A history of women and sport in Australia
Australia has a rich sporting history to which women have made a significant contribution despite often-difficult circumstances.
In the nineteenth century the British administration of the States that eventually federated to form Australia encouraged an official masculine culture whose social etiquette supposedly restricted women to parlour games.
The reality however, was that the physical demands of pioneering life meant colonial women became proficient shooters, rowers, archers, swimmers and equestrians.
Around the time of Australia’s Federation, at start of the twentieth century, sport became a means for an emerging nation to place itself on the world scene. This early lust for international success outweighed sexual prejudice and even today women – as well as men – who succeed on the international sports field, become national icons.
Many of the early sports established in Australia were popular in England. Cricket, croquet, tennis and cycling were among them.
What is believed to be the world’s first bike race for women was held over two miles at Ashfield, which is now an inner suburb of Sydney, in 1888. The first Australian championship in golf (male or female) was the Australian Ladies’ Championship played at Geelong in Victoria in August 1894.
Cycling and golf grew to become two of Australia’s most popular sports, and has produced world champions of both genders.
However, despite the pioneering role Australia played in organised sport, organised participation by women was slow to take off. It was not until the 1920s that a controlling body was formed for women’s amateur golf and even then women could only become ‘associate members’, having access to the course only on special days, mainly during the week. This practice persisted until the 1970s when clubs and associations were required to rethink their rules in the wake of Commonwealth and State laws on equal opportunity and discrimination.
Swimming was another sport that enjoyed popularity among women, particularly at private schools where a culture of strenuous physical activity was encouraged. Government schools were somewhat slower to adopt the ethos of physical culture. Swimming was encouraged largely due to the safety factor, with emphasis on learn-to-swim and lifesaving classes.
Although the number of women wanting to take swimming lessons swelled as a result, access to municipal swimming pools was restricted to ‘ladies hour’. This hampered the growth of competitive swimming for women. In addition to this, women were still bound by the fashion of the day, which stipulated neck-to-knee woollen costumes.
Nonetheless, women’s swimming had a major boost in 1912 when Sydneysiders Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie took out the 100m freestyle gold and silver medals respectively at the Stockholm Olympics. This was the first-ever swimming event open to women at an Olympic Games.
Women enjoyed a growing range of sports in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Swimming’s popularity saw the formation of female surf clubs, although the all-male Surf Life Saving Association banned women from gaining the bronze medallion to qualify them as lifesavers.
Traditional male sports like rugby league and Australian Football had also opened up to women but the grounds were only available on Sundays and women drew the ire of clergy across the country for playing on ‘God’s day’.
Around this time a sports academy in Adelaide found netball had become so popular that it had to offer extended playing hours from 6pm-11pm. The idea of women playing ‘after hours’ was a real social change.
In the 1930s women and sport lobby groups began to spring up around the country. High on their agenda was the need for more women’s sports grounds. Fanned by a new wave of confident and empowered women fresh from universities where they had enjoyed the spoils of the suffrage movement, women’s sports began a new era, played, administered and promoted by women for women.
The second world war largely brought international and national competition to a halt, but local competitions thrived. Factories organised inter-factory competitions, sports clubs continued and in many cases grew, feeding on support for morale-building activities.
After the war the popular press turned women’s attention to more domestic matters. Athletes who succeeded during the late 1940s and onwards, received media attention that often focused on their personal lives. Track and field athlete Shirley Strickland (nee de la Hunty) was often described as a housewife and mother despite the fact that she had a PhD in nuclear physics and later went on to become a key administrator and coach.
Strickland’s name is among those of women associated with the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games, the first held on Australian soil. Australia’s 44 women athletes won seven gold, two silver and three bronze medals while the 243-strong men’s team won six gold, six silver and 11 bronze medals. This trend of comparatively smaller teams of Australian women hauling in larger medal tallies at Olympic sporting events has continued to this day.
The major growth sports for women between 1950 and 1970 were tennis, golf and squash. These were seen as the most ‘ladylike’ sports on offer. This was the era that saw the rise of innovative administrators like Nell Hopman (tennis) and Gertrude Mcleod (golf) and sports champions like squash player Heather McKay (neeŽ Blundell) and tennis players Margaret Court (nee Smith) and Evonne Cawley (nee Goolagong).
Between 1970 and 1990, women took up a broader range of sports and popularity in team sports rose.
However the 1976 Olympic Games proved a low point for Australian sport with the lowest medal tally – four bronze and a single silver – in 40 years. Affected by retirements and disqualifications, the 35 Australian women in Montreal did not win a single medal.
Australia’s approach to rectify its lack of success at the 1976 Olympics did not acknowledge the historically proven, greatest source of Olympic medals – the women. The athletic union nominated no women athletes for Olympic track and field scholarships in 1977. Women had to wait until the Australian Institute of Sport opened in 1981 before receiving financial support and encouragement.
Traditionally financial support for women in professional sports has been virtually non-existent. Women began lobbying for more prize money as stories filtered through of gross inequities. In 1984 a triathlon held in Geelong, in Victoria offered prizes to both women and male competitors. The first woman home received a bicycle and first male to finish received two return air tickets to Hawaii.
In the late 1980s Government moves helped open the door for more women to participate. In 1984 the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act was passed followed by several state equal opportunity acts. This act made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the grounds of sex, marital status or pregnancy. Sporting clubs were forced to open an option of full membership to women.
Throughout the mid-1980s a series of surveys revealed that having few role models in sport disadvantaged schoolgirls. It was also found that schoolgirls that did not play sport were generally low achievers. In 1984 the Australian Government launched a program to increase girls’ self-esteem through physical education, the Girls in Physical Education Project.
A major initiative came the following year with the establishment of the Federal Government working group on women in sport whose report in 1985 titled Women, Sport and the Media, proposed the establishment of the Women’s Sport unit attached to the ASC.
The unit, which was established in 1988, developed the national Active Girls campaign which promoted sport to girls with the aim of breaking down barriers to their participation.
Today, the unit works with national non-government groups to address issues as diverse as harassment in sport, sports groups’ amalgamations, poor media coverage, mentoring, improving access to facilities and resources and low numbers of women in leadership positions.