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A significant moment in Australian sporting history was reported in the Melbourne Age newspaper on December 21, 2006, although if you were distracted while turning the sports pages, you probably would have missed it. Buried in Geoff McLure's Sporting Life column, under the headline 'Now it's Slater HCM', McLure listed the names of a selection of former cricket players who in 2006 were to be granted Honorary Membership of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Receiving the honour along with Slater were Saeed Anwar, Andy Flower, Courtney Walsh and 'former women's star Betty Wilson'. [1]

Betty Wilson

Collingwood Ladies Team, c.1934. Betty Wilson lower right. Image courtesy of Betty Wilson.

The significance of Wilson's invitation was not entirely lost on McLure; he did mention that she was the first Australian woman to have received the honour. Disappointingly, though, he didn't open the small window of opportunity available to him to explain why Wilson had achieved this 'first'. To do so wouldn't have taken much effort given the cornacopia of cricket statistics and information (even about women!) that exists on the world wide web. So I determined to find out what she did on my own because, even after she received the honour at the Boxing Day test, no-one had bothered to elaborate. Perhaps the fact that she was an allrounder with averages comparable to Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne might have something to do with it? Maybe it's because in one test match against England in 1958 she took a record number of wickets in an innings (7 for 7 runs). Quite possibly, it's because in that test match she became the first person in international cricket, male or female, to achieve the double of 100 runs and ten wickets (including a hat trick) in a match. In the space of an hour I had found enough information to give me cause to think that Slater, rather than deserving the spotlight in this story, was lucky to be sharing the stage with her.

This is not a reflection on Michael Slater as a person, or cricketer, but on journalists who, when there is a choice between covering men's or women's sport, will normally pick the men's story, based on the belief that the general public aren't interested in watching or reading about women's sport. [2] McLure's colleague on the Age, Greg Baum, tells us that this is because, 'In athletic endeavours, men will generally outrate women where comparisons are possible. Women are skilful, but only sometimes as strong and fast as men, and so their sporting pursuits mostly are less of a spectacle.' [3] The assumption made here is that contests involving power and speed are better to watch than those that showcase grace and skill, an assumption which can be tested. Give me Cawley vs Court over Courier vs Sampras any day of the week!

In any case, the story of Betty Wilson also serves to challenge that assumption because, according to contemporary accounts, Betty Wilson playing cricket was a spectacle to behold. Even men who watched Wilson playing in her heyday were in awe of her graceful stroke play, perfect timing and extraordinary fielding skills. I'm confident that the Australian public would find her story interesting. And, that being the case, who's to say that they wouldn't be interested in seeing what the incredibly talented women playing today can do? It's possible that if the general public have the opportunity to learn of the many and various ways that Australian women over time have contributed to what Baum calls 'Australia's highly developed sense of sporting self-worth', they might question their assumptions about what constitutes a good sporting spectacle today. Historian Clare Wright observes, 'Women's history can lead us back to familiar terrains and refract "the truth" in a different light.' [4] Maybe a look back in time, through the eyes of Australia's sportswomen, will help those who undervalue their current achievements to see things differently.

Isabel Letham

Isabel Letham, c.1916-17, surfboard riding. Weight of board 56lbs. Image courtesy of Local Studies Section, Warringah Library Services.

She's Game: Women Making Australian Sporting History aims to provide this opportunity. The project pays tribute to the many Australian women over time and across the country who have played, coached, volunteered, administered and supported sport, at all levels. Women who were literally world-beaters, such as champion squash player Heather McKay are profiled; just to remind people how dominant they were, while community sportswomen and volunteers, like Ronda Kimble, are acknowledged for the indispensable work they do in establishing sporting organisations at a local level. Long defunct organisations like the City Girls Amateur Sports Association are featured in order to show how, even in the 1920s, involvement in organised sport didn't just provide physical fitness benefits to participants but advanced the important feminist aim of fostering the development of leadership skills in girls and young women. Decima Norman and Fanny Durack struggled to blaze trails in international sport that made participation easier for the women following them. Women who are closer to us in time, such as Petria Thomas, who battled depression and still became a champion, are also included. Importantly, we have prioritised the stories of women who, with the passage of time, have been overlooked, like Isabel Letham, the first person in Australia to surf in the Hawaiian style and, of course, Betty Wilson. Special teams, like the 1956 netball team, receive attention, as do places, like the McLeod Country Club in Brisbane, the only golf course in the southern hemisphere to be owned and operated by women.

Sometimes a story comes along that begs to be told because it confounds our assumptions in a delightful way. How wonderful to come across a tale of plenty, where you expected to find lack. How marvellous to find autonomy and spirit, where you presumed there would be dependence and deficiency. [5]

She's Game aims to present as many of these confounding, wonderful stories of autonomy and spirit as possible, so that all Australians can be inspired by what women making Australian sporting history have achieved, and be encouraged to join in and make some sporting history of their own. Who knows: with their assumptions confounded, maybe even a few journalists will take delight in the spectacle?

  1. Geoff McLure, 'Now it's Slater HCM', The Age, 21 December 2006.     Return to text  
  2. See Chapter 6 of About Time! Women in sport and recreation in Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, September, 2006.     Return to text  
  3. Greg Baum, 'Count me out; women must earn coverage', The Age, 5 August 2006.     Return to text  
  4. Clare Wright, 'Let women's history put you to the test,' The Age, 8 March 2007.     Return to text  
  5. Ibid.     Return to text