The Maiden Summer
Author, journalist and academic, Nick Richardson writes about how he used Trove to tell the story of the first Australian women’s cricket Test contests with England in 1934-35.
The marriage of Trove’s newspaper texts with an assignment, essay, memoir, or book is one made in researcher heaven: the answers are there before we even know the question. But what if you’re devising something different, a project that isn’t text-based, and about finding voices from the past?
Granted, this is not a searing dilemma to be found among the existential conundrums of modern times, but it’s worth considering when a researcher considers how they are going to tell a story.
When I started researching my podcast series about Australia’s first women’s cricket Test contests with England in 1934-35, it was clear that unlike the last three projects I’d done – all books – I couldn’t rely on inserting quotes, paragraphs or telling moments from the newspapers to illustrate my argument, capture a moment in time or advance the narrative.
Although I had tracked down audio from several of the participants and journalists from the era (thanks, in part, to the National Library of Australia’s excellent oral history collection), there was still plenty of the contemporary flavour missing.
Contentious views about women and sport
This absence was particularly notable when I tried to outline the evolution of women’s cricket, tracing its origins and development in Australia that led to the inaugural Test series. What I was looking for was the commentary about women playing sport, particularly around the turn of the twentieth century. My expectation was that there would be the occasional piece of whimsy, a conventional rattling of gender stereotypes or even a barking denunciation about women partaking in organised sport.
Sadly, in many ways, my expectations were exceeded: this kind of commentary was a rich vein, and included several remarkable contributions not just from men but from the women, some of them writing in the English press that Australian newspapers were happy to re-print.
This material was important to the context of the larger story I was telling, so I had to make a judicious selection that exemplified the various ‘reasons’ there was a public resistance to women’s sport at the turn of the twentieth century.
The samples were arresting, like this one from 1896:
Woman, possessing an unnatural figure, is found yearning towards the athletic pursuits which man, with a natural figure, has always enjoyed. Almost all women have slightly deformed ribs: we needn't argue about it; we can dip into a fourth standard domestic economy book instead, and consult one of those bitterly truthful diagrams.
No one who has seen a pretty, plump girl develop into an anxious-eyed, leather skinned woman through too violent exercise of any sort is likely to maintain that athletics for women are an unmixed blessing. They are fatally easy to overdo — especially the ones in which emulation is a feature.
It was also important to highlight the counter-point to these views, valuable because of their rarity and optimism. Such as this one in Melbourne in 1910:
The emancipation of woman has grown apace in sport and the lady athletes of the various states now play their interstate matches. Cricket has been specially chosen by ladies as a game in which to display their athletic ability and in this sport they have found opportunity to challenge the criticism. “You throw like a girl’’ has been a term of contempt to many a schoolboy but no longer can it be used in derision, for this development of cricket amongst ladies has altered all this…’’
How to give contrary views a voice
The next step was to find the best way of including some of this material, without me taking on the additional role of delivering the voiceovers as well as the narration: this was a podcast about women’s sport and women’s voices were appropriately front and centre.
A cast, including former women cricketers, read extracts from Trove newspaper stories about everything ranging from why women were supposedly physiologically ill-disposed to physical activity, to the ruckus over women’s cricketers wearing culottes or long stockings. Among the voiceover recruits were several women born in England whose accents were still in place. But I made no requests of anyone to be anything but themselves. Listeners can make up their own mind about how well it works. But for me, it was integral to the purpose and spirit of the podcast. The application of modern emphasis on old-fashioned phrases or formality in reading the text weren’t problems that bothered me. The mix of voices helped build the sense of shared engagement in the broader enterprise of women’s sport. But it needed the raw material, and Trove delivered.
Pioneers take their place in history
I wanted to tell the story of the 1934-35 women’s cricket series because there was a profound lack of recognition for those pioneers. What I discovered through my research, particularly through Trove, was that those trailblazers of the 1930s had their own predecessors, those who had shaped the game, engaged with its traditions and established the precedent that sees our national women’s team claim the title of best in the world. It’s a powerful story, and a lot of it’s there, in the newspapers of the day. And in league with a range of women from across the generations, we gave voice to some of it.
Read about Australia's first women's cricket match played in front of spectators with Louise Zedda-Sampson's blog, Batter up, ladies.