Women in Sport: ‘The Physical is Feminine’, by Brunette Lenkić


Daily News (Perth), 14 Apr 1950.

This essay is the first in a week-long series of commentary pieces that explore women’s experience in sporting culture.

Active women can change the world. And that might be why, over the centuries, they have been strapped into corsets, bustles and stilettos, or had their feet bound, necks extended and genitals mutilated. Such physical constraints in the name of fashion or religion suggest at a deeper level that if women weren’t tethered, they might escape. It has been a continuing challenge for girls and women to be allowed to run, jump, throw, catch, hit, chase, form teams and compete freely. Some of the obstacles that constrict female roles in wider society are particularly visible in the sporting arena because sport poses the question: what are bodies for?

In Mussolini’s Italy of the 1930s, the sporting woman was regarded with such suspicion that the government supported a Vatican line and banned “unwomanly athletics.” These included football, running races and participation in the Olympic Games. According to Mussolini, “Fascist girls must be prepared to discharge the missions of wives and mothers and learn how to rule a household. They may take such exercise as will improve their figures but no more.” The ban was widely reported in newspapers of the day, including in Australia.

Perhaps there have been times when the child-bearing potential of girls and women needed to be maximised in order for humans to survive. Perhaps. But it is more likely that females needed to be coerced into living passive lives or what aviator Amelia Earhart termed being “bred to timidity.” Mussolini’s attempts at social engineering included a Pro-Natal Policy, where women were rewarded financially for having large families and unmarried men paid a bachelor tax. Ironically, birth rates in Italy fell during the period.

In the over-crowded world of the 21st century, there is no biological imperative for the human race to ‘populate or perish’. As well, women have greater financial independence and can, therefore, free up time for their own pursuits including sport. They can reclaim a body that serves their need to move for the joy of action and exploration of physical potential rather than simply procreate. While there is growing acceptance of this change, historical patterns of criticism are still used today to oppose girls and women playing sport, playing particular sports or playing sport at elite level. Opponents have been especially strident about boxing and the football codes. In her 1994 book, The Stronger Women Get the More Men Love Football, Mariah Burton-Nelson summarises the dilemma:

Football is male, masculinity, manliness. So when women demand the right to play, control, judge, report on, or change football—and other manly sports—their struggle is not just about equal access to fitness and fatlessness. It’s about redefining men and women. It’s about power.

Women’s Australian Rules football began with workplace teams in Perth, Western Australia, in 1915. Historians speculate that, aside from being a morale booster and a way of raising money, the move was also calculated to shame men into enlisting for the war. It was an unspoken, pointed reproach: ‘If your women are playing football for the war effort and drawing crowds, what are you doing?’ The female game expanded to country WA, and eventually spread to the eastern states. To begin with, players wore silk dresses, hats, stockings and walking out shoes on the field. The evolution towards more suitable playing gear took several years.


Female players of the 1917 Foy & Gibson’s football team, pictured in their playing gear. Source: The State Library of Western Australia, 004998D.

The charge of football being ‘unfeminine’ has often been made or inferred and spiced with sly insinuations about the sexuality of female athletes. A 1921 match report on footballers in Perth described the captain of one of the teams as “an athletic girl” with a “deep contralto voice.” Those associated with the Victorian women’s league in the early 1980s remember journalists hanging around after matches, trying to find out which players were gay. Keyboard cowards today still sneer about “dykes” in sport.

‘Follower’s’ letter to a Perth newspaper in 1950 (see lead image) was written by someone oblivious to the earlier history of the women’s game. The writer encapsulated the main objections to women’s involvement: they were not welcome on male turf; correct ‘feminine’ apparel was a skirt, not a football uniform; their primary role at a football game was as a supporter; their standard of play was poor; they could get hurt.

Australian journalist and writer Roy Connolly had covered similar themes in a feature he wrote deriding sportswomen in a Queensland newspaper in 1934. He suggested that he would be attacked by thousands of women for daring “to tell them the truth about themselves.” These ‘truths’ included that the “growing absorption of women in strenuous games arises from their sense of inferiority.” Athletes, he said, would be unsuitable wives due to a loss of femininity and their developed “competitive sense” that would “wreck any marriage.” Connolly’s readers were probably unaware that his own marriage had ended in divorce several months earlier, on the grounds of his wife’s adultery. Whether she had been a sportswoman is unknown but he certainly hadn’t been able to keep her hitched.

At least Connolly had conceded that women clamoured to be physically active. In a 1921 report of a women’s rugby match in Sydney, it was stated the 30,000-strong crowd had expected “a travesty of the game, with hysteria, fainting fits, fluttering fans, and free use of smelling salts…” but the match had resulted in a “readjustment of opinion.” Opposition remained, however, because the game “tends to the destruction of the graces and charms of femininity.”

The sense that females were charming because they were innately fragile had been a social fixation. The grace demanded of ‘ladies’ during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant they wore tight corsets, described later by fashion historians as “rib crackers and liver crushers.” Corsets pushed up women’s breasts and squeezed in their waists, redistributing the position of internal organs and making it difficult to breathe. Women of the era were often portrayed as susceptible to hysteria and fainting spells. It is not at all surprising that some collapsed but astonishing that any of them remained upright. Exercise in corsets, coupled with the blood loss and cramping of menstruation, created extreme duress. Physical pastimes for gentlewomen were largely restricted to walking or dancing, though many also took up horse riding. Normal equestrian hazards were heightened by the fact a woman was required to ride sidesaddle to preserve modesty. This position meant that if her mount fell, she was likely to be trapped under the horse (rather than thrown) and if it bolted, she had virtually no control. And yet women continued to ride.

That the myth of the weak woman has persisted must also suggest that some women have been complicit in perpetuating it, comfortable with the idea of being seen as meek, helpless, delicate or decorative. Yet countless women have confounded such descriptors, perhaps none more so in the past century than the first woman in space, Russian Valentina Tereshkova, who spent seventy-one hours orbiting the earth forty-eight times in 1963. This was more than all the (male) US astronauts combined at that point.

The early American space program had only considered men when selecting astronauts, despite a group of women known as the ‘Mercury 13’ testing favourably both physically and psychologically against the tough NASA standards. Chief among them was Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’ Cobb, a commercial jet pilot who had logged more than 10,000 flying hours and shown outstanding ability to withstand induced vertigo, cramped spaces and long periods of sensory deprivation. The outer limit for male candidates to remain immersed in a soundproof tank of cold water was six hours; scientists stopped the experiment with Cobb when she passed nine. One of the testers explained succinctly why American women were, nevertheless, excluded from pioneering space travel. “Ovaries,” said Dr Donald Kilgore. “The world wasn’t ready at that time.”

There is growing evidence that the world is ready now for a makeover of its attitude. The rise of sports such as mixed martial arts and popular support for Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and other proponents, has signified a shift in what activities are considered acceptable for women. Campaigns such as Britain’s ‘This Girl Can’ and the photography project and book ‘Strong Is the New Pretty’ by Kate T. Parker are helping to rewrite female roles.

The intensity of the play in the new Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) competition, which started in February 2017, has excited plenty of comment. Hard hits and players crashing to the ground but rebounding have stymied those who had expected to use the “crying over a broken fingernail” line. During the eight weeks of the AFLW season, injuries included snapped ACLs (anterior cruciate ligaments) and meniscus tears to knees, severe ankle damage, a torn Achilles tendon, a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulders. Melbourne player Meg Downie, who was knocked unconscious during one game had, moments earlier, ruptured her hamstring. The roll-call of serious injuries should raise concerns about training methods, match preparation and scheduling, as well as the fact of playing a winter sport in summer on hard-baked grounds. There should be an investigation into whether these are contributing factors and, if so, how to mitigate them.


Although critics raise the risk of injury as a reason against women playing collision sports, the players themselves are seldom risk averse. One example is three-time All-Australian Louise Knitter. Before retiring in 2014, she sustained many injuries during her 306-game career, the most serious being a ruptured pancreas. Surgeons removed one-third of the organ and she was advised not to play Australian Rules football again. However, the talented West Australian eventually returned to the game, saying she missed the physicality. Post-surgery photo courtesy Louise Knitter / Glenda Jenkins.

However, the injuries sustained have also called out different public concerns about the rigours of the sport, including from ‘John’, commenting on an online story in The Australian in February, who suggested: “…if there is an activity that girls excel in, fitness and beauty wise, and from a very young age it is Ballet [sic].” Although dancers have enviable core strength, female dancers have traditionally been directed to look as if they are wafting – that is, to disguise the physicality, strength and difficulty of their pursuit. Arthritis and chronic hip and back pain are among dancers’ long-term legacies. For spectators who bemoan the sight of an occasional woman being carried off a sporting field on a stretcher, perhaps they should acquaint themselves with the sight of any ballet dancer’s naked feet.

In the same forum that John made his remarks, ‘David’ asked, “How many claims will the AFL face in a few years from women who suffered one too many chest bumps and now can’t nurse a baby [?].” His bizarre observation raises recurring spectres in historical criticisms of sporting women: infertility and unfitness for motherhood. In his long article in 1934, Roy Connolly quoted a doctor who said that the energy needed for strenuous sports came at the expense of the “creative organs”. A female doctor quizzed in Adelaide ahead of a proposed female boxing bout the previous decade, had said that a blow could lead to “incurable disease.” Trying to sideline women from vigorous activity by suggesting they would get injured overlooks the fact that domestic violence has long been a leading cause of significant physical injury to females. And logic alone dictates that men, with their reproductive organs on the outside, would be more at risk of infertility through sporting injury than women, whose reproductive system is encased within a sturdy pelvic structure.

Another feature ignored by those concerned about injuries is that many women are drawn to sports like football because of the physicality. When Netball Australia tried, in 2015, to shrug off its ‘girly’ tag with a short-lived advertisement that ended on the image of a player with a bloodshot and blackened eye, it was making the point that netball was no longer non-contact. Australian Rules football has always been a collision sport and coaches acknowledge that female players love tackling. Many sportswomen want to pit themselves physically against opponents, to use their bodies to shield teammates and to explore the boundaries of what their bodies can do. Football administrator Debbie Lee, who played more than 300 games of senior football, told a recent documentary, League of Her Own, that football gave women “a licence to be physical.”


Side-by-side: photographer Phil Barnes superimposed a 2014 photo of Renee Forth (left) and Kara Donnellan fighting for the ball – both became AFLW marquee players – into an historic action shot of women’s football taken in Perth, 1921 to show how the endeavour of competitive women has remained constant.

Where arguments about physicality and risk have failed to deter participation, a traditional standby has been to demean women’s sport through ridicule and novelty. Pop culture references, such as in Futurama, nail the trend. In one episode, a main character is signed up as the first woman to play ‘bernsball’ (a futuristic version of baseball) by an unscrupulous agent. Leela’s excitement is qualified by the agent, who tells her: “basically you’d just be a publicity stunt. I figured a one-eyed lady skull buster might bring out the freakshow crowd.”

As early as 1895, the emergence of female soccer players was reported in the West Australian newspaper as “an interesting, if it be an absurd, development.” Relying on a witness to a game in Melbourne, the writer suggested players “sometimes … kicked the ball … stood round and giggled at it, but usually they fell over it.” When setting up the West Australian Women’s Football League in 1987, founder Joanne Huggins recalled a television crew visiting a training session, purportedly to help promote the fledgling competition. Instead, the segment that aired used circus music as the backing for a blooper reel. Belittling sportswomen happens even at the Olympic level, such as in 2012, when swimmer Leisel Jones attended her fourth Games and 110m hurdler Sally Pearson won gold. Sports reporters from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, however, named champion mare Black Caviar the ‘sportswoman’ of the year. Their claim that it was tongue-in-cheek was undercut by their naming Test cricket captain Michael Clarke the year’s leading sportsman.

It is unlikely that mainstream media would publish such a piece today—less than five years later—because the backlash would be loud and sustained. Tellingly, some of it would come from sponsors, who see women’s sport as a new frontier and are rethinking their traditional approaches of appealing to female consumers. What female footballers of all codes, along with cricketers, netballers and other sportswomen are now doing is forcing a redefinition of femininity. Appearance may remain a preoccupation with some critics but their objections are increasingly pushed to the fringes. Australian Rules forward Moana Hope was berated as a “tattooed feral” in comments following an online article about her in Melbourne’s Herald Sun on Christmas Day, 2016. However, her distinctive style is the focus of a new series of advertisements for Holden. Cereal giant Kellogg’s has also reappraised how to capture women’s attention through television ads that emphasise female strength and body confidence.

Alongside fickle commercial imperatives is a reality as old as humanity. Childbirth is an act of physical courage. A woman pushes, grunts, screams, strains and sweats, her flesh tearing as her blood stains the bedding while she delivers a new child to the world. This is what a female body can do that a male’s cannot. So, perhaps, traditionally masculine quests such as warfare, gladiatorial contests and arduous sporting endeavours are not a show of gender superiority but signs that men have always felt the need to prove themselves as equals. For if, as many have insisted for so long, a woman’s primary role is to bear children, then her triumphant physicality must be the ultimate expression of femininity.

Brunette Lenkić is co-author of Play On! The Hidden History of Women’s Australian Rules Football (Echo Publishing, 2016).