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Readers are advised this article contains offensive language about Aboriginal peoples.

Fifty years ago, on New Year’s Day in 1974, Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong delighted spectators at Melbourne’s Kooyong Tennis Club by defeating American Chris Evert to win the women’s singles Australian Open championship.

The overflow crowd of 12,000 people leapt to their feet for a tremendously long and emotional ovation.

The Sydney Morning Herald reminded readers that no Aboriginal person had ever won an Australian tennis title. Of all the other major national dailies, only the Hobart Mercury alluded to race, describing Goolagong with offensive words such as “tawny” and “dark-skinned”.

On the surface, Goolagong’s victory transcended race and racial politics. Yet, she would later reflect that her stellar career, which included seven Grand Slam singles titles – sent a false message that all was okay in Australian racial politics:

See, we’re not holding them [Aboriginal people] back, we give them every opportunity.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Cathy Freeman was similarly touted as a symbol of reconciliation following her triumph at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Australians John Newcombe and Evonne Goolagong lead off the dancing at the traditional Wimbledon Ball after their singles victories in 1971.
Peter Kemp/AP

From stamps to theatre productions

This appropriation of Goolagong Cawley (her married name) as a national symbol of racial harmony is echoed in a dizzying range of commemorations.

She holds several imperial and Australian honours, including Australian of the Year in 1971, a Member of the Order of the British Empire and a Companion of the Order of Australia.

A giant tennis racket looms over her hometown of Barellan, NSW, in her honour, a bronze bust of her welcomes visitors to Melbourne Park (the current home of the Australian Open), and public artworks dedicated to her abound.

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Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai playwright Andrea James brought Goolagong Cawley’s life story to the stage several years ago and Australia Post has honoured her twice with her own stamps.

Sport has not overlooked Goolagong Cawley, either. She has been inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame.

Goolagong Cawley poses with the Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours list in 2018.
Lukas Coch/AAP

And in this anniversary year, her currency is at an all-time high: her image will appear on the Australian Open 2024 coin, as well as on a range of merchandise, designed by Lyn-Al Young, a Gunnai, Wiradjuri, Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta artist.

Goolagong Cawley is proud of her many honours – and she should be. But as historian Karen Fox argues, these honours can be used by some to cast her as a potent symbol of Australia’s supposed sporting egalitarianism. This, in turn, can help assuage white guilt over historic injustices against First Nations people, including genocide, dispossession, marginalisation, racism and exclusion.

It’s also important to remember what she had to overcome to reach the pinnacle of achievement and recognition in her sport – and the ongoing issues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to face.

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Contending with racism

Evonne Goolagong was born in 1951, which was a fraught period for First Nations people in this country. On the day she was born (July 31), a quick glance of the national media reflects the widespread racism, discrimination, ignorance and suspicion that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people faced.

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There were stories about:

  • protests in a NSW town over the decision to give “liquor freedom” to Aboriginal people

  • misgivings about the ability of Aboriginal people to accept Christianity

  • assertions that Aboriginal people didn’t actually live in North Queensland

  • a requirement for half-caste (sic) people in the Northern Territory to carry certificates of exemption

  • and an actress’s black-face make-up tips.

Goolagong grew up in the only Aboriginal family in Barellan. In an interview in 2015, she recalled her mother being worried the “welfare man” might steal her children. In a biography in 1993, she also said her father feared that “whatever he tried to accomplish, the white man would take away”.

By 1974, the rights of Indigenous people in Australians were improving. First Nations people had been granted the right to vote in all states and territories, though full equality wasn’t reached until enrolment was compulsory in 1984. The 1965 Freedom Ride had drawn attention to discrimination. The 1967 referendum meant Indigenous people could be counted in the national census. And in 1972, Gough Whitlam’s new Labor government established a royal commission into Aboriginal land rights and created the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

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Yet, terrible racism remained. When Vic Edwards, who would later become Goolagong Cawley’s coach, first spotted her talent in the early 1960s, he noted the “Aboriginal aspect might not sit well in tennis circles”.

He was right. Goolagong Cawley shrugged off most insults, but they were truly shocking. She recalled a white woman calling her the n-word while shaking hands after a match and being denied entry to a Brisbane nightclub because of her skin colour.

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Commentators frequently attributed her on-court concentration lapses to going “walkabout” – Fox, the historian, counted 18 uses of the word in Australian newspaper articles about her in 1980. Fox also recounted an anecdote that an unnamed state premier said he hoped she “wouldn’t go walkabout like some old boong” before her 1980 Wimbledon match.

These types of racial sentiments were ever-present throughout her career. As she became more successful, she also faced a repression of her heritage in the media and appropriation by white Australia. In an interview in the early 2000s, she said:

[…] the more successful I became, the whiter I seemed to become.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart) has called for truth-telling across the nation. This 50th anniversary of Goolagong Cawley’s Kooyong win provides one opportunity for this – a recognition of the racial realities behind the burnished brass, bright lights and shining prestige of the various honours bestowed upon her.

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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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