When I was young, International Women’s Day was a non-event. I guess it felt to me like an insignificant day, one that was not really acknowledged amongst the boys around me, and back then, I guess I wasn’t yet proud of being a woman.
But when I grew up, it was a totally different world.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Ali Brigginshaw, and I’m proud to say I’m one of Australia’s best rugby league players. I took home the Dally M award last year, which is the highest rugby league accolade in Australia. However, my path to my success was flawed with challenge and tarnished with heartache.
Much of that pain was born from the fact that while I was growing up, girls didn’t play rugby league — a game that gave me hope, strength, resilience and grounded me to be the person I am today, and the person I want to be in the future. That is, a proud woman who is committed to writing my own rule book, and will always stand tall in the hope that maybe my story can support women of the future.
I grew up in Ipswich Queensland, where rugby league runs in our blood. It was what we played on the weekends in the backyard, it was the game our parents watched on TV, it was what often brought us together as a community and gave so many of us something to truly love.
However, when I was just 11 years old, my dreams of playing rugby league professionally came crashing down. I have vivid memories of turning up to play a game of footy and feeling different. It was like my gender was considered inappropriate for the footy field.
At a representative carnival that year, the official match program listed me as “A. Brigginshaw (FEMALE)”. At the time I remember my gender reference felt as though it was a total handicap for the selection process, and the judges would not be choosing me because of who I was, not how I played.
A year later, I was forced to wrap up playing the game I loved, with the only reason provided to me being “you’re just a girl, you’re too small, it’s time to stop playing”. While I did stop playing rugby league for a couple of years, I never gave up on my hope to play the game I loved, and play it really well.
In my early 20s, I held down work as a delivery van driver, a builder’s labourer and at a rendering company. None of these provided me with the joy that rugby league gave me, and it was this joy that forced me to fight hard for my future. I believed I was a good player, I knew I had potential, and I refused to let perceptions around my gender get in the way of my gift.
It was only three years ago that footy with the Broncos became my main occupation, something that I never thought possible when I was growing up. The other day I was at my local shopping centre in Ipswich buying some groceries when I spotted a girl wearing a women’s rugby league jersey. My heart almost burst with pride. I know there has been an evolution. A new dawn, as some of us call it, but we have a long way to go.
So how do we progress further? For starters, let’s stop calling it “women’s sport”. Lets just call it sport. I strongly believe we need to rewrite the language of Australian sport, which is something I know the NRL themselves are passionate about doing. We need to drop the unnecessary labels and totally aim to eradicate gender bias that has become so accepted in Australian society.
We need to create more opportunity for participation and nurture little women to pursue their dreams, no matter how big or small they are. We need to teach the next generation of women to be proud, strong, resilient and passionate about change.
Let’s together show all the little women wearing rugby league jerseys that they can believe in their dreams, no matter how big they are. Never give up, take on that challenge, and know that it will give you the resilience when you’re older to overcome anything.
This International Women’s Day, let’s be the change we want to see.