Women have participated in sport since the 19th century, but in many cases not without a struggle. Their sporting efforts have traditionally been seen as less important than men’s.
Women who played traditionally mixed sports like tennis and croquet encountered fewer difficulties, though women’s tennis was not universally supported, because it was strenuous.
Women hockey players encountered similar attitudes but managed to form women’s teams in the 1890s. Hockey was the most popular women’s sport in New Zealand until it was overtaken by netball (then known as outdoor basketball) in the 1930s. The relative ease with which women’s hockey gained acceptance may have been because hockey was not an elite men’s sport.
Early 20th-century sport
Bowls and golf historically only allowed women to play during the week so greens were freed up for men at the weekend. However, as increasing numbers of women entered full-time paid employment from the 1950s, clubs across the country had to shift their perspectives and allow full membership for women.
Women athletes once encountered sustained prejudice. They contended with arguments that women were incapable of strenuous athletic feats, and were confined to sprints, hurdles and certain field events until the later decades of the 20th century. In the 1920s women like Norma Wilson proved they were capable of athletic success, paving the way for the likes of Yvette Williams, who cemented her place as one of New Zealand’s best-ever athletes in the 1950s.
By the 1970s women could run in long-distance track and road races. In the early 1990s the success of ultramarathon runner Sandy Barwick provided lasting proof that women were capable of excelling in the most gruelling events.
Rugby’s status as New Zealand’s elite male sport meant that women’s teams were not taken seriously until the 1980s. In 2021 the Black Ferns (the New Zealand women’s rugby team) had won five of the six women’s world cups authorised by the International Rugby Board and secured other prestigious titles, but still lagged behind the All Blacks in status and funding.
Women have played cricket since the late 19th century, but women’s teams only gained decent financial support when the women’s and men’s associations merged in 1992.
Sports dominated by women
Women players dominate a small number of sports. Almost all netballers (95% in 2007) are women, and the sport has a high profile – it is very popular with spectators and television audiences. Other sports with over 90% women participants include synchronised swimming, ice skating and roller sports, all of which are minor sports.
Many sports have both mixed and single-gender events. Equestrianism is a rare example of a sport in which men and women compete on equal terms.
Ladies bring a plate, not a bike
Barbara Levido, a well-known competitive cyclist in England in the 1950s, moved to New Zealand in 1957. Upon offering to officiate and time-keep, she was told that there was ‘no bloody room for sheilas’ in cycling, and that she could help with making the afternoon tea.1
Supporting women in sport
The Hillary Commission (the government funding agency for sport until 2002) organised the Women in Action conference in 1993 to address women’s low participation in sport. Despite women’s increasing success in sport internationally, girls continued to drop out of sports in large numbers. As a result of this conference, the Hillary Commission supported the Winning Women programme, which was designed to encourage women and girls to participate more in sport.
A 1992 study found one-third of sports club members were women. Another study conducted in 2001 found that 78% of women participated in regular sporting activities.
Sports programmes like Push Play and women-only gyms have encouraged some women from ethnic and religious minority groups to engage in sport.