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The History of the Ashy Redbacks: Part III

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

Girls in the Club (2011-2021)


In the first post on the Ashy Redbacks, I wrote about the formation of the club and the struggle to keep it afloat until the 1990s.


In the second post, we looked at the consolidation of the Redbacks as a neighbourhood force in junior football in Victoria and profiled some of the exceptional AFL players that emerged from it.


In this last post of the series, I examine the role Ashy Redbacks has played in developing girls and young women as Australian Rules footballers.


Before we begin


A note for the record. I did not seek out to speak to the girls and young women playing with the club today, only their parents. I did not feel comfortable stalking them on the internet and since I’ve only just figured out Instagram, trying to work out how to communicate through SnapChat or TikTok is a bridge too far after two lockdowns and school holidays in quick succession. At this point, I’m lucky the 0:00 has stopped flashing on my VCR.


Now, before we can look at the girls playing football today it is vitally important to examine how they played in the past. It still has considerable bearing today, including at Ashy Redbacks.


What a Girl Wants: The History of Women playing Australian Rules Football


Since the 1910s, numerous women watched men play Australian Rules football and thought "hey, that looks fun, why don't we play too?"

According to the meticulously detailed and fascinating book, Play On! The Hidden History of Women's Australian Rules Football by Brunette Lenkic and Rob Hess, women have been trying to have their go at playing Australian Rules in an organised and competitive way since World War 1. So why did it take a hundred years to come to pass?


In short, it was because Australian men were not willing to make space for Australian women to play what they considered 'their' sport. If you need a testament to how entrenched sexism is in our country, look no further than women’s efforts to play Australian Rules Football.


I use the word 'space' in both a literal and societal way. Women's teams of the 20th century comprised of women who worked in factories and textile companies all week. On Saturday, the men monopolised all sporting grounds, amenities, and facilities, including at junior levels. This left only Sunday for women to play. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a time when shops, restaurants, museums, sports grounds, everything was closed on Sundays. Well into the 1980s, Sunday was the day Australia set aside for ‘religious reflection’, or the 'day of rest'.


So for decades, Australian society refused to make physical space or time available for women to play. Yet they still played whenever they could; albeit in a very ad hoc way in the gaps between the men's games: byes, mid-week public holidays, or the week before men's cricket started.


The lack of physical space was not the only significant barrier for women to overcome. Time and again, both Australian men and women, could not shift their patriarchal attitudes to make way for women to play Australian Rules football. As a society, Australians refused to conceptualise the idea that many women relished the physical clashes needed to play a contact sport. Lenkic and Hess detailed how for decades, the perception that football was 'unsuitable' for women persistently trumped over women's tenacious and enthusiastic efforts to get games going.


If this wasn’t bad enough, every time women played, they were subjected to public ridicule from the media, their families, and religious institutions. In old news reels and newspapers, women’s skills were portrayed as humorous, comical and entertaining. The media mocked their playing style and perceived lack of experience, knowledge and prowess. Sometimes the printed press was encouraging, occasionally mentioning well-taken marks and kicks in between the ‘enthusiasm’ of the players. But often the pictures selected to accompany articles were captioned with descriptions of ineptitude rather than skill.


As far as a large proportion of Australian society were concerned, working women in Australia were already ‘taking men’s jobs’ and should be ‘home with their babies’ instead of trying to organise games of football.


Women also faced condemnation from religious leaders. In the 1930s, a decree came down from the Pope himself forbidding women from playing ‘men's’ sport. This affected the women’s game for decades. Heaven forbid girls should have any fun.

Breaking the Girl: The slow pace of changing men’s minds


On the ground, plenty of men had no issue watching women play football. For many men - and this is true today - watching football was watching football regardless of who was playing.


Said one player in 1955: ‘at first we were laughed at. But when it was seen how, after a hard match, we could kiss and make up and all be friends again, even the men were behind us.’

In Brisbane, one 19-year-old woman with a six-month old baby filled in for her husband in his team one day. She kicked one of the team’s two goals and passed the ball to the forward who kicked the other one. Her father-in-law was so impressed he called her a ‘born footballer, a high mark, and a real ruckman.’[1]


Unfortunately, these supportive men were not the men in charge of the game in Australia. Well into the 1970s, these supportive men were the exception, not the rule.


Women persisted. In WA and SA they proved the most tenacious, even managing to form competitions for a couple of years. The VFL backed a few women’s teams but again, without consistent support, the women’s game floundered. For the men in charge, the novelty of women playing had worn off and there was no strong, sustained push for a more professional set-up or a regulated competition.[2]


The entrenched sexist attitudes towards women playing were particularly strong in Victoria. Melbourne’s reputation as a ‘wowser city’ meant it was filled with people who would not give up their ‘quiet Sundays’ to allow women to play regularly. Time and again, at the top levels of Victorian football society, the ‘unsuitable for women’ card trumped enthusiasm, skill and tenacity.[3]


It’s Different for Girls: the formation of Women’s Football Leagues


By the 1970s, when Ashy Redbacks formed, the demographic of girls seeking to play football had shifted from textile and factory workers to university students. Many of these women saw playing Australian Rules through the lens of feminism and securing equal rights for women in Australia.


The Victorian Women’s Football League formed in 1980. Led by Gemma Griffiths, a teacher at Preston Technical College and an enthusiastic feminist, the League progressed quickly with the formation of the Broadmeadows Scorpions, Hallam Cobras, Epping Blues and Princes Hill Dodgers within five weeks. Attitudes had shifted sufficiently to allow the matches to be played on Sundays, although Sunday trading would not begin until 1991 in Victoria. The rules followed those of the VFL, with some amendments – no pushing in the chest and three interchange players. Players were eligible to join the VWFL from the age of 14.


‘We changed in draughty tin sheds without showers, scratched for funds to buy jumpers and even socks, debated the delicate matter of ‘chest protection’ and did our own strapping,’ said former Hurstbridge Warrior Virginia Adrian. ‘In those days, skill levels depended largely on how much kick-to-kick you had played as a kid. Girls with a tribe of brothers or boys-next-door had a big advantage. Girls from large Catholic families often excelled.’[4]

The VWFL struggled for years because of the persistence of the ‘unsuitability’ assumptions from the Victorian public. This meant the advancement of Women’s football did not come from Victoria. Instead, it came from WA. In 1986, the WA Women’s League sprang from the determination of a 22-year-old clerical assistant called Joanne Huggins.


Huggins had no real interest in feminism, she just loved football. She was tired of being side-lined as an umpire of her little brother’s games. But she recognised that the physical strength differences with boys made it impractical to play against them. Instead, she wanted to create a pathway for girls to play football as adults.


Huggins’ ambition came at exactly the right time. The West Coast Eagles loomed but interest in football in WA had plummeted. The State Government tasked Brian Cook, the Eagles’ future CEO, with revitalising the game in WA through the Football Development Trust. He decided women’s football fit the bill and threw the Trust’s financial support behind Huggins’ WA Women’s League.


The WA Women’s League benefited from talented indigenous players: Bridgette Narrier, Janice and Sharon Woods, and Elizabeth ‘Lil’ Kickett, a mother-of-six.

From the outset, Huggins sought to align the teams with men’s clubs. This ensured the women had access to a home ground, supporters and perhaps a source of recruits in wives and girlfriends. The Rules were modified – especially around tackling - to protect girls learning to play and keep them interested. Just like in Victoria, the games were played on Sundays.


Like her predecessors, Huggins also had to deal with frustrating and galling media coverage. One training session she organised to be filmed by Channel 10 went to air as a blooper reel set to circus music.[5]

The print media were better, although often legitimised the League by referring to Cook’s support and naming male players and coaches who helped. However, the coverage showed reporters did show up for games and reported them in detail.


Girl on Fire: A national league


The seeds of a national competition for women formed in the late 1980s when the dominant Victorian and West Australian leagues began considering it. But the lack of resourcing stymied the idea until 1998 when Melbourne hosted the inaugural Australian Women’s Football Carnival. Teams from Victoria, WA, NSW and SA joined the event: many with players drawn from other sporting codes, especially women’s rugby.


Langtrees, a well-known Perth brothel, sponsored the WA side. They didn’t care. ‘Sponsorship is hard for women – so we’re very happy to accept Langtrees’ support,’ said their coach at the time.

Even though the West Australians had the good kickers, year after year the Victorians won the national competition. Generations of watching men play the game had created an innate ability to read the game within them. By the 21st century, the work started by Gemma Griffiths and her successors had built Victorian women’s football into a thriving two-division competition. A lot of the teams comprised of elite ‘cross-players’; natural athletes who also played netball, basketball and volleyball. Finally a pathway was emerging for girls to play football as adults.


Girls on Top: The AFLW

The AFL began organising a Women’s National League after the recommendations of a report it commissioned in 2010. In 2017, the first AFLW games were played between teams affiliated with the men’s clubs, one hundred years after the first organised ad hoc games.


By comparison, women’s cricket in Australia had been played at a national level since 1931 and women’s soccer since 1996.[6] For some context from other countries playing contact sports, organised ice hockey for women in Canada has been played consistently since 1890. The English Football Association organised a women’s league in 1969. Women’s international rugby union began in 1982. New Zealand began its Women’s Provincial Championship for rugby in 1999.


So a national competition for Women’s Australian Rules Football was a long, long time coming.


What it Feels like for a Girl... Playing Football


When I spoke to a few of Ashburton’s football enthusiasts about when they noticed girls playing football, they all recalled seeing many young girls participating in mixed teams in Auskick. The girls didn’t outnumber the boys but they were noticeably there. However, Auskick groups kids by their grade at school: prep to Grade 2, then Grade 3 to 6. When it was time for the girls to move to the upper level, they began to disappear.


There were a few reasons given for this occurrence. Some parents mentioned the demands of basketball on kids’ time. Basketball is a very popular sport in Ashburton. It offers the convenience of a year-round sport, especially for those parents who sought to limit their kids to one sporting commitment. One parent noted that parents of girls seemed particularly inclined towards the ‘one-sport’ rule, disqualifying them from pursuing football.


Parents also mentioned that at around age 10, football becomes more competitive. Australian Rules is a physically demanding sport that is not easy to play. For boys or girls not very good at it, it can be quite dispiriting. So there was undoubtedly a natural drop-off rate that began to occur as children become more discerning about what sport they wanted to play as they got older.


As they age, the big difference that occurs for footballers is the introduction of tackling. So perhaps you are thinking that maturing girls leave the sport because they do not like being tackled. I’m afraid that’s just the myth about girls not being able to handle physical contact sports.

Noted Bob Marshall, the coach of Rachel Paterson, the first woman to win a Rhodes scholarship for Australian Rules football in 2012, ‘if they came off the field having got a couple of tackles, rather than a kick or a handball, they still had a smile on their face a mile wide. They loved it.’[7]


My enquiries revealed girls who play football split into two groups. In one group, there are the girls who want to play so much they don’t care if they are the only girl in a team of boys. This can come with certain challenges that occur in sports when boys and girls in the midst of puberty play together.


Chelsea Randall, who currently plays for Adelaide Football Club and played for the Safety Bay Stingers in the early 2000s, was one of these girls. She remembered how the boys teased each other about ‘liking her’ if they partnered with her in drills. She often ended up practicing with the coach or by herself. Once the boys realised how good she was, she became the Stingers’ secret weapon:


‘none of the opposition would tackle me, they were scared to hurt me or grab me somewhere they thought they shouldn’t, so I would just get the ball and run.’[8]

Randall was there to play football like everyone else, so the boys’ reluctance to tackle her really annoyed her. At half time, the opposition coach would tell his team ‘not to be too scared to tackle the girl’ and then the boys went out of their way to bring her down. Now she’s playing national league football, so obviously it worked out for her.


The whole boy/girl thing improved for 2010s girls who grew up playing football with boys. One parent noted the boys considered her daughter one of them and they respected her athleticism and skills. But she was always the only girl in the team.


For Ashburton girls who were not comfortable playing with boys but still wanted to play football, there was no opportunity to play with the Ashy Redbacks until 2015, and only then in an Under 15 Girls team. This is in spite of the Yarra Junior Football League establishing a Youth Girls competition with 10 teams participating, including teams from neighbouring leagues: Eastern, Yarra Valley Mountain District and Moorabbin in 2011.[9]

The Yarra League’s Girls Competition only grew bigger every year, as you can see in this graph:



Wrote the League president, ‘the girls play with incredible enthusiasm and talent and for clubs fielding girls’ teams they no doubt help the clubs foster an environment of inclusiveness and respect.’


Girls just want to have fun... playing football in Ashburton


The U15s girls’ team at Ashy Redbacks emerged from a grassroots, word-of-mouth movement of parents with teenage girls who wanted to play. In 2014, the impending emergence of a national league had caused Australian Rules popularity as a sport for girls to explode. ‘As soon as there was a professional pathway, it was overnight growth,’ one parent said.


Said one coach, 'I instigated the girls teams at Ashy with just 9 girls on our first training session.. and 100 girls after just 2 seasons. They were all so happy to play footy and to tackle!

For the sportier teenage girls, Australian Rules was suddenly the sport to play, said another. Many girls who had loved the game as kids but abandoned it for other sports came rushing back to it. ‘My daughter used to do cheerleading, with all the fake tan and makeup,’ said one parent. ‘I like the football a lot better.’


It is rather ironic that the Ashy Redbacks fought so hard to survive for decades and then grew so successful in the 21st century that finding physical space to accommodate girls became a challenge. The Club needed to request the Yarra League negotiate with Boroondara Council to make additional training facilities available. It wanted the girls to play on the home grounds at Ferndale Park and Burwood Reserve so they would feel part of it from the outset. But then it needed to ensure sufficient changing rooms were available, rather than just shoving the girls into the boys’ rooms. At the same times, the demand from boys to join the Club had not abated. In 2019, the Council approved the use of Anderson Park in Hawthorn for the Club.


As this graph of boys and girls registration data shows, some Boroondara clubs grew the number of girls faster than others:



There are no doubt a number of reasons for these differences in numbers. These include each club’s willingness to adapt at the management level, promotional efforts, demand from local girls, and access to suitable facilities for them. A football team needs at least 18 people to play, so if there is not enough girls in an age group, no-one can play.


Perhaps if 2020 and 2021 had been ‘normal times’ instead of the ‘Covid times’ there could be more conclusions to be drawn here about how clubs are accommodating girls in their teams.


Girls and Boys... at Ashy Redbacks

In 2016, the Ashy Redbacks fielded two Under 15s girls and a Youth Girls team. The inaugural Ashy Redbacks Youth Girls made it to the grand final, only to lose to St Mary’s by 21 points. The next year, the Redbacks launched an Under 16s, Under 14s and Under 13s in the Yarra League. Several girls appeared to have switched from other teams to Ashy Redbacks when the Club formed a team in their age group. However, despite several years of running an all-girls Auskick clinic at Watson Park, it took until 2019 to start to circumvent the drop off from Auskick into an Under 10s girls’ team.


Just like the boys, for girls in their last years of school, competing commitments come into play. Aside from an increased workload at school, many of the private girls’ schools now provide Australian Rules football. Association rules forbid the playing of football on Saturday and Sunday. Like many of the boys, girls often choose their school team over the Redbacks.


A key factor in the retention of girls in the club lies with the quality of coaching. Football is a sport that needs players with different skills, body shapes, speed, kicking ability and agility and leaders who know how to form a cohesive team. Noted one parent, 'boys tend to compete over who gets to be the superstar. Girls don't care, as long as they win.'


The women’s game has progressed considerably since the days of Joanne Huggins and Gemma Griffiths but it is still developing and formulating. When this is combined with the fact most girls have not consistently played through their younger years, they need a good coach to help them learn their playing style and how to avoid injuries.


About a Girl: a space for girls

The longevity of the Club’s girls’ teams depends on exactly what it always has for the last century: men and boys moving from their on-the-ground support of women’s football to making physical and institutional space for girls to play and for women to be involved in leadership decisions for the Club.


It is rather ironic that the Ashy Redbacks fought so hard to survive for decades and then grew so successful in the 21st century that finding physical space to accommodate girls became a challenge. The Club needed to request the Yarra League negotiate with Boroondara Council to make additional training facilities available. It wanted the girls to play on the home grounds at Ferndale Park and Burwood Reserve so they would feel part of it from the outset. But then it needed to ensure sufficient changing rooms were available, rather than just shoving the girls into the boys’ rooms. At the same time, interest in the Club from boys had not abated. In 2019, the Council approved the use of Anderson Park in Hawthorn for the Club.


The Covid Times have of course impacted the Club considerably. The winter lockdown in Melbourne ensured the cancellation of the entire 2020 season. Now in 2021, the Club scrambles to play whenever not in the midst of a lockdown. The social aspects of the Club, once the mainstay of its community and financial well-being, have taken a dramatic hit. Fortunately, the Club is in good shape to survive.


Despite all these challenges, the Ashy Redbacks have already produced high level female players. According to their website, Ashy females play in the Youth Girls Academy at Sandringham Dragons and Oakleigh Chargers. Former Ashy player Steph Harvie played in the VFL’s Eastern Devils and is now with Essendon Football Club. Millie Klingbiel joined Geelong Cats VFL in 2017 and moved to Richmond VFL in 2019, now part of the AFLW. Eliza McNamara became the Club’s first AFLW player and is currently listed with the Melbourne Demons.


Who Runs the World? (Girls)


Today girls have opportunities to play football that their great- great-grandmothers could only dream of. When the will for change emerged, it happened quickly. After nearly a century of dormancy, progress for women in football is now moving along at a cracking pace.


At the same time, the history of the sport for women shows that its gate-keepers need to continually make the space to accommodate them. In comparison to other Australian sports, there is still ample room for improvement in Australian Rules football. The Ashy Redbacks’ philosophy has always been that every kid deserves a game. And now that means boys and girls.


My thanks to all the parents who took the time to share their thoughts and opinions.


Do you have a something, someone or somewhere around Ashburton you'd like to know more about? Then fill out the topic suggestion form!




Songs referenced in this piece were:

What a Girl Wants by Christina Aguilera (2003)

Breaking the Girl by Red Hot Chilli Peppers (1991)

Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys (2012)

It’s Different for Girls by Joe Jackson (1979)

Girls on Top by Girl Thing (2000)

Girls just want to have fun by Cyndi Lauper (1983)

Girls and Boys by Blur (1994)

About a Girl by Nirvana (1989)

Run the World? (Girls) by Beyonce (2011) Great for a good thigh workout!


References

[1] Brunette Lenkic and Rob Hess, Play On! The Hidden History of Women's Australian Rules Football (Richmond, Vic: Echo Publishing, 2016), 135.

[3]Ibid., 129. [4]Ibid., 166. [5]Ibid., 175. [6] Although the Women’s National Soccer League folded in 2004, it was recommenced as the W-League in 2008. [7] Ibid., 208. [8] Ibid., 207. [9] All graphs comprised from data in Yarra League annual reports available here: https://www.yarrajfl.org.au/annual-reports/

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