By Professor Jean Williams
Women in Boots – Football and Feminism in the 1970s by Marion Stell and Heather Reid is a fantastically detailed account of the history of women footballers in Australia and New Zealand, in the 1970s, a pivotal time for the internationalisation of the women’s game.
The book builds upon a growing body of academic, and popular work that documents the women pioneers of different codes of football, including Rob Hess’ groundbreaking work on Australian Rules, Greg Downes’ PhD thesis on women’s soccer, and Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan’s recent book, Never Say Die: The Hundred-Year Overnight Success of Australian Women’s Football.
Both Marion Stell and Heather Reid have played football since the late 1970s, and as well as their respective professional accomplishments, the style of this book reflects that. There is a lot of good writing here building on oral history interview techniques. As such, the effect of reading phrases like, ‘Angela Hall often feels she tests her mother’s patience’ makes the reader feel that they are eavesdropping on conversations in the changing rooms or in the bar after a game. This, as well as focusing on how the sport of football was practically performed at a time of much derision and neglect.
The book begins with the chapter ‘Boots’, which is a metaphor for how girls entered into women’s teams, as young as ten years of age, but also how they acquired the expertise and swagger to call themselves footballers. And what that costs. Unlike training shoes which can be worn in the street, football boots are very particular items of footwear in which to invest, and buying a pair signals a rite of passage into the subculture. This is expanded in subsequent chapters, ‘Liberation’, ‘Choices’ and ‘Respect’.
Then there are the practical elements of buying boots that fit. As no women’s sizes were manufactured at that time. We see brands which did supply children’s boots, notably Adidas, as aspirationally priced, or the unbranded but constantly polished boots owned by Shona Bass. These are very rare and prized possessions. Again, boots, as simple as they may seem, represent the very scarce resources to which the girls and women were fighting to have access. Consequently, the interviewees’ thrill in owning something so ordinarily central to a boy’s childhood, reflects how marginalised women’s team sports, like football, can be in girls’ development. Boots matter.
‘Liberation’ covers the ground of the first official representative sides and hence defines those who the authors consider ‘unofficial.’ This is a gnarly topic and very difficult to analyse because players had to have pioneered unofficial developments in order to have convened official organisations to respond to the many and varied invitations that are discussed here. The case for New Zealand seems fairly clear, even in retrospect, with ‘an interim national association’ dominated by male administrators Roy Cox and Dudley Vosser who each select players from Auckland, Wellington and Palmerston North. The case for Australia seems to be interpreted differently, because the St George team, coached by Joe O’Connor, was supplemented by a few New South Wales players. Although a national association was formed in August 1974.
Knowing how very serious Veronica Chan, the President of the Asian Ladies Confederation, and organiser of the 1975 tournament, was, this seems to need a little more nuance. Especially since the Australian Women’s National Association did not have the funds to send a team. As the chapter ‘Lamingtons’ shows, they paid their own way and were enterprising enough to raise the $6,500. In a letter to FIFA on 10 February 1976, Chan, with Pat Chapman of St George’s as a Vice Chair of the Asian Ladies Football Confederation, was advocating that there should be a women’s world cup hosted by her organisation in 1977. The 1978 Asian Cup competition was intended as an event for national teams therefore. As Stell and Reid indicate, an Australian team was selected, but played against what Women in Boots describes as club representative sides.
My interpretation of this period is that we should do away with official and unofficial nomenclature, as language does matter. A retrospective wish to name the ‘first’ national women’s sides should be resisted. This is also still a problem in men’s football, and often not adjudged by historians, but journalists and administrators, unaware of the complexity of historical methodology. This applies not just to Australia. The French club side, managed by Pierre Geoffroy, Stade de Reims, who played in an unofficial European Championship for women and World Cups in Italy 1970 and 1971 has been retrospectively recognised by FIFA as the ‘first’ representative French women’s national team. The English team against whom they played, managed by Harry Batt a member of the WFA formed in 1969, were banned on their return from Mexico from football, in the manager’s case, for life. So, there is a fusion of overlapping events to describe and to be read away from the time itself rather than adjudged with the neatness of hindsight.
However, this is a difference of interpretation, rather than a disagreement over the quality of the evidence presented in this book. Gender, sexuality, and personal development are clear themes throughout, even when many of those who are documented here, have hung up their prized boots, and not everyone at their own volition.
The authors have opted to structure the work in a broadly chronological structure, thematised by the international events described, and using supporting oral histories to make personal, sometimes intimate, detail nuanced, contradictory and changing. This is entirely to be expected in a large collective biography such as this. The benefit of focusing on one decade, enables the authors to go into great detail about the experiences of players, coaches and administrators, revealing the tensions and personality clashes, as well as the incremental development of systems, awareness and strategies for advocacy. Rich in primary material, and suggestive of a wealth of spin-off projects, the book, although relatively slight, therefore serves as the cornerstone for a larger analysis. I look forward to the next volume of beautifully written oral history from these authors.
Jean Williams is a Professor of Sport at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK. She is the author of A Beautiful Game: International Perspectives on Women’s Football