Women and Rugby League: Gender, Class and Sport in the North of England, 1895-2010

Lead Research Organisation: De Montfort University
Department Name: School of Humanities


Rugby league is often portrayed as a quintessentially male sport. Yet women have been involved in the sport from it origins in 1895, as supporters, administrators and voluntary workers. They first began to play the sport in the early 1920s. Today, women can be found at the highest administrative levels of the sport and women's rugby league is played by thousands.

This collaborative research project with the sport's governing body, the Rugby Football League, aims to discover the history of women in the sport, analyse the reasons for women's historically restricted involvement and bring that history into the public sphere, through public engagement activities that will take place during the 2013 Rugby League World Cup (to be held in Britain) and as part of the tournament's ongoing legacy.

The research will be based on primary source archival materials and oral history interviews. The RFL's own extensive archives offer a rich source of documentary material. The partnership with the RFL will also enable the PhD student researcher to have access to large numbers of women currently and previously involved in the sport.

Rugby league offers a unique laboratory for us to examine a number of issues that have been explored by historians of gender, class and leisure. It is viewed both by its own community and those outside of it as being a 'masculine sport' and one that is also seen as being 'working-class', due both to its origins in the industrial centres of the north of England and the social composition of its crowds and teams.

Additionally, despite the fact that rugby league is today played throughout the UK, its roots in the north give it a strong sense of regional identity. By making use of a comparative approach in our analysis - for example, contrasting the experience of women in football (in sport) and in working-men's clubs (in leisure) - the project will make a significant contribution to the wider understanding of the nuances in the history of women's leisure lives.

The project will focus on three areas of inquiry:
1. What is the history of women playing the sport of rugby league? How does this contribute to the broader understanding of women's participation in sport?
2. To what extent have women participated in the organisation of rugby league off the pitch and what can this tell us about class and gender relations in a leisure context?
3. What does this history tell us in general about gender, class and leisure in the north of England since the late Victorian period?

Alongside these questions, the project will also result in
a. a public exhibition on the history of women in rugby league to coincide with the autumn 2013 Rugby League World Cup; and
b. a website that highlights the history of women and rugby league and also allows women to update that history continually.

The completed project will provide a thorough analysis of women's participation in what has traditionally been seen as a 'working-class male' sport, deepening our understanding of the relationship between gender, class and leisure, making a substantial contribution to the histories of gender, class leisure and regionalism. By working in partnership with the Rugby Football League, we will have a unique opportunity to study gender and sport 'from the inside' of a major sporting body. The public engagement aspects of the project - a public exhibition and an interactive website - we will also be able to highlight not only the project's historical research but also the RFL's ongoing commitment to diversity and equality.

Planned Impact

We anticipate that this research project will have an impact outside of academia in the following ways:

1. for the Rugby Football League:
a. it will assist the RFL in their strategic goal of raising awareness of the history of women and girls' involvement in rugby league;
b. it will demonstrate the usefulness of the RFL archives to researchers, both amateur and professional;
c. it will highlight to the wider community the RFL's commitment to its policies of diversity and inclusion: and
d. it will provide a key part of the cultural programme that will be organised as part of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.

2. for the broader community of rugby league participants and supporters:
a. it will establish a website that not only documents the historical record of women in rugby league but also allows women and girls to contribute to its development, thus giving the project an online legacy;
b. it will organise the first-ever exhibition to display the involvement of women in rugby league since the formation of the game in 1895;
c. it will encourage study and discussion of the history of the sport, as the project will be publicised through engagement with television, radio, magazines and newspapers.
d. it will provide material for rugby league clubs to engage with local schools and other educational institutions

3. for the the public in general:
a. it will draw attention to the unknown aspects of the history of rugby league;
b. it will highlight the hidden role played by women in the development of professional sport in the UK since the late Victorian period;
c. it will stimulate discussion about women's contemporary involvement in sports, especially those seen as 'traditionally' male;
d. it will make available materials suitable for development into teaching resources for school projects, classroom discussions and other curriculum activities; and
e. it will offer an historical perspective on women's involvement in sport that may be useful for policy-makers, researchers and decision-makers in national government, local authorities and the governing bodies of sport.


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