On the 80th anniversary of one of the earliest recorded women's football matches, experts say women are crucial to the game's future.
The fundraiser game in August 1933 between women representing Carlton and Richmond took place in front of thousands of spectators at Princes Park, Melbourne. The anniversary is being celebrated this weekend at the MCC's Women in Football event, where Victoria University football historian Associate Professor Rob Hess and sports journalist Caroline Wilson will speak.
Dr Hess says that while the Carlton versus Richmond game achieved a high profile and was captured on film, there is evidence that women's football was played as early as 1915 in Perth, and that female teams were playing against men in Melbourne from 1923.
"History shows there has been a desire by women to be involved in the code for more than a century. The fact that nearly 50% of the crowds at AFL matches are women – something that is unique in any of the football codes globally – underlines how integral women are to the game in Australia," he said.
Efforts by women to play the game in the past were often derailed by prejudice and various institutional barriers – some of which, including poor access to facilities, funding and sponsorship – partly remain, he said. However things have come a long way in a short time since the Victorian Women's Football League was formed in 1981.
"The women's game is now gaining the momentum, self-belief and support to make it a more visible, sustainable and unified sport," Dr Hess said.
"I think the growing interest around the early history of the women's code, such as this weekend's anniversary, reflects recognition that the women's game does have a legitimate history and that it is now an important part of the future of Australian Rules football."
He said the rapidly expanding numbers of girls and women playing football in dedicated female competitions, school girl teams, mixed teams, and Auskick clinics across the country represented a remarkable trend.
"Forget western Sydney – women are the future of the game in Australia because they represent the biggest, and most enthusiastic, growth market," he said.