all of these stories, and I’ve been reflecting on this and reading through some of the pages yesterday and again today, I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about the way the game changed the lives of many of those women. And to give them recognition now has been another life-changing moment for them,’ Reid said.

Image is of the book Women in Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s. The book is orange and has two photos on the front cover. One in the top left hand corner is off a young woman kicking a soccer ball. The other in the bottom right is a picture of four women, they wear football boots and have pulled up the boots to show the bottoms to the camera.

A site of protest and empowerment

In the book, Stell and Reid write that Women in Boots ‘adds the football field to these sites of protest and empowerment for individual women’. It’s a powerful statement, but one that the stories in the book back up. 

The football field is a place of protest and empowerment. 

Sport does not exist in a vacuum. To separate the game from its context, historically or otherwise, is to limit the game and to limit the stories of those who play it and who played it.

Telling the story of the 79ers, and of these early and influential days for women’s football is important work. That’s something both Stell and Reid recognise.

‘It’s important to tell these stories about the early generations so that the current generation also has a greater appreciation of the sacrifices that these players made and the foundations that they’ve laid.’ Reid said.

‘The role of a historian is, as we know, to make sure women nowadays know the history of the game and they don’t have to keep reinventing it and going through the same hurdles and facing the same kind of opposition to just follow this amazing drive and passion to play football,’ Stell said.

An intimate story and a vital contribution

Women in Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s is a vital addition to the history of football and to the history of women’s sport more broadly. It speaks to the work women have long had to do just to play. It demonstrates the opposition they’ve faced and the challenges they’ve had to overcome. It makes the personal political. But it also tells a story of some remarkable women in an intimate and immediate way; women who deserve to be recognised for the role the played. 

It may be easier for young women to buy football boots now. It may be easier for them to find a team. But that’s only because of women like Sue Monteath, Connie Selby, Jae Pettit, Barbara Cox, Sandra Brentnall, Jill Latimer and Cindy Heydon and many, many others. It’s also easier because of the work of people like Stell and Reid who play such an important role by ensuring these stories are told and are there for the next generation of women in boots.

Women in Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. You can purchase the book via their website or at all good bookstores.

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