In the mid-19th century women settlers in New Zealand did not play sport. The clothing of elite Pakehā women limited breathing and movement. The ideal feminine beauty was soft, delicate, and pale. Feminine conduct required gentleness and grace, restraint and cooperation rather than the vigorous play of muscles, aggression and competition. Public activity for elite women was approved of only if it was decorous.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sport contributed to immense changes in women’s lives. Constricting clothing was loosened and lightened, and what was seen as an attractive appearance came to include a healthy glow. Public activity and strenuous physicality became more acceptable for girls and women.
By the 21st century women played every sport men did, competing at the highest levels.
Women settlers began to play sport in the 1870s. First croquet, then lawn tennis, swimming, golf, cycling, hockey, and netball (then known as basketball) were tried. Many of these games were new to New Zealand. This engagement in sometimes vigorous activity was often commented on, not always approvingly.
When women tried rugby, cricket and cycling there was particularly strong opposition. Women who played sport, especially sports already strongly associated with men, were seen as masculinising themselves and upsetting the balance between the sexes.
Access to swimming pools and playing grounds was a constant problem. When women shared facilities with men, it was almost always on a less-than-equal basis.
Early 20th century: sporting activity increases
By the 1910s, sport and physical activity was supported by a number of authorities, primarily as a means to a traditional end: ensuring that women were healthy, competent mothers. Despite this approval, women’s sport continued to suffer from limited access to sports grounds at school and post-school levels.
Frustrated in 1920s Auckland by limited access for women to sports grounds and facilities dominated by men, the local YWCA started fundraising. It was so successful that it was able to outbid men’s sports groups, gaining control of a 6-hectare sports ground. Men took a back seat, admitted only ‘as far as space would permit’.1
There was an explosion of sporting activity amongst less privileged working girls and women after the First World War. Often organised by the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), company-based teams competed with each other locally and nationally. YWCA buildings started to include gyms for female members and promote fitness classes for women.
Decision-making and coaching
Men often dominated decision-making in women’s sports. When a player proposed in 1908 that officers of the New Zealand Women’s Hockey Association should be female, the suggestion was ridiculed. A century later, women continued to be under-represented at decision-making levels in many sports. A breakthrough occurred in 2016 when Farah Palmer, former women’s rugby captain, became the first woman elected to the New Zealand Rugby Board (NZR).
A 2007 study of gender and sport found that of the 328 people serving on national sports boards that year, 87 (27%) were women. There had been no change in the gender balance of national sports boards since the mid-1990s. In 2011, 65% of New Zealand Olympic sport boards reached the 20% female-membership threshold of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (compared to 52% of boards in 2007), while 13% of the boards had no women (22% in 2007). By 2015 the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s efforts to involve women as sports managers and team members were recognised at the IOC’s annual Women in Sport awards. The World Trophy Award recognised, among other things, the development of a women coaches’ network and the profiling of successful women athletes as role models for girls.
Blokes and sheep
When a New Zealand encyclopedia was published in 1984, it showed 156 photographs of men, including 15 of individual All Blacks (plus a group photo), 19 of sheep, and only 16 of women. By then, this ‘rugby, racing and beer’ approach was past its use-by date, but for decades it had been the public face of popular New Zealand culture.
Netball is a sport which developed out of basketball in the late 1950s. In New Zealand women are 95% of players and all of the coaches. It is the most popular team sport played by girls and women. The international success of the Silver Ferns national netball team, keen regional competition between elite teams and high levels of participation by women in club netball have ensured significant commercial sponsorship, high levels of spectator and television interest, and decision-making by women players and coaches. Involvement on the board of Netball New Zealand has been a route for some women into sports leadership in other fields.
Sportswomen have been far less visible than sportsmen. When the numbers playing are taken into account, the space and time given to women’s sports in newspapers, radio and television has been far less than that given to men’s sport.
Three decades of research in New Zealand showed that male sports players receive on average 80% of media coverage, females less than 10%. While the Black Ferns national women’s rugby team has been very successful internationally, they still have less status, lower funding and much less media attention than the all-male All Blacks team. A breakthrough in financial support for elite women rugby players occurred in March 2018 when New Zealand Rugby agreed to professional contracts of $40,000-45,000 per year for 30 of the best 15-a-side women rugby players. The amount they will receive is much lower than male national rugby players get; however, it is the outcome of effort over many years to address gender inequalities in New Zealand rugby.
Women cricket players also receive much less financial support and media attention than male players, although their situation improved to some extent when the women’s and men’s cricket associations merged in 1992.
While women were initially seen as lacking the strength and endurance needed for athletic completion, by the late 20th century they were engaging in a full range of track and field events, including marathons. Some of New Zealand’s most successful athletes in the late 20th century were women distance runners such as Lorraine Moller, Anne Audain and Allison Roe. By the early 21st century, Beatrice Faumuina and Valerie Adams had established themselves as stars in international field events such as discus and shotput.
In the early 21st century the limited coverage for women was heavily skewed in favour of these elite female athletes, while mid-level players were often ignored or marginalised.