In the 1930s, these women brought hope and rivalry back to Australia’s oldest sporting relationship

Thousands of spectators, a six-week boat voyage and baggy skorts marked the start of women’s international test cricket as we know it.

Australia in the 1930s was in the grip of the Great Depression, and a controversial bowling technique in the men’s Ashes, known as the “bodyline series”, saw sporting relations between Australia and England plummet to an all-time low.

“Australia was dealing with trade tariff protections, they borrowed a lot of money from England during the Depression and a lot of people were saying, ‘Well, let’s not pay that back,’ said author Marion Stell.

So, when a group of women from all walks of life in Australia was asked to play in the inaugural Test cricket series against England in the summer of 1934, they brought hope of mending the fractured relationship.

Marion Stell says the 1930s was a strong time for women in sport.(Supplied: National Museum of Australia)

It’s a legacy Dr Stell, from Toowoomba in southern Queensland, unearthed 30 years ago when she began research for her book The Bodyline Fix and tracked down members of the founding team.

“A lot of women, a lot of factory women, a lot of professional women were playing it [cricket],” Dr Stell said.

“The 1930s was a very strong period in sport for women, most of the team sports got established, the national team organisations got established.

“I think there were more than a million women in Australia playing sport.”

Dr Stell said by the time the inaugural series began, women’s cricket in Australia had been booming for decades, since the first official game recorded in 1855 in Bendigo, Victoria.

Lost in history

Sir Donald “The Don” Bradman is widely acknowledged as the greatest batsman of all time, but less attention has been paid to his talented mother, Emily Whatman.

In the 1890s, Ms Whatman played in a strong intercolonial cricket competition between the main states.

“We tend to know the story of Bradman hitting the golf ball with the stump against the family water tank,” Dr Stell said.

“But in fact, his mother, Emily Whatman, bowled to him her left-arm seamers every afternoon after school.”

A black and white collage of images of women getting dressed for cricket and cricket shoes.
Women gearing up for the game.(Supplied: National Museum of Australia)

It was the formation of the Australian Women’s Cricket Council in 1931 that cemented the sport and established a large interstate competition that proved very popular.

“They would have thousands of spectators at them, and the men would come along, and they’d have their own heroines, and they’d bet on the game,” Dr Stell said.

But test matches against England remained the priority, and when the English players arrived in Brisbane in the summer of 1934, the six-week boat trip and their larger nationwide competition proved an advantage for the visitors.

Australia failed to win a game, but then returned the favour during the tour of England in 1937, when Australia won its first five games in a row.

A collage of black and white images of a group of women on a boat.
When the Australian team travelled to England in 1937, they won five games in a row. (Supplied: National Museum of Australia)

Despite the success and growth of the women’s game, it ground to a halt during World War II.

England’s tour of Australia in 1939/40 was cancelled, and it wasn’t until 1948 that they returned.

“[After World War II], women were asked to go back to the home, away from employment and back into childbearing and so we reverted back to the position of women that we traditionally know from those times,” Dr Stell said.

“What you gain in one generation, you don’t necessarily hold onto the next.”

A game of growth

A collage of a woman with a cap on smiling and a woman signing a kids ball.
Grace Harris says the women’s game has come a long way. (ABC Southern Queensland: Anthea Moodie)

When Brisbane Heat and Australian representative Grace Harris reflects on the history of her beloved sport, she can’t help but laugh.

Standing among a group of young girls who eagerly wait for her signature after a game at a packed Allan Border oval, she knows women’s cricket has come a long way.

“It’s great to see the young kids that are coming through that can honestly say that if they want to be a professional cricketer then they have the opportunity to become one,” Ms Harris said.

“If I think back to even just playing when I was 17, someone won player of the match and she won an iron.

“I couldn’t imagine playing at a high performance level in some of the outfits that I’ve seen.”

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