Hard-hitting autobiography by former England rugby captain Catherine Spencer can help more women to speak out

Fiona Tomas
Catherine Spencer following England's defeat in the 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup final - AFP

When former England rugby captain Catherine Spencer launched her autobiography earlier this month, she bucked a trend by adding her name to a tiny pile of books written by former sportswomen.

On Twitter this week, she seriously pondered whether Mud, Maul, Mascara could overtake Eddie Jones’ My Life and Rugby in the sport’s bestseller rankings. Should she succeed, it would be an incredible feat for someone who had to crowdfund to tell her story.

Spencer did not have a ghostwriter for her book. She was determined to use writing as a form of therapy to assuage the constant pain of never becoming a World Cup-winning captain, having missed out on glory in both the 2006 and 2010 finals, before hanging up her boots the following year. England would go on to win the tournament in 2014.

She makes no bones about being the “go-to spokesperson” in women’s rugby, a sport in which players are not particularly renowned for ruffling feathers for fear of reprisal by their clubs and unions.

Earlier this month, Welsh fly-half Robyn Wilkins casually mentioned in a post-match interview how her team were forced to have cold showers after their Six Nations defeat by Ireland. The video, which was viewed more than 136,000 times on social media, sent the women’s sport Twitter-sphere into meltdown. And yet, had Wilkins not innocuously mentioned the showers, would others have dared to do so?

Spencer in action against Wales in 2007 - Getty Images

In its dawning professionalism, women’s rugby remains a tight-lipped affair. Not one player in this year’s Women’s Six Nations has called out the zilch prize money on offer.

Is the most high-profile women’s rugby competition in Europe – carrying less prestige than only the World Cup – not worthy of some form of remuneration, however small?

Spencer, who decried the Women’s Six Nations for living in the shadow of the men’s tournament, was never paid to play for her country – which, she insists, was always an honour.

She remained poor financially throughout her career and was officially unemployed during the 2010 World Cup – and grew weary of playing the passive supporting role at black-tie rugby events.

On one occasion she was asked to draw a raffle and smile sweetly, while fellow male internationals were interviewed next to her on stage.

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The women’s game has advanced considerably since then and, to some degree, has freed itself from the formalities that once dogged it. When she was the first England women’s rugby player to rock up at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) made Spencer wear a rugby suit, not a dress.

As suggested by her book’s title, which reflects her battle to unearth the best waterproof mascara, femininity and rugby is a theme she explores throughout, having spent years trying to reconcile the two as a woman in a traditionally male sport where her “big arms” bore the brunt of comments from men she dated.

Perhaps most intriguing is her unprecedented critique of the RFU’s failure to capitalise on the momentum after England won the World Cup in 2014, when it ploughed resources into the sevens game at the expense of XVs. It led to the country’s worst ever Six Nations finish the subsequent year, in fourth place.

“Why are we pushing sevens so much? Because it is less muddy? More feminine?” Spencer audaciously writes, adding that the prioritisation of the shorter code of the game went against the inclusive type of rugby which welcomes all body shapes and sizes.

In an era when sportswomen are becoming activists, speakers and bastions of equality, Spencer’s book is timely. Think of the United States women’s football players and their ongoing fight for equal pay, or Maria Sharapova criticising the Brisbane International for its “second-tier event” feel after the men’s ATP Cup forced its matches off the main court.

Think of footballers in Spain’s top women’s division who, this week, secured historic league-wide contracts after more than a year of negotiations over pay.

Sportswomen do not always have to be household names to speak out, but it is the principle of doing so that matters.

Here’s to Spencer’s writing going some way to inspiring other women from the world of sport to do just that.