How women’s football got its start in New Zealand in the 1920s

posted in: Heritage, News

A century ago, women’s football took some key steps towards the establishment of the women’s game in New Zealand. Fledgeling teams took part in games widely reported by the newspapers of the day.

In this special feature for Friends of Football, the captain of the first Football Ferns in 1975, Barbara Cox, MBE, shares her research on the roots of the women’s game in this country …

Main photo: Auckland Weekly News — University of Auckland Library. 

By Barbara Cox

From July to September in 1921, groups of women in the three main centres of New Zealand (Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch), formally decided to play football, rugby and rugby league.

What influenced several hundred women to form clubs, train and play these games at a particular historical moment, remains a matter of conjecture.

The publicity for one sport fuelling the establishment of another, the emigration of large numbers of single women who had played sport in English public schools and even the pictorial coverage of women playing cricket, football, hockey and lacrosse may all have been contributing factors.

World War I also undoubtedly played a part in influencing the growth of women playing sport.

Replacing male employees sent to the battlefront, many women manned factories and workplaces. If they could do ‘men’s’ jobs, then surely they could play men’s sport?

Many businesses and factories in England and America sponsored female sports teams.

There is evidence of two clothing factories involved in setting up football teams; Classic in Auckland and Aotea Ladies in Wellington.

It must be remembered that the beginning of the 1920s in New Zealand was characterised by a widespread concern for the physical fitness of its people and a decreasing population.

The death rates from WW1 and the 1918 influenza epidemic intensified this concern but in April 1921, ‘panic’ set in when it was discovered that New Zealand had the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the Western world.

Whatever the reasons, the responsibility for reversing the declining birth rate was placed firmly upon women’s shoulders.

Soon after, women started to form clubs, train and play these games in the three main centres, adverse connections between motherhood, femininity and athleticism started to appear in newspapers. Playing ‘men’s’ sports was not part of what ‘nature’ intended for women.

Vitality was a major theory in the late 19th century, suggesting that the human body could be likened to an energy field holding a limited amount of bodily fluids.

Initially, this theory focused on male seminal fluid but it did not take long before the theory was applied to women and their physical activities outside the home.

Energy had to be carefully nurtured for the needs of the mind and the body: for once used up, it was gone for good.

The Auckland Star and the Dominion both reported the comments of Miss Cowdroy, headmistress of Crouch End Girls’ High School in London: “A girl had a large store of vital and nervous energy which she could draw upon, if normally developed, at the great crisis of motherhood. That strength was a deposit account; but if she used it as a current account, as a boy could afford to do, her children would pay the bill. “

The Auckland Star and the Dominion also quoted Dr Arabella Kenealy, a member of the Eugenic Movement in England: “Athletic women produce female off–spring, mainly, and seldom have sons. When sons are born to them, these are apt to be puny and delicate, or generally emasculate or of inferior type. The cultured classes who are mainly afflicted by athletic training are failing to provide sons of the fine physique and manly talents and initiative which have set our Anglo–Saxon race in the van of evolution.”

Mr H. Longworth, chief physical instructor for the New Zealand Education Department, emphasised to school teachers how physical training was of great value in the making of a sturdy nation and how games especially should be encouraged for the growing child.

However, he is quoted in the New Zealand Herald as stating: “Girls who did not play football would, when the time came, make better mothers to healthier children than would be born of more athletic mothers.”

Photo: The Aotea Ladies of Wellington in full motion. Source: Auckland Weekly News — University of Auckland Library.

During this period, the term ‘girl’ represented any single female aged between 20 and 25 years.

Medical opinion particularly stressed how women’s bones were softer than men’s.

For good measure as well, Dr Simpson pointed out in the Dominion that women were “fatter and not muscular and not stable on their feet as men” and the element of risk was caused by the liability of women to falls.

Rugby at the time was seen as a rough game, even for men, but “if a man suffered an injury on the football field, he recovered fairly quickly, but this would not be so with women.”

Letters from the public also strongly condemned the proposed participation of women in the three sports: some reinforced medical beliefs of women’s inherent frailty, others appealed to women’s innate femininity; “Do they realise that such a game involves a sacrilege of feminine qualities …?” or “Let man tease about high heels, pneumonia blouses, lip–sticks and powder puffs. He prefers his womenfolk that way rather than acting the part of ‘muddied oafs’.”

Initially, football from a medical viewpoint appears to have been viewed with less disfavour, although several doctors all stated they could not “honestly recommend” one girl to take it up.

A number of factors may be responsible for this rather grudging acceptance of women playing football; women appeared to be already playing the game, seemingly without any drastic consequences; the game of football was seen as a less violent game than either rugby or rugby league by the public in general and the strong support from a female doctor — Dr Maud Fere — who became president of the first women’s club in Christchurch.

She publically recommended: “Football is the finest sport for girls that exists — no medical man or woman could have anything to say against it.”

However, in a letter to the Dominion, one author was quick to dispute Dr Fere’s words and was equally quick to apply a double standard to the girl footballer: “If the lady aforesaid would watch a game of ‘soccer’ next Saturday played by teams of men, she will notice that play is not of the kid glove order by any means; and that the bumps, jolts and falls are quite severe enough to injure any girls who play the game in an energetic manner; If it is not played with energy, then it is not ‘soccer’ and this is the plain truth of it.“

In other words, if a player performed in a vigorous manner, then she was likely to injure herself or others because of her innate frailty but if she played in a restrained, less energetic fashion because she was frail, then she was not playing the game of football.

A case of being damned if you do and be damned if you don’t!

One of the early games reported in the Dominion, The Press and Otago Daily Times took place in Christchurch on Saturday 24 September 1921.

The Canterbury Football Association put on a display of football designed to interest and attract a wide range of spectators to their newly acquired ground at English Park.

The programme started with a 6th-grade boys’ final, then the women’s match, followed by the senior men’s knock–out final between Nomads and Rangers.

A large crowd witnessed the first women’s representative game between Wellington and Canterbury, a match which ended in a 1–0 victory to Canterbury.

Otago Daily Times described the game thus: “At the end of the first spell, the girls were showing signs of tiredness and the brief respite was very welcome” and “there were humorous incidents in plenty which kept the crowd constantly amused throughout the game,” before ending on a note of positivity, “the crowd surged around the girls and congratulated them freely on the excellent game they had played.”

The Press advised their readers that the players “ran and kicked, tumbled, passed or missed to their heart’s contents. It wasn’t good soccer, but it was clean and refreshing.”

But then the reporter went on to claim: “The Christchurch girls did some fair foot–passing, and the Wellington defence was good. Not many ‘headers’ were attempted, and it could be just as well if this feature of the play were eliminated altogether from girls’ soccer because on a wet day a heavy ball falling from a high kick and headed off, might cause injury.”

Even the referee came in for mention: he was described in The Press as “being lenient with the whistle’ as well as” the object of sympathy as he went out to his duties, but he found them quite pleasant and not the least bit embarrassing; in fact his decisions were not questioned by any of the players…”

The Wellington players were conventionally attired in navy blue gym tunics with light blue stripes while Canterbury players wore black jerseys with wide red bands around the centre, black shorts and long stockings. Both teams wore caps of matching colours and strong, sturdy boots.

By choosing to wear shorts, the Canterbury players demonstrated their approval of the proposals circulating around New Zealand to reform women’s dress and clothing, particularly the removal of the corset.

Even The Press reporter suggested that the outfit of the Aotea Ladies from Wellington was not a suitable “rig–out” for football on such a warm day but complimented the Canterbury players on their choice of outfit, even though the “combination lent an added appearance of weight, their wide shorts did not look any way tomboyish.”

In discussions following the match, it was reported by The Press that “many who went out to the match to scoff, remained to praise” and the opinion was freely expressed that as it was played on Saturday, “soccer is a more suitable game for girls than hockey… It seems certain that girl’s football has come to stay.”

Alas, it was not to be. Although the 1920s was a significant time of social change with more freedoms for women, the strongly proclaimed medical, physical and feminine discourses promoted through the newspapers left the emerging girl footballer with little chance to establish herself.

Faced with criticism for her lack of femininity, her selfishness in not performing her duty to have children or worse still, the possibility of being unable to bear children because of playing a ‘man’s’ sport, the girl footballer, who emerged in such a blaze of publicity, vanished without a trace.

But one is left with a small tantalising doubt. If women had chosen not to play rugby and rugby league just as football for women was emerging in a relatively positive light, could football have become the national game for women?

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