The gendered tropes that bleed into all corners of our everyday lives can often seem particularly fertile on bookshop shelves. And so, with the gendered attitudes and discrimination towards women and non-binary people palpable in sport, a perfect storm exists. With limited participation in sport, and often at a lower level due to long term discriminatory structures, there have traditionally been far fewer books about women in sport than men.
Since 2015 we have seen real and rapid change for women both on the field and the conditions in which they are treated off of it. There have been landmark deals in Australia for increased wages and television coverage of women playing cricket, soccer and hockey. Netball (the highest participation sport for women and girls in Australia) has formed a new national league with professional level wages and free-to-air television rights. And the AFL (despite some recent missteps) brought forward the launch of an elite national competition for women to play Australian Rules Football – the AFLW.
Angela Pippos writes in her 2017 book on sexism in sport, Breaking The Mould (Affirm Press), that sport ‘is an important part of the feminist movement’ because it is a visible and accessible example of structural inequalities faced by women across all industries. Despite this, women’s sport ‘rarely gets a space on feminist news sites, and it has historically been considered too frivolous or (ironically) too masculine to be worth fighting for.’
While I’m thrilled to see these stories out in the world, the time feels right to start asking questions about the movement that publishers are suddenly thrilled to jump on board with.
When I look at the stack of books about women in sport on my desk, the first thing that stands out to me is the breadth. There is the journalistic non-fiction of Angela Pippos, and Samantha Lane’s Roar (Michael Joseph); the narrative non-fiction of Anna Krien’s 2013 Night Games (Black Inc); the memoir, essays and criticism featured in Brow Books’ new collection Balancing Acts: Women in Sport (ed. Justin Wolfers and Erin Riley); the athlete’s autobiography Life and Death: A Cycling Memoir (Slattery Media) by Bridie O’Donnell; and young adult fiction by netballer Maddy Proud, Grace on the Court (Piccolo Nero). While I’m thrilled to see these stories out in the world, the time feels right to start asking questions about the movement that publishers are suddenly thrilled to jump on board with.
In establishing their partnership with Netball Australia in 2016, Suncorp commissioned research to help understand why it is that girls, as they age, often play less sport – finding that peer pressure and concerns over body image played a significant role in their decreased confidence. Since then, through their campaign #TeamGirls, they have used prominent netballers such as ex-Australian captain Laura Geitz to communicate the benefits of team sports such as netball to help boost self-esteem and social skills, and to help prevent depressive symptoms.
In Maddy Proud’s novel, her central character Grace overcomes rivalries to create team camaraderie and friendships, and despite distractions such as starting high school and interest from boys, she keeps her strong connection to her friends and the sport she loves.
As I read Grace on the Court, I feel nostalgic for the ten-year-old me. The goal keeper who adored netball, the girl who pulled her hair into a ponytail every day like fellow tomboy Kristy Thomas from The Babysitters’ Club series, the highly competitive softballer who held first base. There have been so many children’s books written primarily for boys by male Australian Rules footballers over the years, publishers banking on the excitement of household names. But it’s the age bracket of girls heading into puberty who perhaps need books about sport the most. Similar to cricketer Ellyse Perry’s eponymous series, Grace on the Court follows the #TeamGirls tagline to ‘start playing, keep playing’ in an enjoyable and accessible way. And crucially, it tells the current generation of girls that wish to play sport professionally one day that it is possible.
There have been so many children’s books written primarily for boys by male Australian Rules footballers over the years…but it’s girls heading into puberty who perhaps need books about sport the most.
Balancing Acts: Women in Sport focuses on the other side of the equation. Across essays spanning memoir, criticism and reportage, the book brings to light the barriers to sport and sports fandom that the mothers and grandmothers of Proud and Perry’s readers faced (and continue to face). The collection is a recognition of struggle that often feels weighed down in pain. From cycling’s ‘distinctly ejaculatory’ celebration ceremonies in Emma Jenkins’ essay ‘Under The Covers’, to the focus on the display of skin in the promotion and coverage of women’s surfing rather than a critique and discussion of technique and skill in Holly Isemonger’s ‘Surfing Is My Feminist Origin Story’, stories of rejection and denigration abound.
There are plenty of ‘what if’ moments too, such as Kirby Fenwick’s highly recognisable and relatable anecdote of faking her mother’s signature in order to get out of Physical Education classes in high school, yet being brought to tears by watching in the first game of the inaugural AFLW season. For Fenwick, a redemption of sorts comes from documenting the league and its history, of sharing its narratives and giving voice to all the women who were denied a chance to play the game adored by much of this country.
When I first picked up Balancing Acts, I wondered who the book had been published for. A collection steeped in literary form seems a juxtaposition to discussions of athleticism and fandom. But as I read, I realised heartbreak and rejection express themselves in many ways. For some it is a driver. Laura Buzo’s anger that her daughter’s netball team may be treated differently than the boy’s soccer team in ‘Uniform Treatment’ is a marker of hurt but ends in change. For others, such as Katerina Bryant in ‘Fuck You, Bobby Fischer: The Emotional Labour of Playing Chess as a Woman’, the walls built to push her away may remain for life.
In the end, Balancing Acts needed to be published for the same reason we need Roar, Night Games, and Breaking The Mould on our shelves. For too long, sport was not just a barrier to women wanting to participate, it was a structure used to violently champion misogyny. Men who played sport were invincible; women were lucky just to be able to watch, and were expected to take their attentions – no matter how malicious – silently behind closed doors. We need to document what women have done in sport, but we equally need to record what sport has done to women.
We need to document what women have done in sport, but we equally need to record what sport has done to women.
Bridie O’Donnell’s tale is a particularly extraordinary one, given that she has faced both ingrained sexism and ageism on her path. After pursuing careers in rowing and triathlon, she found her true calling in her mid-30s: professional cycling. Life and Death: A Cycling Memoir documents the trials that led to her ultimate success – becoming a world-record breaker in 2016 – but also interestingly incorporates O’Donnell’s broader life experience as a medical doctor specialising in sports medicine, as well as that of her role as head of Victoria’s newly-established Office for Women in Sport.
We want biographies and autobiographies of women athletes for entertainment, to hear the stories of their journey to success. We want them to tell us about the reality of becoming an elite athlete, such as O’Donnell’s quest to find the right sport for her, one that would help her be the best. But there is a further burden on women and non-binary athletes to document what they have overcome, to break the narrative of rejection and fear. If I can do it, so can you.
Sport always has been and always will be bigger than the individuals who play. The narratives around sport give us analogies for triumph and failure, for love and heartbreak, for hope and for loss. It’s this ability to communicate the most difficult everyday emotions that makes sport so romantic to so many of us. It’s also what has made sport such a fertile ground for journalists – yes there is the play-by-play, the statistical analysis and the rankings, but sports writing has always been more than that. Sports writing made me fall in love with sports previously unfamiliar to me. David Remnick’s columns on baseball for The New Yorker could translate more than at-bats – he could explain what the game really means. I look to writers like Caroline Wilson, Samantha Lane and Sarah Olle to translate what Australian Rules means to me in ways I struggle to put into words. They understand the game I love in spite of all the blows it has dealt women along the way; in doing so, they make me feel understood.
I look to writers to translate what Australian Rules means to me in ways I struggle to put into words. They understand the game I love in spite of all the blows it has dealt women along the way.
As publishers look to jump on the women-in-sport movement, I hope they see it not as a passing fad but as an ongoing market. The last few years have seen the first real attempts at equalising sport for women in Australia – we still have a lot to catch up on. What at first looked like a scattergun approach to the publishing releases in 2018 – from YA to journalism to cultural criticism – reveals itself to be in line with the movement more broadly. Society is catching up, and seeing that women belong everywhere in sport, both on and off field. The diversity in titles shows that publishers are recognising this too.
Sport at its best provides a level playing field that builds community and breaks through inequalities. For too long the opposite was true for women, but now is the time to document the narratives of the past, and look forward to the stories from the future. In marketing the inaugural season of AFLW, the league used the tagline ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. This needs to be reflected on our bookshelves too.