Words || Jade Van Dartel
“Not bad, for a girl.”
The amount of times I – and most women – heard this phrase growing up is immeasurable. More often than not, it is not spoken with ill-intent. There is no spite in any syllable. Rather, it is believed by many as a statement to encourage young girls. To help them keep their chin up as they try and keep pace in a man’s world.
It is a platitude at best. More often, insulting.
The words followed in my footsteps as I entered the world of contact sports; seven years old and spitting out my mouthguard in naïve defiance – I am surprised every day that I can count all my teeth and only a few chips. With every tackle I made, from rugby union to AFL, the boys on my team would mock me, and the dads on the sidelines would clap me on the back as they smiled through their perceived reassurance. From seven-to-eight-to-eleven years old, the frustration of constantly having to prove my worth in competitions due to simply being born female would make me see red. Being the only female in the local competition in two different sports was as isolating as it was infuriating. It was a constant uphill battle that had no end in sight.
My own personal battle reflects the persistent misogynistic restrictions placed on women playing sports that stretches back through history. While union was said to have been conceived in the 1820s in England, it was not until the end of the 19th century that any evidence of women playing the sport became evident. Even then, New Zealand’s attempt to form the first ever women’s only team in 1891 was completely halted by severe public outcry. This kind of revolt would continue as women globally attempted to pull together teams and create their own fixture. It would hold women back from creating their own World Cup until the 1990s, with the first and second tournaments being completely self-funded by the competing teams as each of the countries’ legislative union boards refused to give support.
It has only been in the past decade that the World Cup has been a consistent feature, and women’s sevens has now featured in the Olympics. Thus, while slow, society’s attitude to women in contact sports, and playing any sport nationally, has transformed. The ongoing fight that the USA women’s soccer team – the most successful team globally – is directing at the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay to their male counterparts is one of the clearest examples of this transformation. Yet, while women’s sport is publicly an image of fighting against inequality and misogyny, for the women involved it is a place of comfort. Surrounded by other women fuelled by the same desire to push themselves until they collapse, to put more numbers on the scoreboard, to win, there is a sense of home.
Despite this, there is a persisting notion that women-only sporting teams will fail as groups of women are unable to help themselves from being “bitchy.” Expert on women’s leadership and well-being, Tara Mohr, succinctly expressed the reason why women criticise each other in professional or competitive settings; “we can’t celebrate success, ambition, assertiveness in another woman if we are curtailing any of that in ourselves.” This emulates how the lengthy history of women being repressed from positions of power – from being fully autonomous beings with rights to their finances, household and body – builds in-group conflict. Striving to be in the starting line-up of any sport should create perfect grounds for any woman to push down their teammate to find their own achievement. In reality, however, playing alongside other women creates a support network that pushes as much for the desired success as it does unity.
My experience of transitioning from the only female in the local AFL competition to a fledgling Youth Girls team was jarring. I had spent so much time fighting against being good “for a girl” that to be complimented earnestly for my own personal achievements felt foreign. The other girls on my team had the same drive to prove their worth, but without any boys to be compared against it did not feel so personal when we were critiqued on our performance. While Mohr may make excellent points about how the disempowerment of women by a patriarchal society can cause us to turn on each other in frustration, she also fails to recognise how team sports create a common ground to rally against this oppression. Women in sports have always been pushed down or cruelly compared to men so there is an understanding in women’s-only sports that we have shared experiences, and that we will not stand to be ignored anymore.
I fully comprehended this when I entered women’s AFL, where there was no cap on age. Barely over sixteen at the time, I found myself sharing the field with women well into their forties. Some of them had children around my age. Not once did they say a bad word to me. They were idols to a young girl like me; fully grown into their skin and ready to pass down their worldly wisdom. All of those women put the team first, not once thinking of themselves over the wellbeing of the whole. In turn, I grew particularly attached to one woman in my last year of the sport, delighted by her bold attitude and willingness to look out for the younger ones in the team. Her maternal nature was barely tempered by her zest for winning and I wanted nothing more than to be like her when I grew up; patient, strong, and unabashedly bisexual.
Women’s sport boasts an impressive amount of openly queer individuals – one just has to note that there were around 41 openly lesbian or bisexual players and coaches in this year’s Women’s Soccer World Cup. When contrasted against the men’s competition having no out members, it becomes clear that by growing up fighting to be recognised due to their gender, women in sport refuse to be like their oppressors and discriminate for something no one can control.
Already playing in a field rife with inequality, it is easy for queer women to recognise sisterhood in the fight against misogyny. The high numbers of openly out members in my own team always spoke to me of the comfort marginalised people feel to be themselves when surrounded by similar people. This sense of home allows women to continue to rebel against the concept of being good “for a girl” and the slow retreat of homophobia and misogynism from the field makes it evident that this is a war we eventually can win.