Rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen, according to the old saying – but a groundbreaking research project aims to reveal the hidden history of women in the sport.
Cigarette card from 1895
Experts from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) have joined forces with the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham to launch the first comprehensive study of women’s involvement in rugby, both on and off the pitch.
The research, which will also chart the modern-day growth of the women’s game from its emergence in universities in the 1960s and 70s, will be overseen by Professor Tony Collins, of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at DMU. He expects the study to show women have had a deep involvement in the sport which stretches back more than a century.
“The story of women and rugby has been hidden from history,” said Prof Collins. “Women have played a huge part in the sport, whether it is playing the game, organising it or supporting it.
Women's Varsity game between DMU and Leicester Uni at Tigers' stadium
“But nobody has carried out this research before,” he said. “We will start with a blank page. This research is hugely important to the study of the development of the sport.”
A Collaborative Doctoral Award studentship awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council will fund a PhD candidate to carry out the research. The successful candidate will scour the treasure trove of material held by the World Rugby Museum and search newspaper archives for evidence of the development of the women’s game.
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The first known female rugby player was a schoolgirl called Emily Valentine, who played in a team formed by her brothers at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where her father was the headmaster. She is recorded as scoring a try in a match held in 1887.
An England v Scotland exhibition match of ‘lady footballers’ staged in Liverpool in 1881 involved scoring goals following “touchdowns”.
Two press cuttings reflecting male-dominated media reaction to women's rugby in the 1920s
A series of cigarette cards issued in 1895 in Liverpool show women playing rugby. Four years earlier, a tour of New Zealand by a team of female players was cancelled due to a public outcry.
As women’s football grew in the First World War, some charity rugby matches were staged in Wales. And in the 1920s and 30s in France, women played a game called barette which was similar to rugby union.
The women’s game as we know it today first flowered on the pitches of British and French universities in the 1960s. By the 1970s, it was starting to find favour at colleges in the United States.
The team at the-then Leicester Polytechnic was one of the 10 founder clubs of the Women’s Rugby Football Union (WRFU) in 1983.
“We know a little of the history of women in the game,” said Prof Collins. “We know there were sporadic opportunities for women to play in the 19th century. And there were one or two other attempts during the First World War, when women’s football became established. In a number of rugby-playing areas, women were encouraged to play football instead, because it was seen as less masculine.
“But while there wasn’t a great deal of involvement in the playing side until the 1960s, women were involved as spectators and in organising the game.
“The earliest known player is Emily Valentine, but maybe we’ll discover someone else. You never know what you are going to find when you embark on a research project like this.”
The study will raise wider questions of society and gender. “The International Centre for Sports History and Culture has got a really good track record of cutting edge research into women in sport,” said Prof Collins.
“We have had PhD students researching the role of women in cricket, women in American football and women in rugby league, for instance. This research will help us throw light on the way women’s role in society has changed. It will open a window on prevailing attitudes to women.”
▪ The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup will run in Dublin and Belfast from August 9 to 26.
Posted on Wednesday 28th June 2017