The 7 pioneers who brought Aussie Rules to women

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Beating Collingwood. Always good.

FIRST of all, it’s great to be back in The Hickey Stand squad after a nasty bout of work and life commitments.

It’s one of those unfortunate catastrophes of existence that one can’t always make time for the hobby they love if it doesn’t pay the bills.

And on that note, let’s talk about women in Aussie Rules.

We had a chance to pop down to the Southpine Sport and Recreation Ground for Outstanding Achievement in Sport and Recreation Complex (or whatever it’s called) a couple of weeks ago, and we were treated to a sight few would have predicted only a couple of years ago.

Thousands of Queenslanders in their Brisbane and Collingwood guernseys turning up to a suburban ground to watch women play AFL. It was genuinely unbelievable.

Little girls streamed into the ground with their hair in braids and a Sherrin stuffed under their arm. Dads proudly watched the game with their daughters on their shoulders, knowing their little one could some day make a living from the game we love. And Collingwood fans spat obscenities at the umpires.

Some things never change.

But it was truly something to make Aussie Rules fans proud. And it’s just the beginning … in a sense.

Women playing Australian Football isn’t a completely new idea. In fact, it’s been around for almost a century in one form or another. Sometimes it was for men to have a laugh at the women’s expense. Sometimes it was because the men were at war and someone needed to fill the gap. And sometimes, it was just because women wanted to bloody play footy like the rest of the population, as should be their right.

So in honour of the pioneers of the AFLW competition we see today, here are 8 of the women that made it all possible.

EILEEN O’CONNOR

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Eileen O’Connor (second row, with the footy) and her 1917 Foy & Gibson team.

THE Foy & Gibson department store in Perth is something of a legend in the history of women’s footy.

Around the time of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the company started organising matches for their female employees, forming a team of factory workers and a team of shopgirls.

Led by the six-foot tall Eileen O’Connor as captain, the games became so popular that a score of other stores – from within Perth and further abroad – joined the competition and the first real women’s league was formed.

While the motivation for the league has been attributed as a shaming method to force physically fit men into the war, players and crowds alike still seemed to enjoy the matches.

O’Connor was said to have been so good at the game that in her home town of Yarloop, she and her sisters would be called into the men’s team whenever the numbers came up short.

Tragically, O’Connor died aged 30 to kidney failure.

GERALDINE ‘GELL’ HOWLETT

CHARITY was the name of the game for Gell Howlett.

Organising four matches for women to raise funds for the Parkerville Children’s Home in 1917, Howlett kept a diary of her preparation for the games, whilst also keeping her sweetheart Ceil Rice – who was fighting on the Western Front – up to date with all the news from the matches.

With the support of Boan Brothers, Howlett’s employer, the first match at Subiaco was popular enough that it was covered in the local media and attracted the support and expertise of legendary Aussie Rules umpire Ivo Crapp.

For his part, loverboy Rice was supportive of Howlett’s endeavours, writing “I wish I’d been there to see you play in the football match, I am glad you enjoyed yourself, just as well I wasn’t there or I’d have gone silly barracking”.

Top bloke.

GLADYS PHILLIPS

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Gladys Phillips sits atop her teammate’s shoulders after winning 1965 softball world championship.

MELBOURNE was witness to the hunger for women’s football in 1947, when the idea of a match was pitched to raise money for the ‘Food for Britain’ campaign.

South Melbourne secretary Frank Hay floated the idea of his club putting together a women’s team that would play a squad of interested players from zones outside of their own.

It turned out interest was high. So high, in fact, that Hay told Herald journalist Alf Brown he could form an entire women’s competition with the amount of callbacks he received.

One respondent was 15-year-old Gladys Phillips, a gifted athlete and ‘typical schoolgirl’ who could kick the ball 35-45 metres.

Newspapers jumped on Phillips like a vintage Tayla Harris, providing the face of the carnival and offering talents like having the ‘characteristics and vigour of a boy’ and the rare knack of using her ‘shoulders and hips like a man’. Their words, not ours.

Captaining the South Melbourne side at least once, Phillips publicly stated that football was still a man’s game and that women should only play for novelty or charity.

But you would say that as a teenage girl in a male dominated domain, wouldn’t you?

Phillips would go on to represent the Aussies on a cricket tour of England in 1951, before turning to softball, captaining the Australian team to the world championship in 1965.

EVELYN RODGERS (nee MOONEY)

GET this. Lady boundary umpires. I know right? What will they think of next.

Evelyn Mooney, along with Dorothy and Judy Rodgers (who I assume had something to do with Evelyn’s eventual surname change), were quite the hit in the Gippsland town of Erica when they busted out of the shackles of gender politics to take up the role of boundary umpires for local men’s games.

Or as the Morwell Advertiser put it at the time: “(Women have) invaded one of the few remaining aspects of sport regarded as a man’s prerogative.”

Poetic.

Imagine the shock on the fat faces of the Advertiser editors when, as a 19-year-old housewife with a seven-month-old son, Mooney (or Rodgers as she had become) laced up the boots for the final match of Erica’s season to replace her injured husband Bernie in the team.

That’s right. A woman. A mother, mind you, playing against men. Oh the horror.

Noting the wolf whistles and taunts she received as she ran onto the ground, Evelyn had the last laugh with her solid performance.

“Our team only kicked two goals,” she said.

“I managed to kick one of them and I passed to our forward, who kicked the other.”

And with that, the name Erica, which had historically been associated with masculinity*, forever became one of the feminine kind.

*Note: Probably not true.

GEMMA GRIFFITHS

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The Darebin Falcons, one of 31 teams in the VWFL originally created by Gemma Griffiths.

A TRUE pioneer of women’s football, Griffiths co-founded the Victorian Women’s Football League in the early 1980s with American Leslie Fraser.

Motivated by the injustice and inequality of men getting “all the glory in life” and of women being “second-rate citizens”, Griffiths fought to create an organised league with a fixture, several teams, and a grand final.

Having liaised with VFL general manager Jack Hamilton – who expressed concerns about an open-age league rather than just one for schoolgirls – the league finally saw life on May 31, 1981, with the introduction of the Broadmeadows Scorpions, Hallam Cobras, Epping Blues and Princes Hill Dodgers.

Over the years the league would grow, despite a perceived indifference from the VFL, and women were finally able to play in matches that weren’t just for charity of novelty.

JOANNE HUGGINS

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Joanne Huggins, left, just wanted to play footy. And who the hell wouldn’t want to?

BACK in the home of women’s Aussie Rules, West Australian Joanne Huggins spearheaded a push for a female league in 1986.

While the Victorian league had been formed on the back of inequality and feminism, Huggins kept things pretty simple: “I just wanted to play footy.”

“I loved footy,” she later wrote. “But I had to be satisfied with running the boundary for my little brother’s footy team and helping my dad coach the boys. That was as close to playing footy as I could get. It was frustrating, to say the least. I kept thinking, ‘If a girl can kick a ball and run and tackle and do everything a boy could do with a footy, why can’t she play for real?’

With the help of then Western Australia football general manager Brian Cook, who would go on to become an administrative hero (if there is such a thing) in Geelong, Huggins placed an ad in the West Australian newspaper in early 1987 looking for women interested in forming a league.

Glued to her parents’ phone, a 22-year-old Huggins took calls from more than 60 interested individuals, and by 1988 the first season of full competition came to fruition.

NICOLE GRAVES

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Graves leading the way as coach with Swan Districts.

NICOLE Graves has had her hand in just about every aspect of women’s football.

She introduced a customised ball size for women. She was president of the Darebin Falcons. She was on the VWFL board for 15 years, after joining as an 18-year-old. She’s coached, she’s played. She may have even cut an orange or two for all we know.

If it’s women’s footy, Graves – who is currently coaching Swan Districts- has had her fingerprints all over it.

Forced out of footy at age 12 due to a rule that meant girls could no longer play against boys, Graves could only resume playing when she was old enough to join a women’s team.

Asked to create a feasibility study into a competition for teenage girls, Graves’ proposal was eventually adopted and the ensuing competition – which allowed girls to play continuously from childhood – was launched in May 2004.

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A NOTE: Almost none of this article could have seen the light of day without referencing Play On!: The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football extensively. We’ve brushed over the surface of women in Aussie Rules. Brunette Lenkic and Rob Hess dive into the Mariana Trench of it. You can buy it here. And you should.

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