chapter  6
31 Pages

'Ladies are Specially Invited': Women in the Culture of Australian Rules Football

Within a few decades of the first recorded game of football in Melbourne in 1858, the sport had become a passionate, locally based, collective involvement which expressed values of great importance for its participants and its supporters. In fact, it was an organic interaction between particular communities and their football clubs during the long economic boom between 1860 and 1890 that underpinned not only the success of the code, but the structure of its first administrative body, the Victorian Football Association (VFA), which was established in 1877.1 The boom also precipitated an increase in population which spawned a multitude of social, civic and sporting associations, and the growth of Melbourne as a city meant that new suburban clubs and societies built on membership fees formed across the metropolitan area, with the activities of football and cricket soon establishing themselves as the preeminent winter and summer pastimes respectively. Furthermore, it is evident that the hierarchies within these clubs were the natural expression of status and power distinctions within the community.2 Concomitantly, according to Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner, 'a close and often fanatical identification of the football clubs and their local communities' quickly developed and nowhere was this symbiotic relationship more evident than in the inner working class suburbs of the city. ]

While such a relationship is almost axiomatic, it should be noted that a number of football club histories have strongly emphasized the links between club and community in describing the genesis of local teams. For instance, Gerard Dowling relates how the interests of civic authorities, local businessmen, and supporters converged at the annual meeting of the Hotham (later North Melbourne) club in 1877. After a

short-lived amalgamation with the Albert Park team, 'These supporters hoped that the re-formed club would maintain the honour of the district in the football arena and come to share a leading position among the senior football clubs.'4 In a similar manner, John Lack et al. also outline the way in which the local press became an agent through which the affairs of the community and the club coalesced. The intensely parochial Independent newspaper, for example, actively proclaimed the interests of supporters, sponsors and patrons and 'continually thrust the club into the limelight by reporting club business, matches, and players'. In this case, not only did the Footscray Football Club assume the role of progenitor and promoter of football in the municipality, but its adoption of the tri-colours worn by the successful Footscray Rowing Club confirmed its role in boosting local pride.' Other suburban newspapers also saw the value of featuring sport in their columns and by the early 1870s the local press regularly printed reports devoted to parochial football matters. As Robin Grow notes, football 'gossip' columns were also common, and players would often be referred to by nicknames, with feuds, romances and other 'in the know' information revealed for local consumption. 6 Even more significantly, in those suburbs such as Footscray and Collingwood, which were comparatively isolated and had underprivileged beginnings, community involvement and support, manifestly fostered by the local press, was essential if local teams were to participate in organized contests against wealthier and more powerful neighbours. 7

Against this background of inter-suburban rivalry, it is not surprising that soon after the game originated teams and clubs became increasingly aware that a central body was needed to control the code. This was especially the case following the introduction of 'Challenge Cups' in the 1860s, and, according to newspaper sources, speculation that an organization would be formed to regulate competition between the growing number of clubs was rife among the sporting fraternity of Melbourne.8 Throughout May 1877 the press reported on proceedings which proposed that an association be instituted, and in the same month a meeting of the senior metropolitan clubs was provided with a draft constitution and a set of by-laws. The VFA was to consist of one delegate (later increased to two) from each of the senior clubs, and country teams were to be represented by proxy, with other junior clubs to be taken 'under its sheltering wing'.9 After just one year of operation, the VFA was applauded in the press for a range of much-needed

initiatives, including the revision of the rules, a reduction in the number of disputes, the commencement of inter-colonial matches, improvements in on-field play, and the continued development of a number of grounds.!O

The initial office bearers were largely men from the professions who had considerable expertise in administration and had strong links to other sporting bodies. This coterie remained in office for the crucial formative years of the VFA, providing not only a stable administration, but establishing the Association as a key sporting body in Victoria. II Given the rapid urban growth of Melbourne during this period, it is not surprising that the new Association soon expanded from its original base of senior clubs (Albert Park, Carlton, Hotham, Melbourne, East Melbourne and St Kilda) to include promising junior teams from suburbs such as Essendon, Fitzroy, Footscray, Williamstown, Richmond, Prahran and Port Melbourne. Geelong, one of the oldest clubs in the colony, regained its senior status in 1878 after a temporary slump in form, and Melbourne University, which had fielded a side since 1866, entered a team in the VFA in 1885. 12 Numerous football associations and leagues were formed throughout the colony, as the number of junior sides, church teams and country clubs continued to increase. Most of these organizations became affiliated to the VFA, which acted as adviser and arbiter of disputes and provided umpires for important matches. The Association also adopted an evangelical approach to the promotion of the game and its member clubs received every encouragement to play matches in provincial centres and other colonies. I3 When three Ballarat teams joined the Association in 1887, however, the senior competition had grown to such a large and unwieldy number that its unchecked expansion eventually led to a series of administrative crises and widespread discontent with the operations of the VFA.14 It was these rumblings which eventually led to a major schism in the competition in 1896, resulting in the formation of the rival Victorian Football League (VFL), and it is within this structural framework that gender dimensions of the game during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century can be considered.