Why are we still ignoring women’s rugby?

The Black Ferns are New Zealand's premier rugby team if ‘winning’ international tournaments is counted as the measure of success, so why do we keep ignoring them? asks the University of Auckland's Jennifer Curtin

Early on the morning of August 10, 2017, the Black Ferns played their opening match against Wales in the Women’s Rugby World Cup. The Black Ferns have dominated the game at the international level for much of the past 20 years, winning the IRB-sanctioned Women's Rugby World Cup four times in succession between 1998 and 2010. Indeed, they are New Zealand’s premier rugby team if ‘winning’ international tournaments is counted as the measure of success.

So it is disappointing to see that one of our leading newspapers featured a story about a NZ franchise team, a Super Rugby wrap up, and one about South African rugby before they got to reporting the stunning 44-12 win by the Black Ferns over Wales in Dublin (broadcast live on Sky Sport for those of you who want to watch these magnificent women in the remainder of the competition).

History tells us that such ambivalence is not new. How many New Zealanders know that prior to 1998, the New Zealand women’s team featured in three non-sanctioned international tournaments, winning their first in 1990? Although they did not reach the World Cup final in 2014, the Black Ferns have since beaten World Champions England in a number of test matches, even though the latter are on professional contracts. To those who follow women’s rugby it will come as no surprise that in 2015 there were 19,792 female rugby union players in New Zealand, representing a 30 percent increase from 2012 and making women’s rugby the highest area of player growth in the sport.

The absence of women’s experiences as players of rugby is partly the result of an obsession with formal histories and almanacs that record only games that have been officially sanctioned. This is understandable, but it has meant that advent of women players is usually assumed to be a modern trend, emerging spontaneously in the 1980s, from some kind of vacuum. Indeed the New Zealand Rugby Football Union did not accept responsibility for women's rugby until 1992, despite the women’s game flourishing in a number of provinces around the country, and despite considerable lobbying from those involved with organising the women’s game.

The general consensus was that the game was too rough and dangerous for the fairer sex, and likely to destroy their dignity.

In fact, the National Library’s archive Papers Past, and club histories from the New Zealand Rugby Museum tell a different story. ‘Girl footballers’ have appeared and reappeared for over a century.  For example, in 1891, we find possibly the first case of an attempt to organise a women’s team. Mrs Nita Webbe placed advertisements in several of the major newspapers around the country seeking women candidates for a football team – interested women could apply, with parental consent, and if selected, she would pay their costs to travel to Auckland. The goal was to train 30 young women, divide them into two teams of fifteen each and after several weeks of practice, tour the Australian colonies and then return to play a series of matches around New Zealand. They were to wear gymnasium suits with a jersey, knickerbockers and short skirts, and their hair was to be cut short.

Mrs Webbe’s efforts to organise a women’s game were greeted with disgust and dismay by many in the local press, and the associated media storm lasted near on six weeks. Not all were dismissive; some commentators were curious. But the general consensus was that the game was too rough and dangerous for the fairer sex, and likely to destroy their dignity.

Ultimately, the 1891 tour did not go ahead and the story of the team disappeared. But women players did not. In 1898, the establishment of a ladies' football club was proposed in Ngāruawāhia but there is no record of what resulted. Spectacle games begin to emerge and these become more prevalent during World War One, most often in order to raise funds for the war effort. These women players were connected with local rugby clubs: the single and married ladies of the Combined Sports Bodies Committees played at Athletic Park, Wellington in May 1915 and a match sponsored by the Oriental Club and endorsed by the Wellington Rugby Union occurred the same month. Similar games were held elsewhere in Wellington, on the West Coast and in other parts of the country.  Because many of these women’s games were played for a good cause such as the war effort, or returned soldiers, they attracted little or no criticism. 

However, other games appear to be unrelated to fundraising. In 1922 a women’s team from Horowhenua was photographed, formally posed with 17 players lined up in three rows, arms crossed, wearing male-style uniforms – jerseys, shorts, and boots – with some in socks and others in stockings. Three male officials from the Horowhenua Rugby Union are also seated, and there appears to be a female ‘chaperone’. It is fair to assume they had an opposition team to play, given the official-looking nature of the team.

There is no longer any excuse to ignore women’s rugby, or to forget its earlier existence. The Black Ferns, and their predecessors, have a history that is long and strong and worthy of recognition.

Around this time there was also a push to establish a Wellington Ladies’ Rugby Football Club. In July 1921, a group of women met and decided to opt for rugby (with scrums) over soccer, and won the support of the Poneke Club which offered the women their gymnasium on Sunday mornings. Some male officials endorsed the decision to choose rugby given it was the ‘national game of the Dominion’. This Wellington initiative coincided with the creation of a Parnell Ladies League Football Club in Auckland. In response, the media solicited the opinions of both medical practitioners and church ministers. The reported conclusion – it was medically dangerous and morally abhorrent for women to play rugby. 

The women concerned were not silent on the topic. Phyllis Dawson told readers that women desired exercise and physical freedom. She asked, "Which is better for a band of young girls: to be out in the open air, playing games or sitting in a stuffy drawing room with no other aim in view but to look genteel?’

No further information on the longevity of the ladies clubs appears to have been recorded; spectacle games continue while officially sanctioned games remained hidden from view, assuming they did take place. So although New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893, in the realm of sport, and rugby in particular, enlightenment was limited.  If undertaken in a decorous fashion, without serious intent, and for a ‘good cause’, then women’s rugby was tolerated. But attempts by women to organise and grow the game in a formal sense were rarely recorded and ultimately forgotten.  

There is no longer any excuse to ignore women’s rugby, or to forget its earlier existence. The Black Ferns, and their predecessors, have a history that is long and strong and worthy of recognition.

A full version of this article, Before the ‘Black Ferns’. Tracing the beginnings of women’s rugby in New Zealand appears in the International Journal of the History of Sport:

Jennifer Curtin's research specialities include women and politics and she has an additional interest in women’s engagement with rugby.

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