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On the Margins of the Good Oval: Women and Australian Football

  • Tuesday, July 19 2011 @ 09:33 pm ACST
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Stephen Alomes is an Associate Professor at Deakin University, with particular interest in sport and culture.  Below is an article published in J. Senyard & P. Burke eds, Behind the Game, Maribyrnong Press, 2008.  It looks at the role women have played in Australian football since its inception, both on and off the field.  Although a weighty academic article it is a thorough lead in to an upcoming article by Tobietta Rhyman about the future of women's footy.

Since Australian Football’s beginnings women have always been involved in the game. This gender difference distinguishes it from other forms of football:  the traditional all-male crowds at many English and European soccer matches, and the massive male predominance at rugby league and rugby union matches. At the same time, women have been on the margins, outside the sacred turf found inside the boundary line, or not allowed into the inner sanctum of the male clubrooms. 

[The full article follows below but can also be downloaded here]
This study begins by, briefly, raising general questions about social and cultural change and gender. Focusing primarily on Victoria, it then maps the field, documenting the rise of women in football since the 1980s. [2] It demonstrates the pattern of change whereby women now take the field in women’s football leagues, preside over clubs, coach and umpire, and provide specialist support as physiotherapists, fitness advisers, nutritionists and trainers, journalists and presenters, as well as comprising over 40% of the crowd at Australian Football League (AFL) matches. The analysis suggests patterns which mirror both a changing society and a continuing older Australia.[3] Traditionally, in a sports-oriented culture, women have always been involved in the game, but primarily as club members, supporters and enthusiasts, or in unrecognised background roles. Today, in a more inclusive Australia, women, like Indigenous Australians and overseas players of Australian Football are coming in from the outer, from the margins of the good oval. Those changes are happening off the field and on the field, including women’s football and women umpires. While sometimes almost unrelated they have effectively worked together to change male and female attitudes and to enhance opportunities for women in football.
Contexts: Gender and Embodiment, Globalisation and Culture

In a 2003 Age article entitled ‘Women in footy, they’re everywhere’, Samantha Lane reflected on more than the experience of an inherited love of football, as she was beginning her career as a football writer. She remarked that ‘female footy journos [had to] earn…their stripes’, and once this was achieved they were treated as any male journalist would be. However, there were also ‘plenty of observers’ who were ‘still almost willing them to fail’.[4]
While woman had always involved themselves in football, privately and in clubs, these observations offered the nub of the fundamental change that women in football were making, whether in the media, the ‘football industry’, as volunteers, or as players. Women in football challenged the most traditional of gender divides in what had been one of the most gender-divided societies in the developed world, the once pioneering colony Australia. As a legacy of the Victorian era, male and female roles were seen as even more distinctly different than in other comparable societies. The ‘Populate or Perish’ ideology had cast women as mothers procreating the race in the first decade of the Commonwealth and the baby boom 1950s suburban ideology reprised the gender divide. Change has come slowly in subsequent decades, although in consumer culture the toyshop still replicates traditional gender roles with sections for action toys and others for Barbie and other fashionable friends. 
In a gender-divided society, football was supposed to be about male rituals, including initiation rites into adulthood and the society of other males. Traditionalists could not come to terms with enlarged roles for women in the game, on and off the field. Now, in the 21st century, women have been claiming a place on the traditional male, but also communal, stage, particularly in Victoria where Australian Football was the most powerful of all organised secular religions, challenged only by the informal rites of the house and the ‘One Day of the Year’, Anzac, for ‘sacredness’. This also involved broadening conceptions of female roles, not only in work and leisure, but also regarding the repertoire and skills that could be carried out by the female body. Casting aside the cultural assumptions notionally based on biology (women = mothers = feminine = could not perform physical roles or fly planes &c), women’s football allowed women to extend their range of bodily pleasures, as they were already doing, despite opposition, in surfing, in cycling, in winter sports and in the new range of women’s Olympic sports.[5] Such emancipation also built on the challenges successfully thrown down to rigid stereotypes about female dress and its anti-sport constrictions, and arbitrary restrictions, by the ‘New Woman’ of the late Victorian era, and on a century of subsequent evolutionary change, intensified by second wave feminism from the Sixties.. It might also challenge the worst of traditional ‘young male’ behaviour and its contemporary manifestations, but that is a larger long-term story. [6]

Varied perceptions of women’s roles were found in the media, despite the rise of the strong muscular female, the Glamazon in popular culture, or rather socially and culturally closer to home, Megan Gale as ‘the face’ of retailer David Jones in 2005-7 marketing campaigns. In sport, these models were also influenced by the high profile success of Australian women swimmers such as Leisel Jones and Jodie Henry, themselves following Dawn Fraser half a century earlier. Often the trends in the wider culture were contradictory, as in quite different global debates about waif models as a female stereotype.
Traditionally a Game for Men and Women

The situation of women on the margins of the sacred turf of the football oval were mirrored, at least metaphorically, by Australian Football’s situation as a geographically peripheral sport in a world increasingly dominated by metropolitan (aka ‘global’) cultural tastes. The two subjects would become intertwined in the late 20th and early 21st century. In the contemporary history of women and Australian Football two phases were important. The first comprised the hesitant steps and the breaking down the walls of prejudice in the 1980s-1990s. The second, which followed, combined popular participation and a larger corporate embrace of women in football and of women’s football by leagues, clubs, football personalities and, with qualifications, the media in the early 21st century. In this footy dance, pressure from below has elicited free and forced support from above - from football institutions and leagues. Reformed and more open policies arose in reaction to changing laws and social attitudes, and also responded to other tendencies: the general rise of women’s sports around the developed world and the competition for the future of the game in Australia.[7]  In a globalising era, women are not just 50% plus of the population, and worthy of respect and recognition in equity terms. They may also be crucial for the long-term future of arguably the world’s most exciting form of football which is, however, played predominantly in one of the world’s most isolated and uninfluential countries.
Australian Football has been a women’s game from its earliest years.[8]  First, women have always been prominent amongst the legions of Australian Football supporters and spectators. From the beginning, when early football matches in Melbourne drew crowds bigger than those for all other sports, women were amongst the passionate partisans and comprised a significant part of the crowd. The historic experience of women watching Australian Football has been documented from the beginnings of the game. The Melbourne Herald reported in July 1859 that ‘a large contingent of the fair sex’ could be seen amongst the 2000 spectators at a game. [9] In historian Robin Grow’s summary, ‘By the end of the 1860s women were not only attending in large numbers but were joining the men in encroaching on the playing field’.[10]  This contrasted, for example, with the smaller female attendances at early rugby league matches. As clubs and leagues developed women were amongst the season-ticket holders; according to Richard Stremski comprising as high as a quarter at Collingwood in 1900.[11] Photographic images of women and children just behind the picket fence, where it was easiest to see the game without other spectators blocking the view, contrasts with the photographic evidence of English soccer. In contrast to the nearly all-male crowds at soccer matches in Mannheim or Glasgow, Manchester or Rome over the last century (English soccer crowds have been often less than 15% female), women have often comprised around 40% of Australian Football crowds.[12] 
Despite such measures of female enthusiasm, the situation of women in the sport reflected ruling gender power and conflict. In many sports clubs and societies eg golf clubs, women were viewed as ‘associates’ rather than full members. In football clubs, ‘ladies tickets’ or ‘ladies memberships’ were sometimes cheaper, only in part because of women’s generally lesser access to economic resources. However, women’s ancillary roles, particularly club fund-raising and social event organisation, had begun even at a much earlier early stage.[13]
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