Julia Lee was the first woman in the UK to referee men’s rugby league, and now her story has been turned into a play. Catherine Scott meets her.
Julia Lee doesn’t like being told what she can and cannot do. So at the age of nine when she was told she couldn’t play rugby league at school she decided to referee the boys instead.
This determination to challenge the establishment saw her become the first woman to qualify to referee men’s rugby league matches in Great Britain and in Australia.
“I’m not very good when people say ‘no’,” she admits.
Now her life story and the barriers she came across to become a professional rugby league referee have inspired a play, premiering in her home city of Hull tonight.
“I met playwright Sarah Jane Dickenson at an exhibition in the Rugby League Museum, where there is a six foot picture of me refereeing with curly hair, and she said she wanted to do a play about me.”
Ref has been three years in the making and, although Julia stresses it is not autobiographical, it is inspired by her story and how against the odds she become one of the first women to referee men’s Rugby League matches, in Great Britain and Australia in the early 1990s.
Moving from the 1980s to the present day, this fictionalised, heartwarming account follows the story of a girl called Alex as she tackles the status quo in order to prove that she is as good as, if not better than, the men she works alongside.
“It does deal with some sensitive personal stuff such as my dad dying when I was young. He was in his car with his mistress, and that is in the play. But I have had to stress to my aunties, who are in their seventies that it is inspired by me and not a factual account.”
It was also very important to Julia that the play had wider implications that just telling her story. She has dedicated her life to trying to improve the lot of women not only within rugby league but within a wider community.
“It enables me to use my own experiences to support other women to build their confidence and skills to overcome barriers to succeed,” says Julia, now 50 and living near Huddersfield.
“I’m not just a survivor – I thrive on what I do and I want them to as well.”
She first became interested in Rugby League through her uncle who refused to take her as he felt the terraces were no place for a girl. This was like a red rag to a bull to a young Julia who became obsessed with Hull Kingston Rovers. When she was 17 she saw an advert looking for rugby league referees, and she decided to apply.
“I didn’t say in my letter that I was a woman and they wrote back saying they were interested in me although it took them three months to accept me, although there was very little training in those days. You were just handed a rule book and told to get on with it.”
Throughout her career she faced extreme resistance to her presence and dealt with the rigours of refereeing three to four games a week, the majority of which were men’s open-age matches.
“It was tough and some people on and of the pitch thought because I was a woman I shouldn’t be refereeing men’s matches. It did become frustrating constantly having to prove yourself, but you just had to show that you were good at your job and be fair but tough.”
She recalls being spat on by fans, having to change in a corridor and walk through men’s changing rooms because of the lack of facilities for women, and verbal abuse from spectators.
“For years I was very nervous before every match, but I am lucky I am tall and I always turned up at matches looking smart and I did have to put up with a lot of comments, but you just have to get on with it.”
After only five years she became a graded official, finishing top in the laws of the game exam and passing the strenuous fitness test. Within a couple of years, she was refereeing National Conference Premier Division, the elite of the community game, alongside the Colts (U19) and Alliance (first team reserves). Before her premature retirement, due to injury while refereeing, she refereed over 500 games with accolades in the student game and international honours in the women’s and men’s games.
Alongside her officiating career she completed a sports science degree. She was instrumental in developing the Rugby League Match Official pathway in training and development in the late 1990s. She moved to London for a while and spent a year in Australia gaining more experience.
When she retired in 2000, due to a back injury, she became a director of community projects and events for Rugby League in 2012, based in Leeds. She eventually managed to bring about changes that she could only have dreamed about as a young woman.
Although she admits to being disappointed that more women have not followed in her footsteps, she says: “It is a very demanding job – you only get Wednesday off and there is a lot of travel, that doesn’t work for women who have a family. I never wanted children but things do need to change if more women are to look at it seriously as a career.”
But she hopes Ref will be the start of a bigger community project improving the lives of young women, particularly from disadvantaged areas.
Julia founded Common Sense Initiative in 2017, to inspire and empower young people and women to unlock and achieve their potential.
“Telling my story will allow me to reach out to women who still experience discrimination in their everyday lives, and help them realise that they are in control and can realise their true potential.”
Ref premieres in Hull tonight at KCOM Craven Park and will be performed again on July 12 at Kardomah 94, in Hull before going on tour in West Yorkshire in the autumn. The play will be linked to workshops where members of the public will be encouraged to bring along stories and memorabilia relating to Rugby League. All the stories and memories will be part of a wider collection of artefacts and archives at Hull Kingston Rovers and the National Rugby League Museum due to open in Bradford in 2021. Directed by Rod Dixon of Red Ladder Theatre, Ref is part of a larger Space2 project called ‘Crossing the Line’ which aims to uncover and share the stories of women connected to Rugby League.