Canberra may have been officially named in 1913, but it wasn’t until well into the 1920s that community services, like sporting clubs and facilities, were developed and made available for public use. The arrival of public servants and their families from Melbourne to accompany the Federal Legislature in 1927 put pressure on the Federal Capital Commission (FCC) to develop amenities that would turn the settlement into a community. The Social Services Association was established in 1926 to help the city planners gain feedback on what needs were most pressing for the small but growing community. Sports grounds and facilities were at the top of the list of needs and wants. Women, through a special Social Services Officer, made sure their voices were heard on this matter.

Margaret Whitlam at the opening of the 1973 Season of the Canberra Croquet Club

Margaret Whitlam at the opening of the 1973 Season of the Canberra Croquet Club. Canberra Croquet Club Records. ACT Heritage Library.

In a town where men outnumbered women by 3 to 1 in the early days, it is not surprising that sports such as rugby, cricket and Australian Rules Football were organised quickly and enthusiastically. But even though they were small in number, the women of Canberra were determined to claim their right to play sport as well. On 15 November 1927, sixty women representing a wide variety of sports attended a meeting called by Miss D.M Hawkins, the Women’s Social Service Officer, to discuss the formation of a Women’s Sports Association. Areas of specific concern were raised, like access to the existing tennis courts, the progress of girls’ hockey teams that were already competing, and the formation of cricket teams and basketball (what we would call netball) teams. But the primary purpose of the meeting was to gauge the interest in sport amongst Canberra women and then feed it back to the Federal Capital Commission. Given that Lady Butters, wife of the Chief Commissioner, was in the chair, there was no danger that the feedback wouldn’t be heard.

Between them, Miss Hawkins and Lady Butters were quick and formidable workers. A series of further public meetings and consultations with the FCC ensued. By 5 March 1928, newspapers were reporting that a ground and many other facilities would be provided for women, so that ‘the fair sex’ might no longer ‘feel neglected’ in their pursuit of sport and recreation in Canberra.Over the next two years, regular meetings were held by the Women’s Sports Association to call for the formation of basketball, cricket and hockey clubs, for access to tennis courts and bathing facilities. The establishment of a branch of the YWCA in Canberra in 1929 created more options and opportunities for women’s sport and recreation. So it was with a good deal of confidence that Miss D.M Hawkins, on the occasion of a party to wish her well before she migrated to New Zealand urged those in attendance to ‘stick together’ so that they can ‘put Canberra on the map of the women’s sporting world.’

Canberra women playing bowls

Canberra women playing bowls. Canberra Women's Bowling Club Records. ACT Heritage Library.

Over eighty years later, Miss Hawkins would be proud of the legacy she helped to create. The City of Canberra is home to elite sportswomen, such as champion basketballer, Lauren Jackson, and influential administrators like Heather Reid, CEO of Capital Football. It is represented at a national level by teams like the Canberra Capitals in the Women’s National Basketball League and the Canberra Darters (Netball ACT) in the Australian Netball League. Its women lawn bowlers were not only fierce competitors in their own right, but vital to the sustenance of men’s organisations which, in the early days, would only allow women to play as associates if they made sandwiches for the men on the weekend!

But perhaps, most importantly, Canberra is home to the largest number of ordinary weekend warriors in all Australia. According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics report, published in 2012, 78.8 % of Canberra women regularly participate in Sport and Recreation, 9.7% more than the nearest ‘rival’ Tasmania at 69.1%. If we combine this record with the important role that Canberra has played as a developer of elite talent, through the Australian Institute of Sport, and the development of policy to promote and encourage women in sport through the Australian Sports Commission’s Women’s Sports Unit, then it most certainly is not overstating it to say that women have been very important in putting Canberra on the map of the sporting world, full stop!

Nikki Henningham

Women's Stories

Read more about women in sport and sports organisations in Canberra in the Australian Women's Register.