The origins of women’s football in Australia features department store workers, fancy dress costumes, and a player from the north of England named Trixie.
Australian football is a Victorian game. The sport began in Melbourne in the 1850s as an ad hoc creation; a muck around activity that was a hybrid of existing football codes, with rules varying from match to match.
In 1859 Tom Wills, a British born member of the Melbourne Cricket Club, helped design a standardised set of rules for the new game.
Wills had been looking for an off-season activity for his fellow cricketers, but felt that existing winter sports were unsuitable. His version of ‘Australian Rules’ included elements of both rugby and Gaelic football, which were played in the colonies, and a local Indigenous game known as ‘Marngrook’.
Wills co-founded the Melbourne Football Club, Australia’s first, the same year.
They played under the new rules against clubs from Geelong and Melbourne University, before the first organised competition began in 1861. Australian Rules grew rapidly in popularity, and by the 1870s was the country’s foremost football code.
From its inception, the new sport was popular with women.
‘Sketches and photographs from the earliest decades of the game supplemented reporting of the remarkable number of women in the crowd. Newspaper articles described females sitting stoically in the rain, decorating their prams in the club colours, yelling abuse at the umpire, even leaning over the boundary to jab them with a hat pin or umbrella.’
– ‘Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Football’, Bruentte Lenkic and Rob Hess
This was in contrast to other football codes from the era, that were male dominated.
But a line was drawn at spectating. While the 19th century press reported some discussion of forming women’s teams, the activity was broadly thought to be un-ladylike.
The discussions never advanced. The closest to women’s football came when men would sometimes play in drag, in novelty matches to raise money for charity.
It was not until 1915 that women would actually take the field.
The first matches were held far from the sport’s Victorian heartland: at Loton Park, in the northern suburbs of Perth, West Australia. The teams were drawn from women who worked at the ‘Foy and Gibson’ department store, then one of Australia’s largest; one team came from workers in the company factory, the other from the retail stores.
The teams played once a week. The women wore brightly coloured uniforms far more restrictive than their male counterparts, featuring blouses and ankle length skirts. Caps, similar to those worn by jockeys, were compulsory.
Exactly why the games were organised, remains intriguingly unclear.
The First World War was at its height, this seems to have played some part. The failed Gallipoli landing also occurred in 1915, one theory is that women’s football was played to raise morale; a family friendly activity, that everyone could enjoy.
A more provocative idea is that the games were staged to shame men into enlisting. Men’s football had controversially continued after the war began; having women play football may have been intended to communicate that it was not appropriate for potential soldiers to play sport while the war was raging.
Whatever the rationale, the matches were popular. More women’s teams were formed by other Perth businesses, and they played each other regularly. Scores and brief descriptions of the games appeared in the local papers, although a formal league was never formed.
Highlighting the connection to the war, when peace arrived in 1918 the matches were curtailed again.
Women’s football now began a migration across Australia, from west to east. In July 1916, the first match was held in Adelaide, at the city’s University Oval.
This was a more light-hearted affair then the games in Perth:
‘The players were attired in various grotesque costumes. Some represented Indians and clowns, while others appeared in neat costumes that facilitated an effective dash through the centre.’
– Daily Herald, Adelaide, 1916
This ‘fancy dress’ game was the brainchild of local football fan Miss N. McCarthy. A large crowd turned out to watch, all proceeds from the gate were donated to the ‘Soldier’s Fund’ that supported service men and their families.
The success of the event lead to more women’s football matches for charity around the state.
In September 1918, a women’s ‘Football Carnival’ was held at Adelaide’s Jubilee Oval, to raise money for the Red Cross. The all-day event featured marching bands, speeches and running races, culminating in a game of footy.
The teams were labelled ‘North Adelaide’ and ‘South Adelaide’, although the players were drawn from across the city. Heavily promoted in the lead up, the governor and the mayor were among the large crowd in attendance.
As reported in the Adelaide Daily Herald, the game was scrappy but intense, surprising the spectators with its physicality. Souths dominated play, and eventually won 4.13, to Norths 3 behinds.
A substantial sum of money was raised.
Also in 1918, women’s football made its first appearance in Victoria. The setting was Ballarat, a regional centre 120 km northwest of Melbourne.
Similar to the matches in Perth, and likely inspired by them, this would feature two teams drawn from businesses: the ‘Lucas Girls’, from Ballarat textile company E. Lucas & Co, and the ‘Khaki Girls’, from a military uniform factory in South Melbourne.
The game was conceived by Mrs W.D. ‘Tillie’ Thompson, a pioneering local who sat on the Lucas board, and who was the first Ballarat woman to hold a driver’s license. A fierce patriot, Thompson wanted to use the game to raise funds for a war memorial.
The Khaki Girls already had a public profile. Formed during the war, they had performed marches and musical numbers at a series of public morale raising events; now they would add a football team.
The game was scheduled for Saturday, September 28.
The Khaki Girls arrived in Ballarat by train the day before the game, with a considerable entourage. The group numbered about 120: players, supporters, company representatives, and a full marching band.
The weekend would have a festival-like atmosphere.
Led by their band, the visitors paraded through the streets of Ballarat to the Town Hall, where they were greeted by the mayor. On the day of the game, they were ferried to the ground in cars driven by local VIPs, through streets crowded with onlookers.
Several stops were made at points of interest along the way, and the Khaki Girls band played the Last Post at a statue of a fallen soldier.
A large crowd was waiting at the ground.
‘People continued to pour into the oval until every part was packed. Cheer after cheer went up as the visitors, in their smart attire of khaki and white, took their places on the field. They were followed by Lucas’ girls, in loose fitting pink and white.’
– Ballarat Courier, September 1918
The game that followed was described by the paper as ‘remarkably fast paced’, although play was affected by a strong breeze. The locals eventually prevailed in a tight contest, winning 3.6 to 1.2.
The Khaki Girls visit was hailed as a great success. A ‘Victory Arch’, celebrating the end of World War I, was constructed with the proceeds.
It would be another three years before women’s football would finally reach Melbourne. Trixie West, a recently arrived immigrant from the north of England, would be the driving force behind the initial game.
In England, women’s football – the round ball kind – had started in the late 19th century. But, similar to Australia, the frequency of games and their popularity had increased markedly during the First World War.
West was from Lancashire and had seen the emergence of the sport first-hand. The small town of Fleetwood had founded a women’s club in 1920, and West had watched them play against neighbouring towns.
Passionate about sport, when West arrived in Melbourne she was determined to replicate what she had seen in the local code.
West was at the centre of a group of women’s football enthusiasts who helped organise the first game. Similar to the first match in Adelaide, players would be recruited from across the city, and divided into two teams.
As a tribute to West’s efforts, the teams were named ‘Fleetwood’ and ‘Chorley’ (another women’s team from the north of England).
West was also responsible for another innovation: less restrictive playing attire. Female footballers in England played in uniforms similar to men, shorts and a shirt, West agitated for an end to playing in skirts and blouses.
‘Some people seem to think we should play in skirts. Well, if that’s to be the case, no football for me, thank you! If they don’t like to see girls playing in shorts they can stay away.’
– Trixie West, quoted in the Melbourne press
Shorts and guernseys for the female players were eventually sanctioned. Although the jumpers would be long sleeved, and caps were still required.
The first game was set for July 30, 1921, at St Kilda’s Junction Oval.
In the lead up to the game there was animated discussion in the local press about the role of women in football.
This was linked to the advance of women’s rights more generally. While many restrictions were still imposed on women, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ did see some progress as women began to take up roles traditionally reserved for men, in fields like politics, law and medicine.
Some commentators compared female footballers to these pioneers, the game another battleground for equality. Aware of the symbolic significance of the game, West drove both teams to practice diligently in the weeks prior.
Similar to other early women’s matches, the game at St Kilda would form the centrepiece of a day of entertainment. There would be music, running races, and an equestrian gymkhana, prior to the game itself.
West captained Fleetwood, who wore uniforms borrowed from the St Kilda men’s team. St Kilda’s colours at this time were red, black and yellow; yellow had been substituted for white during the war, as red, white and black were the colours of Imperial Germany.
Chorley, wearing uniforms similar to Richmond, would be captained by Ivy Allen. At the last minute several Chorley players, who were employed by the Department of Defence, were threatened with dismissal if they participated; substitute players had to be found at short notice.
Several thousand spectators turned out to watch the game. The reports of the match were considerably shorter than the debate prior, but it was recorded that the play was vigorous, frequently physical, and with minimal free kicks awarded by the male umpire (who wore a dress for the occasion).
Due to the inexperience of many of the players, the game had a truncated running time of about an hour. Fleetwood eventually ran out winners, 4.2 to 2.4.
While the game was less rapturously received than other early women’s football games, it was successful enough that several rematches were scheduled during the rest of the season.
Further development of the women’s game would be frustratingly slow, however. The ensuing decades would see bursts of activity and some progress, followed by lengthy periods of inertia.
29 000 people turned out to see a women’s football match at Adelaide in 1929, and 10 000 to watch Carlton play Richmond in 1933. But these were isolated games, not part of any competitive structure.
World War II saw the return of women’s football as a charity fund raising activity, and the matches were popular enough that a ‘lightning premiership’ was held at South Melbourne’s Lake Oval in 1947. Women’s teams representing St Kilda, Footscray, Hawthorn and Carlton played a knockout tournament in front of 9 000 spectators, in Australia’s first women’s football championship.
But the momentum again faded away.
It was not until 1981 that the VFL started a proper women’s competition. A professional league, the AFLW, did not commence until 2017, after nearly a decade of planning and discussion.
The first game of the new comp was held on February 3, 2017, with Collingwood playing Carlton at Princes Park. Fans flocked to the game, with a lengthy queue stretching from the ground through the surrounding parkland; the gates were eventually locked with a sold out crowd of 25 000 in attendance. AFL CEO Gil McLachlan was on hand to personally apologise to the many thousands who could not get in.
Women’s football had finally, and fully, arrived.