During Women’s Sport Week 2017, we are able to celebrate the heroic and iconic women in sport. It also allows us to take stock, to take pride in how far women’s sport has come, and to redouble our efforts to keep going – for there is still a way to go. But when we look at the progress made in women’s sport, we must salute the trailblazing figures who engaged in a struggle in times very different. In women’s sport, it’s difficult to think of a greater trailblazer than Rachael Heyhoe Flint.
Conquering male privilege in sport
In the summer of 1976, Rachael Heyhoe Flint, as captain of the England women’s cricket team, led her side out at Lord’s for an ODI versus Australia. That such a ritual today would seem routine is testament to Heyhoe Flint – until that day in August ‘76 women had been banned from the hallowed halls of the Long Room at Lord’s and certainly were not permitted to grace the famous turf.
RHF was out in the middle when England clinched an 8 wicket victory, but while that battle may have been won, the war certainly had not. Male privilege and haughty sexism in sport was commonplace, especially in sports like cricket and golf. It took a further two decades’ campaigning, of which Heyhoe Flint was right at the very heart, before women were allowed to become members of the MCC.
The campaign had really begun in earnest back in 1982, after her retirement following the World Cup, aged 42. Heyhoe Flint submitted several failed applications, each of which had been considered rather audacious by many of the old duffers at the MCC.
It was no use going in with a strident attitude saying, ‘I’m a woman, I demand the right that after 204 years you have a woman member’. I just chat to people, get them on my side, with a light-hearted sense of humour – even though it’s a very serious matter you’re dealing with – and eventually you have people like Richie Benaud, Colin Cowdrey and Sir Jack Hayward supporting the concept of women members. Rachael Heyhoe Flint
Ploughing on unbowed through number of failed applications, and with a gusto already seen in her illustrious, run-laden playing career, she continued the charm offensive – and finally, in 1999, 70% of members voted in favour of accepting women members.
She was made a life peer in 2011, adding that “it was easier to gain admittance to the House of Lords than the MCC.”
WIN THE WORLD CUP? SHE PRACTICALLY INVENTED IT
The fact she forged a career in cricket at all is quite remarkable, given the dinosaur views held by the vast majority of a male-dominated sporting landscape.
“A woman trying to play cricket is like a man trying to knit,” said the former England captain Len Hutton. Women were still playing in skirts, and Heyhoe Flint was once asked by the consistently hapless Duke of Edinburgh if the players wore coconut shells in their bras for protection. Lazy sexism, while it might seem almost laughably archaic now, was the prevailing attitude in sport, and yet Heyhoe Flint was never deterred.
If we were to write about all of her achievements in sport, in the fight for equality and in life, you’d be reading until Christmas, but it would be remiss not to note that not only did she win the World Cup, she was instrumental in its very conception.
The women’s game was still amateur in the late 1960s and heavily dependent on patronage and charitable donations. None of us had any money. I was working as a journalist at the Wolverhampton Express and Star, and the librarian there suggested I wrote to the Hayward family, who were from the town and well-known for helping ailing causes. So I penned a letter to Jack’s father Charles, but by all accounts it was screwed up and thrown in the bin, because he wasn’t interested in sport. Luckily, his secretary fished it out and gave it to Jack, because she knew he likes both women and cricket! He knew my name from reading my reports in the paper, and so he came to sponsor two England tours of the West Indies.
After the second one in 1971, I was staying in Sussex with Jack and his wife. After supper we started having a little slurp of brandy, and as the level went down the bottle, Jack suddenly said, ‘Why don’t we have a World Cup of women’s cricket?’, and that he would pay for it. I put the idea to the governing body, he sponsored the whole event, and it was as simple as that! Rachael Heyhoe Flint
Her connection with Jack Hayward didn’t end there, and later in life she fulfilled a number of roles with Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, including Vice-President.
Cricket, golf, hockey, squash – Heyhoe Flint mastered it all
She was a highly-respected and sought-after public speaker, and was a regular on BBC Radio 4’s panel show Petticoat Line. But sport was her first love. Not content with her truckload of cricketing accomplishments, including hitting the first six in a women’s Test match, she even won two England hockey caps in the 1960s, playing as a goalkeeper, and was a single-figure handicap golfer who represented Staffordshire. She also played hockey and squash for her county.
After women were finally allowed to become members of MCC in 1999, she became an honorary life member and was elected to the club’s main committee in 2004. In 2010 she became a member of the board of the England and Wales Cricket Board.
The England women’s cricket team today are salaried professionals with a year-round itinerary and similar kit, sponsorship deals and coaching staff to the men. Their matches are shown live on television and, yes, they’re still allowed to be members of the MCC.
Rachael Heyhoe Flint’s legacy is gargantuan. She passed away in January of this year, aged 77 – and so at the end of this Women’s Sport Week, let’s a raise a glass to one of women’s sport’s mightiest and most iconic figures.
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