The contribution of women through their association with horses has been essential to development of the nation. In the days when horses were the only means of efficient transportation both wives and husbands took responsibility for the care of the animals. Horses were not merely pets or sporting animals, but were essential means of transport, trade and communication. As thoroughbred horse racing developed, women played their role in the organization and participation in the sport The lady jockeys struggle had just begun. However, it has taken many years for this fact to be recognized and appreciated. Only in the early 1980’s women were allowed to become full members of a number of race clubs. The white lines that showed the restricted areas for women were removed.
The Patrobas Affair
Perhaps the earliest recorded example of discrimination against a woman’s participation in horse racing occurred in the Melbourne Cup of 1915. The winner, Patrobas, was owned by Mrs Widdis from a farm in Gippsland in Victoria. In addition to her role as owner, she made the jockeys silks herself on her own sewing machine. But the trophy had to be accepted by her husband! As the contemporary commentators put it “the crowd wouldn’t let her through. They could not believe she was the owner.” Other commentators consider there was another reason she was not allowed through to collect her trophy.
Women Jockeys fight for their rights
Although women gained the right to train horses, Australia made slow progress in providing a level playing field for lady jockeys. A string of complaints by women eventually led in 1978 to an investigation by the NSW Office of the Counselor for Equal Opportunity. Women claimed that they were being denied opportunities solely because they were women. They were unable to get a license to ride against men. The Office took the complaint seriously and communicated directly with 25 thoroughbred racing authorities in 17 different countries. The results reflected badly on the authorities in charge of racing at the time. In every one of these countries ( geographically and culturally diverse as France, Keyna, Japan, New Guinea, Ireland, Trinidad and the USA) women had a licence to participate against men jockeys. In the United States women had been competing against men since 1969.
Queensland makes the move
Queensland gave lady riders the right to compete against the men in 1979 and the other Australian States followed rapidly. However, in one sense the lady jockeys struggle had just left the starting gate. The authorities may have given the women permission to ride but did them no special favors. Those ladies who had been riding on the “women only “circuit were not allowed any form of apprenticeship. They began their careers riding as fully fledged professionals. They had always been told that they weren’t strong enough. However, they were offered no compensation by means of a weight allowance as is given to apprentice jockeys to make up for this supposed “lack of strength.”
The battle against prejudice
The punters offered them no favors either. If a woman rider was beaten she was told she was hopeless and too weak to ride a horse out However, if she judged the speed of a race to perfection and won by leading all the way she was told “you can only win on front runners”. This tirade of abuse and the opinion the lady jockeys are just not up to it continued for many years. In some parts of the industry there is still an undercurrent of it today. It is a strong testament to the courage of the women riders that these trail blazers soldiered on against what at the time must have seen like almost insurmountable odds.
The fight isn’t over
The struggle for women to gain equal opportunity with men to further their careers and personal goals remains a continuing struggle. Certainly progress has been made. However, the modern female jockey faces some of the same hurdles, Thankfully, the path to fulfilling their dreams to become professional riders is not as rough as it once was. The early pioneers have done the hard yards. The fact that it is now easier should not deflect us from recognizing the past injustices done to those women. All they wished for was to be jockeys and compete on an equal basis with men. In some circumstances, those responsible for discrimination can hide behind their belief that the discrimination was necessary to improve the lot of those being discriminated against. There can be no such excuse for the discrimination against lady jockeys.
What is discrimination?
The lady Jockeys struggle to be able to compete on equal terms with their male counterparts has improved through legislation. But attitude to their careers and achievements is equally important. It is best summed up by the diplomatic statement made by Julie Krone while on her second visit to Australia. Julie is the greatest of all lady jockeys and one of the best jockeys of all time. She summed it up as “It would have been a lot easier if unnecessary obstacles had not been put in my way”.