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Barbara Cox, and the type of headlines women’s football attracted during her playing days. (Photos: Supplied)
Barbara Cox, and the type of headlines women’s football attracted during her playing days. (Photos: Supplied)

SportsJuly 20, 2023

The first Football Fern: Barbara Cox and the struggle for female footballers

Barbara Cox, and the type of headlines women’s football attracted during her playing days. (Photos: Supplied)
Barbara Cox, and the type of headlines women’s football attracted during her playing days. (Photos: Supplied)

When Barbara Cox joined a football team in 1973, she was one of the first women in the country to do so. She’s been fighting for women in the sport ever since. 

Auckland women didn’t play football in 1972. Auckland women cooked and cleaned and looked after the children while their husbands went to work and had fun on the weekends. Even Barbara Cox, a housewife in Mt Eden whose husband played and coached, never entertained the possibility of playing football herself.

“I thought of myself as equal to my husband, but he was obviously more important because he went to work and I stayed at home,” she explains. “So he was more entitled to do his thing at the weekends. I’ve changed now, of course, but that’s how a lot of women thought.”

So much so that Cox only began playing in 1973 because her husband, Roy, helped put together the first women’s team at his Mt Eden club. She fell in love with the game immediately, as did her teammates. “They loved the freedom. They loved the sense of confidence it gave them in their bodies and we had so much fun.”

But not everyone was so enthralled with the idea of women playing a “contact” sport. “It wasn’t just men that were against it,” says Cox. “There were a lot of women who didn’t approve of women playing and the fact that we’d be wearing shorts. Originally, everyone wanted us to wear skirts to play and it was like, ‘No, not going to happen.’”

Playing sport on the weekend didn’t mean the women gave up their other “womanly” duties. Cox remembers organising and attending training camps but leaving early to set up the drinks and food for the players. Even before an international fixture, Cox would be expected to oversee hospitality, being asked about cups of tea and biscuits, “and then 10 minutes later I’m out on the field and playing football”.

As the years went by and women’s football continued to grow, the top players were still seen as wives and girlfriends first, athletes second. “Most of the media reports tried to emphasise our femininity, ensure that they mentioned that we’d have sweethearts or husbands to show the public we were heterosexual because there was still creeping into football this thing that if you played a man’s sport, you must be a man. They’d get around it by saying, ‘you’re pseudo-men’, which was a euphemism for lesbianism. So there was an angle the media used to ensure that the public were happy that we were capable of attracting men.”

On the pitch, as captain of the New Zealand women’s team, Cox was reliably the fittest on the pitch, though she readily admits she was never the most technically proficient. But her passion for the game wasn’t limited to playing it. She wanted to coach. The only problem was no woman had ever gone through the national coaching course before.

“I went to see the director of coaching and said, ‘I’ve passed all of the qualifications to be able to go on the course, so now I’d like to come on the senior course,’ and it was like, ‘That’s for men.’

“I ended up going, but they didn’t quite know what to do with me because they hadn’t come across having females there before.”

While the course itself was hugely beneficial and her fellow students supportive of her, Cox was still A Woman on the course, not a coach. “I’d be on the field and the men would just treat me as another player. I’d get knocked around because some of them were big men, and then I’d come off, and one of the coaching staff would say, ‘Oh, can you go and sit down and have a quiet word with such-and-such? He’s had a bad session. He probably needs a bit of comforting.’ What am I, his mother?”

Cox stuck with it and became the first woman in New Zealand to earn the top football coaching certificate. She went on to coach teams throughout the country, at all age levels, for two decades.

Barbara Cox in the 70s (Images: Cox family collection)

Barbara Cox learned to play football at the same time as her daughters. Michele and Tara were barely at school when their mum joined the football club next door to their house, and not long after they joined too. Learning young and living in a household immersed in football had its obvious benefits. Both daughters went on to play for the national team, with Michele joining her mother in the team in 1987 as a 19-year-old. The two were the first mother-daughter pair in the world to represent their country at the same time and in the same team.

Despite being in the second generation of women footballers in New Zealand, Michele and Tara encountered many of the same struggles their mother faced. The athletes were no longer referred to as “Cinderellas” by the media, as Cox’s team were, but even in 1991 when Fifa held its first Women’s World Cup, the CEO of Sport NZ at the time publicly pondered whether women’s football was sport or recreation.

When the New Zealand women’s football association merged with the men’s in 2000, it was expected that the men’s game would help to boost the women’s. Instead, what little support the women’s game had was taken out and funnelled into the men’s. The board of advisers and decision-makers were overwhelmingly male, and women found themselves once again shut out of the game they loved.

It was a moment of realisation for Cox and her daughters. The health of women’s sport depended not on the number of women playing but on the number of women in positions of power, able to make decisions in the athletes’ best interests. “You take an untried male and you put all the effort into him, well that’s fine. They become really, really good. Why can’t you put the same sort of effort into a female?”

When women weren’t on boards and in the meeting rooms, they were being ignored on the field. Cox formed a group of women who took a case against NZ Soccer to the Human Rights Commission in 2004, accusing them of neglecting the women’s game and failing to enter the Football Ferns into crucial international tournaments (the team didn’t play a single match between 2000 and 2003). It wasn’t the first time Cox had taken a complaint to the HRC. When Michele was 11, she was barred from playing in the boys’ team she’d been a part of for years. At the same time, girls under the age of 12 couldn’t play in the women’s league (and didn’t necessarily want to). Michele, a promising young footballer, had nowhere to play.

L-R: Barbara, Tara and Michele Cox in 2019 (Image: Scratched)

Cox was successful in her first case to the HRC, though local clubs were very slow to implement rule changes around boys and girls playing together. The 2004 case against NZ Soccer was unsuccessful but some changes in personnel shortly after saw the focus shift back towards the women’s game anyway.

Barbara Cox, Michele Cox and Tara Pryor (nee Cox) all played football at a national level and were leaders in a young sport for women. After finishing their playing careers, each moved towards the rooms where decisions are made. Barbara became the CEO of Bill McKinlay Trust, overseeing operations at Bill McKinlay Park in Mt Wellington, Auckland. Michele was an adviser for Fifa and worked on the successful campaign to allow women to wear headscarves on the field while playing, before becoming the CEO of the New Zealand Football Foundation and the national female participation manager for New Zealand Cricket. Tara worked as a lawyer for 12 years, specialising in sports law, before becoming the COO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

In 1973, Barbara Cox played football for the first time in her life, just for fun. She stumbled on a game that had been hidden from women for decades. Since then, Cox and her daughters have worked to shine a light on the injustices and successes within women’s soccer – and all women’s sport. The Cox home was a place where girls playing any sport they wanted was encouraged. Now the women of the Cox household are continuing the work to make every home like theirs.

First published December 2019. Watch more episodes of Scratched: Aotearoa’s Lost Sporting Legends here. Made with support from NZ On Air.

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