“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,” said the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

As we reflect today on the 100-year anniversary of the first publicly recorded women’s match in our country, RBG’s quote proves a useful frame of reference in which we can examine our progress. 

When 10,000 fans took their seats at the Gabba in 1921 to watch North Brisbane and South Brisbane, the women’s game took its first step towards enduring change. The pioneers who took the field that day would light a spark, a spark that by 2023 when the Matildas vie for the world’s greatest sporting prize will have grown into an inferno. 

The path towards enduring change has been a struggle. The system, dominated by men, has required women to fight for their rights with the result being that the women’s game has required courage by necessity. 

Between 1921 and 1978 women across the country would try to keep the flame alive; their belief and convictions would result in the Matildas playing their first international match. It would take another 13 years before FIFA would establish the Women’s World Cup in 1991, some 60 years after the men’s tournament was first hosted in Uruguay. It would take the IOC until 1996 to make women’s football an Olympic Sport. 

When Sydney hosted the Olympic Games in 2000, the Matildas – at the suggestion of the male dominated leadership of the Australian Women’s Soccer Association – then not part of what is now Football Australia – posed naked for a calendar which netted the players less than $4,000.

Between 1996 and 2004 the National Women’s Soccer League would operate, the players received little to no pay. Despite the immense personal sacrifices required simply to play the game they loved, legends of our sport such as Lisa DeVanna, Joey Peters and Heather Garriock would emerge. 

“The [thing] that I’d think about when I was cleaning toilets was Harry Kewell… I’d just be cleaning toilets going: “Oh if only I was a boy I’d be able to not have to do this and live comfortably,” Peters would later remark. 

Following the collapse of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2004, our elite female players would have no national competition to play in. It would take the Matildas, led by the likes of De Vanna, Cheryl Salisbury and Di Alagich, to excel at the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup to re-ignite progress, with Football Australia establishing the W-League in 2008. 

The players – then not unionised – signed contracts that deemed them to be employees but did not oblige their employers to pay even a minimum salary. Team-wide earnings were capped at $150,000 – about the average wage of a male in the A-League – resulting in 80% of players earning less than $5,000 per season.

Just as the NWSL gave birth to legends of our sport, through the W-League, and often despite the obstacles placed in front of women, a new generation of stars emerged, including Lydia Williams, Sam Kerr and Elise Kellond-Knight. 

In 2015 the Matildas shocked the world and Australia fell in love with the Matildas. Soon after, Australians found out what our female footballers were paid, and the public were outraged. In the months after coming home, the Matildas were unable to reach an agreement with Football Australia and the Matildas became the first national sporting team in Australia to take strike action. 

“By that time, we’d had enough,” Tameka Yallop said of the strike action. “We knew what we wanted, and we knew there was no good reason for them to stare us down. To us, it was ‘how long are they going to drag it out’. We knew our position was researched and well deserved and that we had each other’s backs. It was now their (FFA’s) call.”

The step was a courageous one, but courage had long been a prerequisite for women in football. For the players, it had been handed down as an inheritance from one generation to the next. Their action would lead to the groundbreaking equal pay Collective Bargaining Agreement of 2019 for the Socceroos and Matildas and chart a path forward for the W-League from no pay, to decent pay. 

As we look back on the last 100 years, we will rightly celebrate the progress and pioneers; perhaps the truest of all believers. However, how we honour them becomes a critical question. We can praise their commitment and state how far we have come; both points are of course true; however, will we have the courage to reform a system that has failed women in Australia and around the world?  

A system that sees FIFA award US$400m in prize money at the Men’s FIFA World Cup but only US$30m at the Women’s. Remarkably, that pay disparity was not in 1921 but in 2019. 

We must honour the courage of those that took the field in 1921 by committing to doing better and creating a new system rather than seeing women’s football as a ‘problem’ to be fixed. The problem is the system itself. 

The Women’s World Cup in Australia in 2023 presents us with an ideal moment to honour the legacy started in 1921. The reality is that for many of the 736 players from all the nations who will represent their country on our shores in two years time, they will only be the second or third generations of players who have been entitled to access the game of football. Some will even be the first!

Progress has been made through struggle. The time is now for enduring and sustained change; the very type those who took the field in 1921 kick-started. 

We wish all those involved in the Matildas and female football in Australia a happy 100-year anniversary and honouring those who have come before to deliver a remarkable inheritance. 

Beau Busch and Kathryn Gill

PFA Co-Chief Executives