Published March 2023
Netball star Sharelle McMahon became the fifth female athlete in Victoria to have a public statue on Wednesday, as the sculptors behind the artwork say they have been inundated with requests for more Australian sportswomen to be cast in bronze.
The statue of McMahon – who captained the Diamonds 12 times over a nearly 15-year career – was unveiled at John Cain Arena on International Women’s Day on Wednesday.
“Stats that we hear around the imbalance of representation of female athletes in statue form right across Victoria is always a bit of a shock,” McMahon said before the statue was revealed.
“I’ve been surrounded by incredibly strong passionate women from the moment I was born.”
Statues of McMahon and Olympic runners Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland are the only works of sportswomen on public display in Melbourne, while there are plans for permanent locations for statues not on display of Indigenous athlete and politician Nova Peris and AFLW star Tayla Harris’ spectacular kick.
Statues for Equality co-founder Gillie Schattner, who was commissioned to do the statue, says of the thousands of sporting nominations the project receives via its website, requests for sculptures are highest for cricketer Ellyse Perry, former tennis player Sam Stosur and Matildas star Sam Kerr.
In Victoria, requests often name women’s AFL pioneer Debbie Lee, AFLW player and former cricketer Emma Kearney, netballer Liz Watson, cricketer Beth Mooney and Paralympic swimmer Ellie Cole. However, Schattner wants sporting organisations to consult widely about whose legacies have been overlooked.
“Out of the 580 statues in Melbourne, only nine are women,” Schattner said of those on permanent display. “[Girls] really don’t have anything to look up to when there are no statues out there showcasing amazing sportswomen.”
Netball Victoria has also commissioned Schattner for a sculpture of Anne Henderson for the State Netball Centre in Parkville. Statues of the nation’s first federal female politicians, Dame Enid Lyons and Dame Dorothy Tangney by sculptor Lis Johnson, were also revealed in Canberra on Wednesday.
Former AFL commissioner Sam Mostyn, now chair of the of Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, said the legacies of current women sporting stars across so many sports, including Australian women cricketers, the Matildas, tennis, swimming, and AFLW players, as well as those who paved the way for women’s football, should be on public display.
“Debbie Lee would be a great example, she made history as the first woman player to be inducted into the Australian rules football Hall of Fame. She has played more representative football for the state than any single person, let alone just women, and was one of the extraordinary pioneers of the women’s game,” Mostyn said.
“We’ve got to come to a point where this isn’t a debate - where it is simply the right thing to do, get on with it and rectify a historical anomaly which has failed to recognise our great women athletes.”
Mostyn pointed to a statue of pioneering Australian cricket captain Belinda Clark unveiled at the SCG in January as an example of recognising the many overlooked women athletes of the past.
A spokesperson for the AFL said the organisation was looking for way to recognise the contribution of women to the sport.
“We have seen that with Michael Wilson’s iconic photo of Tayla Harris which was immortalised in bronze,” they said. “As the history of and legacy of AFLW and female football grows, the AFL will continue to work with the stakeholders on appropriately recognising the contribution of women across the game.”
Netball Victoria president Carol Cathcart said the organisation had launched a campaign advocating for greater recognition of female sporting icons in the community several years ago, leading to the statue of McMahon.
“Public spaces should represent diversity and values, and public statues are built to inspire, celebrate success and tell important stories of our community,” Cathcart said.
“It’s crucial that we ensure women are equally represented and portrayed in our history.”