Review of Women in Boots

Stell, Marion and Reid, Heather. Women In Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2020. xvii+167. 12 unnumbered pages of plates: illustrations, portraits. Acknowledgements, sources, notes, index. $24.95 paperback. $11.99 eBook.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

In Women in Boots: Football and Feminism in the 1970s, Marion Stell and Heather Reid have gathered oral histories from many members of the first women’s national soccer teams in Australia and New Zealand, telling the story of the women who played soccer in those nations in the 1970s. Along with their interview material, Stell and Reid viewed scrapbooks kept by players or their families that contained news articles and other artifacts from the period. In addition to writing about soccer in the 1970s, the authors played during that time, and have continued to be involved in the game since then.

Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2020.

Women in Boots is divided into nine chapters, and much of the narrative follows the careers of their interview subjects from their initial soccer experiences to their inclusion on one of the national teams. “Boots,” the first chapter, begins with the actual boots, and how difficult they were to procure for girls and women in the 1960s and 1970s. “Liberation,” considers the practical, rather than political, feminism of the women. “Lamingtons” outlines the struggle the women who were chosen to represent their nations had finding the resources to make the initial matches possible. “Choices” describes the often-subjective selection process that identified the players that would make up the national teams. “Scissors” is devoted to interrogating the material culture that the pioneering women have kept to remember their experiences. “Matches: In Australia 1979” describes the first round of matches held in Australia in 1979. “Desires” discusses the difficulty faced by lesbian players during a period when women athletes in general were often stigmatized as being “butch,” (108) which implied lesbianism. “Rematches: In New Zealand 1980 explores the return matches that finally decided which team and nation would be considered better. “Respect,” the final chapter, surveys the changes to the women’s game in the countries since their groundbreaking series, and follows the careers of many of the players since their time in the spotlight.

One of the more interesting experiences I had reading Women in Boots was that I had to turn to Google for definitions of many of the terms. I had less trouble with the Spanish terms in my recent review of Futbolera, but with the help of the internet, my Australian definitely improved. Although it is apparently a common term among English-speaking athletes, calling soccer spikes “boots” caused my first trip online. Lamingtons, the title of the third chapter, required another search. Lamingtons turned out to be small cakes coated with chocolate and rolled in coconut flakes (reportedly invented by Lord Lamington, then the governor of Queensland, or at least his chef), and the players sponsored lamington drives to raise money for their travels. “Copping some stick” meant being made fun of. “Witches hats” had me confused, until I learned that was a term for the orange cones set on the field and used in drills; then the comparison made sense. A “£10 Pom” was an English immigrant to Australia or New Zealand following World War II – pom was short for pomegranate, which rhymed with immigrant; or so I learned. Only one more – a “roneo” was a machine-made copy, what we of the older generation would call a mimeograph copy.

The first chapter, “Boots,” outlined the history of women’s soccer in Australia, and told the origin stories of several of the women who played on those first national teams. This, to me, was perhaps the most interesting part of the book. The ability of the girls to find teams was hampered, according to the authors, by the influx of those ‘£10 Poms’ who had brought their attitudes towards women playing soccer with them from England, where the game had been officially banned since 1921 (x). Women’s soccer was gaining popularity in Australia in 1921, with thousands of fans attending women’s matches (xvi); the British ban caused a ripple effect through Australia and New Zealand. That changed in the 1960s and 1970s, as girls and women across the West began to enjoy more societal freedom, which included the freedom to play soccer. There remained some obstacles, both social and economic. Although it often seemed to be economics more than sexism that made it difficult to find boots, the girls who shared their stories managed to get kitted out. Their memories of the desire they had to play the game, and the obstacles that some had to overcome, were fascinating stories.

Although the authors proposed to use their research to “to investigate the links between football and feminism” (x), they did not find any hard evidence that the athletes had any political motives that drove their desire to play. They just wanted to play the game that they fell in love with. According to the authors, the press was more consumed with determining whether the players and teams were an expression of feminism than were the athletes themselves (77-78). Stell and Reid’s inability to find much in the way of consciousness raising leading to athletic participation echoed the findings of Andrew Linden, who interviewed former members of the Toledo Troopers, a women’s (American) football team from the 1970s. Instead of political feminism, the authors convincingly argue that the first wave of women’s soccer players in Australia and New Zealand were living a “practical feminism,” a description coined by English historian Jean Williams. (35)

Women in Boots recapitulates many of the same themes found in histories of women’s sports in general. The athletes and their teams are chronically underfunded compared to their male counterparts. Sports such as soccer were considered to be too rough for girls and women to play. Those that did play were often described in the press in terms that implied they were not feminine, hinting at lesbianism. When the women and their teams did receive media attention, it was often provided with a mocking or patronizing tone that often focused more on their physical appearance than on their athletic prowess. As opposed to the crowds in the 1920s, Australian women played in front of only a few hundred fans, although the crowds in New Zealand in 1980 were larger. And finally, the constant concern about girls playing on largely male teams. All of these are familiar themes for historians of women’s sport.

The stories of the two international series between Australia and New Zealand demonstrated that politics did intrude into sport. In this case, the authors argue that inter-state politics in Australia saw some women included on teams, and some who struggled to gain a place. The first 1979 series, ended in a wash, with each national team winning one game, and tying the third. In 1980, the Matildas (the Australian national team) had caught up to the Football Ferns (the New Zealand national team), who initially had more experience operating as a national team. After two tie matches, the Australians won the third 3-2, and won the first Trans-Tasman Cup.

It was also interesting to follow the careers of several of the women in the final chapter, as many continued to play into their 40s, and some went into coaching. Although it was demonstrably a struggle at times, the girls from the first chapter became path breaking women who represented their nations, and paved the way for following generations of Matildas and Football Ferns.

Women in Boots was an enjoyable read. The stories of the women who formed the first national teams in Australia and New Zealand were enjoyable. Some sections were a nostalgic trip as well – stories of an entire soccer team crammed into the back of a station wagon and stories of children playing pick up games in the streets or empty lots without supervision, a contrast to the programming that marks youth sports today. Also, the constant mention of how the young girls took care of their treasured first boots.

My main issue with the book was that it was consistently written in the present tense, something I try to stop my students from doing, but that is not a major problem. It was also interesting that in “Desires,” the women, whose names had been scrupulously mentioned throughout the work, were quoted without attribution, which indicates that, though we might live in more enlightened times, declarations of sexual orientation remain difficult.

Women in Boots is not a typical academic consideration of women’s sport. But by capturing the memories of the players involved in the groundbreaking series between Australia and New Zealand in 1979 and 1980, Stell and Reid have done sport history a service. They have preserved the voices of athletes and coaches whose exploits were important. This would be a useful book for students in a course that deals with oral histories. Its appeal for wider academic audiences might not be as great, given the relatively insularity of its focus and that is written without a great deal of context. Those interested in women’s soccer, or the women’s sport in Australia and New Zealand, should enjoy Women in Boots.

Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a history of women playing tackle football in the U.S. and around the world. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963 was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

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