• Alicia Eva of Collingwood gets her kick smothered by Lauren Arnell of Carlton during the round 1 AFLW match between the Carlton Blues and Collingwood Magpies. (AAP)Source: AAP
For women who love sport, the first AFLW game was a statement. For so long, women have been spectators, standing on the sidelines watching the blokes do their thing. But, as Jill Stark writes, the sporting world now knows that 'we are here'.
Jill Stark

6 Feb 2017 - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 6 Feb 2017 - 12:32 PM

History is not only made, it is felt. On Friday night, I felt it.

It was in the air – that buzz of nervous anticipation, a quiet hope that change was coming.

As thousands of fans streamed into Melbourne’s Princes Park to watch Carlton take on Collingwood in the first official AFL Women’s game, I could sense that something huge was happening.

The boys club had scoffed. Nobody would watch a bunch of girls playing football. But on this balmy summer’s evening, here was proof that if you build it they will come.

Not for the first time, the entitled men in suits who run the world were wrong. Oh man, were they wrong.

On radio that afternoon, 3AW host Tom Elliott guffawed when his father, John Elliott – a former Carlton Football Club president - said he hoped Collingwood won because, “They play like a bunch of Sheila’s anyway”.

Not for the first time, the entitled men in suits who run the world were wrong. Oh man, were they wrong.

By the time the first goal was kicked, the stadium had exceeded its 24,000 capacity. Police were forced to shut the gates, leaving more than 1,000 disappointed fans outside.

There were reports of people tearing down parts of the stadium as they tried to catch a glimpse of history in the making. The power structure that had for so long locked women out was literally being dismantled piece by piece.

For women who love footy, this was a game changer. For so long we’ve been spectators, standing on the sidelines watching the blokes do their thing.

Our knowledge and passion for the game have been questioned. Our inclusion has been grudgingly tolerated by some, and aggressively opposed by others. But now it was our turn. And it was glorious. 

For women who love footy, this was a game changer. For so long we’ve been spectators, standing on the sidelines watching the blokes do their thing.

I know what sporting joy feels like – I’ve been lucky enough to watch my beloved Hawthorn win four premierships in the last eight years. But this was something quite different. The roar from the crowd when the siren sounded moved me to tears.

It was a moment that transcended sport. It took me all the way back to my childhood, when I first began to learn of my place in the world, and how there were things the boys could do that were off limits to me.

It reminded me of all the times I’d been told that my clothes, behaviour and ambitions should be genteel and “ladylike.”

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Watching these footballers line up, I thought of every woman who has carried the weight of disempowerment or been crushed by the burden of low expectation.

I thought of all the times we’ve been made to feel apologetic for taking up space we’re told is not rightfully ours, or been ridiculed for having opinions or career goals that do not fit the pre-ordained mould.

I thought of the research released just last month, that showed by the age of six, girls already believe that brilliance is a male trait and boys are inherently smarter than them.

And as I watched the players stand together to sing the national anthem, I thought of the girls who defied the odds and fought like warriors to take their place on a stage they were told they had no right to own.

Like teenager Penny Cula-Reid, who took her case to court when the football hierarchy said girls had to stop playing at age 12. How proud she must have felt on Friday night when she pulled on her Collingwood jumper as an AFL player, 14 years after taking a stand that helped this moment arrive.

A shift is happening and whether you love sport or not, it matters. Friday night was a glimmer of empowerment at a time when globally, women’s voices are being silenced and their rights curtailed.

Friday night was a statement: we are here.  

Not since the AFL’s inaugural Pride game have I been to a footy match that meant so much to so many people.

Of course, we must now pay AFLW players the same as their male counterparts, but the first step to equality is visibility. You can’t be what you can’t see. Friday night was a statement: we are here. 

Just as rainbow 50 metre lines sent a signal to the LGBTI community that they are no longer locked out of this great game, seeing strong women taking their place on the field was a message of hope to every young girl who dares to follow a dream.

I witnessed it right there in the stands behind the goals. Half way through the first quarter, a little girl, no more than four-years-old, turned to her mother and said: “Mummy, I’m going to play for Carlton”.

How heartening to know that now she can.

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