Women and soccer

Women have been playing soccer under Football Association rules since the 1880s. The First World War saw large numbers of women join the workforce and they played soccer recreationally and competitively. A few continued to play when the men returned. After the Second World War women played intermittently but by the 1960s in Australia they were playing unofficial international matches and started a national domestic competition in 1974. Now they have a semi-professional national W-League and the national team, the Matildas, has a world ranking of six leading into the FFIA World Cup in France this year.

Women had taken part in folk football in the villages for many years, but organised games under Football Association rules were being played in Scotland in the 1880s and in England in 1895. In 1895 these games were widely reported in the Australian press, often in highly derogatory fashion.

When the men went off to fight in the First World War, women replaced them in the factories and workshops in the United Kingdom and Australia and took up soccer recreationally and as fund raisers. In the 1920s a women’s game at Everton drew a crowd of around 50,000, while games in Brisbane had around 10,000 spectators in 1922. The Football Association in England banned clubs from allowing women to play in their stadia and this had an effect in Australia but women continued to play the game when they could. This persisted through and after the Second World War, but by the 1960s women had set up local leagues in several states and in 1974 they instituted a national competition.

The game has grown in terms of participation and attendance at matches. In 2010, the Australia’s women’s national team, the Matildas, won the Asian Football Confederation championship, beating the Democratic Republic of Korea on penalty kicks after the teams’ had drawn one-all at the end of extra time. This was the first time a national team from Australia, male or female, had achieved success at this level. In 2014, the Matildas just failed to defend their title as Asian champions, going down to Japan by a single goal in the final. That performance ensured that the Matildas qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015, where they came second in their group and went to beat Brazil in round sixteen, but lost to Japan in the quarter-finals. The Matildas are once again taking part in the World Cup in France in 2019.

These significant sporting achievements have helped improve the recognition of the women’s game in this country, but it still lags well behind the men’s game in public exposure, as do many other sports in Australia where women are high achievers. The neglect of the history of the women’s game is not uniquely Australian but it is marked.

Further information

Roy Hay and Bill Murray’s A History of Football in Australia: A Game of Two Halves includes a chapter outlining the development of the women’s game since it began.

Elaine Watson’s account of the origins and early years of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association (AWSA), which was published in 1994 as Australian Women’s Soccer: The First Twenty Years, and her 1997 Women’s Soccer in Queensland: In a League of Its Own, celebrating the twentieth State Championships, give an insider’s perspective on the struggles in the post-war period to gain recognition for women’s football.

Jean Williams has a chapter on the game in Australia in A Beautiful Game: International Perspectives on Women’s Football.

Marion Stell provides a broader context for women’s football in Half the Race: A History of Australian Women in Sport in 1991.

Greg Downes completed an oral history of women’s football in Australia for his doctorate at Victoria University and Downes, Ian Syson and Hay’s, ‘Not Merely an Isolated Game’: Women’s Association Football in Australia appeared in The International Journal of the History of Sport in 2015.