The first Women in Rugby League event at Huddersfield’s Heritage Quay featuring two stand out women who crashed through barriers to pave the way for others.

By ANGELA POWERS

We who love league always like to congratulate ourselves on the welcoming, friendly, diverse nature of our great sport. And as a woman who makes her living from it, I am one of many who have benefitted from that open-minded and inclusive attitude that we celebrate.

But sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and recognising that for all those like me who take it for granted, there are women who didn’t have it so easy.

That’s why it was fascinating to be at Heritage Quay this weekend to listen to the experiences of two of those women in particular, Julia Lee and Pat Crawshaw.

Julia will always be known in league circles as the very first female ref in the game.  Over a compelling hour, she told the audience about how it was her pigheadedness that got her picking up a whistle in the first place.  As a young league lover on the terraces at Hull KR, she was, she confesses, a referee abuser. One day, fired by booze, she declared that she could do better and so began her journey in the world of match officialdom.

She wrote to the RFL to enquire about becoming an official, and received a response…addressed to Mr Lee. The assumption was that the enquirer had to be male…and when she turned up to a meeting of officials discussing her application, the realisation that she was, indeed, female led to many being dismissive.

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The response to MR Lee’s enquiry

She insisted that she wanted to be an official, so they threw her in at the deep end…no training, no advice, just ‘there you go, show us what you can do’. It wasn’t an auspicious start but she didn’t give up, even when she, with many years experience, was overlooked for a refereeing stint for a man who’d been involved for just 6 months. It was a last minute appointment when the original referee had to drop out…but Julia was denied her chance because a high profile coach and ex player refused to accept her as the ref.

Julia never let the overt sexism stop her from doing what she loved, and she has carved out a successful career in rugby league since. She is now a consultant having set up her business Common Sense Initiative, aimed at inspiring and guiding others through education and rugby league.

Watch this space for more on the extraordinary Ms Lee over the year.

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Pat Crawshaw addressing the Women in Rugby League event

Pat Crawshaw never played or refereed but she did have a huge part to play in the administration of the game, and today still has an influential part to play. She has either chaired or sat on the boards at many levels of rugby league, including the Community rugby league board, Women’s Rugby League and the newly named University and Colleges Rugby League, formerly Student Rugby League. She too though, raised eyebrows when she first walked into meetings that were until then almost exclusively male. Her work over the decades has earned her the RFL Community Services Award of Merit…and well deserved it is too, say I.

She had some very positive things to say about the future for the women’s game, despite the diminishing financial support of Sport England. The support of the professional clubs in creating women’s teams was particularly good to hear, as well as the possible establishment of a women’s Super League beginning next season. That’s a development worth watching closely, with Castleford being a newly established club this season and possibly Leeds Rhinos starting a women’s team too. It bodes well for the future.

The sport is privileged to have women like Pat and Julia as champions for the female game, their energy and focus is always positive in nature, which is refreshing in a sport that does sometimes stand accused of having a chip on its shoulder. They paved the way to make it easier for the rest of us to find our own little niche in the sport.

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