Last week Australia and New Zealand won their joint bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup on Friday, prompting us to think across codes about some other legendary women football players in Sydney who played their first game almost 100 years ago. As the first women’s soccer match was played in Brisbane in September 1921, at the same time in Sydney two teams of women were playing their inaugural public match of a different code.
On 17 September 1921 a crowd of between 20,000-30,000 people turned up at the showground at Moore Park to watch a match involving two teams of women. A 15 year old winger Maggie Maloney, whose older brother Mick played for South Sydney, emerged as the star scoring four tries in the match, and also winning a 110-yard sprint race. The game was even more astonishing given this was a code with almost no tradition of female involvement and one that remains dominated to this day by images of heroic men and supposed ideals of masculinity.
An attempt had been made to generate enthusiasm for a women’s competition in Sydney in early 1912, but had not been successful. Feminist Rose Scott, an advocate for women’s suffrage and the president of the NSW Women’s Swimming Association, publicly denounced the idea, calling it ‘disgusting’, ‘brutal’ and ‘worse than horrible’ (despite only ever having seen one match of football actually played).
The new era was instigated by two young women from North Sydney. In May 1921 Molly Cane and Nellie Doherty wrote a letter to the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL) requesting its assistance to create a women’s rugby league competition. They pointed to the success of women’s soccer in England and France as a precedent for drawing audiences in Sydney. Initially the NSWRL refused the request but just a few days later, the League’s Secretary Horrie Miller relented and advised that the organisation would support the establishment of women’s clubs.
At the formation meeting at the NSWRL headquarters on 3 June, Miller teased the prospective players saying ‘It has been suggested that the ambulance man will have to include powder and paint in his box of tricks.’ Molly Cane retorted, ‘It won’t be wanted. We are going to play football as the men play it’, to roars of approval from the other women in attendance.
At least five teams were established, based on the number of women who had attended the formation meeting. Balmain had 2 players, Easts 23, Glebe 4, Newtown 8, Norths 9, Souths 11, Wests 5, St George 7 and University 1. After this tally, the clubs formed were Glebe-Balmain, Newtown-South Sydney, St George-Western Suburbs-University, North Sydney and Eastern Suburbs.
On 18 June 1921, about 100 women met at the Sydney Sports Ground for their first training session, under electric lights using aluminium painted balls that would glow in the dark, with Miller there to provide advice as well as two policemen, no doubt to keep the peace. The early uniforms consisted of a bathing cap so women could tuck away their hair, football jumpers, long socks, knickers much like European female soccer players at the time, and shorts.
The first match of the Ladies’ League, between two teams titled Metropolitan (in blue) and Sydney (in red), was played on the first weekend after the official men’s season had ended, with the Metropolitan team winning 21-11. While some reports said the large crowd had mostly only attended to laugh, all agreed that they were rapidly swayed by the determination and athleticism of the players. Despite their early support, the NSWRL had threatened any of their members with disqualification if they appeared officially at the match in any way, even going so far as to try to distract from the inaugural game by timetabling a short match on the same day between two teams of schoolgirls at a charity gala event of rugby league for the Women’s Hospital at the Sydney Show Ground. Despite this threat, rugby league legend Dally Messenger gave an exhibition of goal kicking in support of the tournament.
Criticism and outright sexist commentary of the women had continued from the outset. Cartoons made fun of the women’s weight, emotional capacity and physical ability. They were told they were attention-seeking, that the game would impact their reproductive organs and that they would become a ‘menace to motherhood’. Mocking poems appeared, like this line from one published in the Australian Bystander –
‘When shall their memory fade? What a freak-show they made!’
or one by Wilcha in the Rugby League News (When Mother Joined the League) that lamented not only his wife’s admiration of the male players, but her enthusiasm for playing herself – apart from intimidating him, who would mind the children?
Part of this could perhaps be attributed to social tensions as the increasing numbers of women in the workforce after World War One were seen to be encroaching on male arenas. However, inequality in the game continues to prevail, not just in just pay and conditions, but in the culture of sexism evident in the recent lack of support to restart the women’s league during the Co-Vid pandemic.
Despite this, women’s resilience in the sport has seen their own State of Origin running since 1999 (where they play for the Nellie Doherty Cup, named in honour of one of the 1921 founders); the Women’s World Cup is now held concurrently with the Men’s; and in 2017 New South Wales Rugby League announced the creation of an under-18s women’s league.
Andrew Ferguson, ‘How a courageous duo helped women’s rugby league kick off in 1921’, 23 December 2018, NRL News, https://www.nrl.com/news/2018/12/23/how-a-courageous-duo-helped-womens-rugby-league-kick-off-in-1921/, accessed on 1 July 2020.
Charles Little, ‘What a freak-show they made!’ Women’s Rugby League in 1920s Sydney’, Football Studies, Vol. 4 No. 2, p 28. https://web.archive.org/web/20160912150732/http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/FootballStudies/2001/FS0402e.pdf, accessed on 1 July 2020.
‘Women Footballers’,The Sun, 14 February 1912, p6 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article222007086, accessed on 1 July 2020.
WOMEN DETERMINED The Daily Telegraph, 4 June 1921, p12 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article239749473, accessed on 1 July 2020.
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Woodford Academy and Middle and Georges Head . In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
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