By Lydia Williams, Matildas and Arsenal WFC Goalkeeper and PFA Executive Member

In all kinds of movements across the world, it has taken just one person to be brave enough to stand up for what they believe in. It takes courage and it takes vulnerability, but those moments can inspire strength in others and bring people together.  

I didn’t know what would happen when I stood in front of the media in 2015 and announced that the Matildas were going on strike. I didn’t know how it was going to be taken. I didn’t know what our decision was going to do or cause. I was terrified, but I knew we were doing it for the right reasons. All we wanted was the same opportunities as our male counterparts. 

After the 2015 Women’s World Cup, we were coming to the end of our Collective Bargaining Agreement and needed to figure out how we wanted to move forward. It was a four-year CBA, so we knew we couldn’t just throw something together. We were aware it was coming to an end, but the discussions weren’t going ahead as planned or as hoped. 

We reached the end of our contracts at the end of the World Cup so all of us went back to our clubs – some in the US, some in Europe, some in Australia – but we were all still wondering what was happening. Then all of a sudden, we had a friendly game scheduled for us against the world champions, USA. 

At this stage, we didn’t have any contracts in place and we didn’t know what the next steps were. They were asking us to go on this trip and then come back and negotiate some more contract options. For us, the most important thing wasn’t the money – it was everything else that comes with it. What happens if someone gets hurt? What does insurance look like? How are we going to travel there? Who will we travel with? If something happens – worst-case scenario – are we covered? 

It’s not just playing a game for us. There were so many things that needed to be ticked off; all the intricate things nobody sees from the outside. There was a hesitation within the group about needing to have some solid contract or document in place so that we could feel safe and comfortable travelling all that way for the game. But there wasn’t. 

It was a time that was very emotionally-driven for everyone, especially after the World Cup that we had and everything we achieved there, only to get home where we were all basically out of a job. 

So, we asked ourselves: “what’s the next step?” We were on the phone with each other quite a bit over the next two weeks leading up to our departure. It was the point where we needed to see negotiations moving forward – getting that signed off was the priority – but we didn’t know whether that would come into place while we were there or in some kind of progressive way to make us feel comfortable. There wasn’t much communication. 

The advice we eventually got was if we don’t see anything by a certain date, the next step would be a strike. We didn’t know what to do – we’d never faced anything like this – and it was such an important tour right after the World Cup, so there were a lot of conflicting emotions and information coming out of it. The majority of us tried to figure out what we wanted to do and what we felt comfortable with; something that we were all on the same page about. We didn’t know what the right answer was, we didn’t know what the right outcome was, and we didn’t know where it would go. But we felt confident knowing we had each other’s backs and that whatever we did was going to be the best for the group.  

I was part of the PFA Committee and went to a few of the CBA negotiations, so I was across everything. The other players who were part of the PFA were overseas at the time, but I was home and the only other person who knew what was happening and was relaying all the information to the group. So because I was in the midst of it, it was natural that I stepped up to front the media that day. It was terrifying making that decision out in the public. The moment is still all a blur. 

Most of us stayed off social media and avoided commenting on anything because we didn’t know which way it would turn. The biggest thing we took from it was that even though people were talking about equality of money, for us it was always about equality of opportunity. We just wanted them to show that they believed in us, just like they did our male counterparts. We did something really cool in Canada and we believed we could do even better, but we needed their support to help us do that. 

And it worked. They saw and understood our passion and our commitment and the potential we have as a team. And with the support of the Socceroos and the PFA, we were able to move forward together. For us, that was the biggest thing: there has been solidarity and support throughout football in Australia, in all organisations and teams and people. At the end of the day, it was never just one person’s choice or decision; it was everyone banding together and saying, ‘we have your back.’ That moment was a reminder that there’s always power in numbers and that change can happen when people work together for it. 

Of course, there had been female sports teams that went on strike before us and had worked hard in the same spaces to improve conditions for female athletes. In 2007, I was part of the Matildas group who were moved from per diem to year-long contracts. The older girls in the leadership group – Cheryl Salisbury, Heather Garriock, Dianne Alagich, Alicia Ferguson-Cook – said it was a ground-breaking moment because we were actually going to be on contracts and get paid to play football.  

But 2015 felt different. Immediately after our strike, and then throughout the next two years, we saw so many more women athletes and teams using strikes to confront their federations. Norway, Argentina, Spain, the USA – there were so many teams that came out and said ‘no, we need support or we’re not going to play.’  

2015 was the year women’s football really came to life and it’s developed in a way it can’t come back from. Canada had sold-out stadiums everywhere and travellers from all over the world. That was a pretty historic time for women in sport generally, where equal prize money for tennis and surfing was being introduced, too. Now, just five years later, we have equal pay between the Matildas and the Socceroos. To be part of that wave is pretty special. 

That’s why being part of women’s sport is about more than just what you do on the field. While our job is to perform and play and train, at the end of the day, we’re human; we’re more than our sport. It’s important to drive that and have our own voice in things that need to be improved, not just in the sporting world but also what we see and can be part of elsewhere; creating better opportunities for the generations to come. 

I learned a lot about solidarity and the potential we all have to create positive change from my parents. My dad was a proud Noongar man who became a tribal elder despite being separated from his mob for many years as part of the Stolen Generation. When I was nine or ten, we were involved in Australia Day and other ceremonies that represented our indigenous culture, often coming to Canberra to perform Aboriginal corrobborees and dances outside of Parliament House. He went to the Tent Embassy a lot to support the community there, too. He never turned a blind eye to anyone; he wanted to help everyone, no matter who they were. If someone was racist to him, he was still kind to them. He wanted to treat everyone with respect and love. 

When he passed away, we had a ceremony at the Great Hall in Parliament House and the elders of the tent embassy came in and did a smoking ceremony for him. All my school friends either came to the hospital to see him before he passed or came to his memorial service. That’s what really stood out to me: if you really care about something or someone – if you recognise you have the same human needs and tendencies and vulnerabilities – it breaks down all barriers. That was the first time I realised it doesn’t matter what people’s backgrounds or views are, there are things in life that can tie all of us together. 

My mum has been just as important in showing me the importance of togetherness. She left America working on Wall Street to live in a tent in the middle of the West Australian desert, working with indigenous women who were going through domestic violence, addiction, and other difficult issues. She helped them there; she left everything behind to try and find some purpose for her life, which she found in doing good for others.  

Growing up, we would travel to communities in WA and around the Northern Territory, both of my parents helping the people living there. Dad, being a man, associated more with the men while mum associated more with the women, so I could see both of them helping those communities in the ways they knew how; it was never one or the other. That’s how they raised me: no one is better than any other person, we’re all the same.  

I have never really felt like a spokesperson, but over the years I’ve come to realise that we all have a responsibility to use our platforms for good. You go into sport knowing that you love to play, knowing you have a talent for it, and knowing you want to be the best athlete you can be. But it’s everything else around it that makes the experience worthwhile. You develop more as a person and gain a greater appreciation for life. You’re no longer “just an athlete” – you become someone who has a bigger platform to create things and start conversations that people might not be able to talk about elsewhere.  

Sport is a very limited career choice because it’s so short-lived, which is why it’s important to use the opportunity in the best way you can: to inspire, to create change, to share your passion and your knowledge with others. That way, you leave a mark on the generations who come after you and make the world a better place for them to go on and do the same.