A Condensed History of Early Women’s Football

“Wouldn’t any woman kick a football if she found it in her path?”

The late 19th century was one of the most significant stages in the development of women’s football. Often with crowds of 10,000 or more, it was clear that people were willing and able to go, and watch displays of women’s football. In the Dublin Daily Express in June 1881, it was reported that “the score or so of young women who do not hesitate to gratify vulgar curiosity by taking part in what is termed a ladies’ football match appeared last evening for the second time within a week, on the ground of the Cheetham Football Club.” Such reports of early women’s football convey a general attitude that the game, although not banned in any form for women, was merely for the purpose of curiosity and entertainment.

At this stage, it is clear that the game was a comedic spectacle for the crowds, whereby the players were not able to develop the game into a tangible phenomenon that distinctly rivalled the men’s game in terms of ability or respect. Early women’s football developed as the wider Suffragette Movement was gaining traction. Individuals such as Nettie Honeyball and Florence Dixie, who founded the British Ladies Football Club in 1894, referenced the perception of a women’s perceived inferiority through the means of football. In 1895 in the Daily Sketch, Nettie Honeyball explicitly stated that “I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental’ and ‘useless’ creatures men have pictured.” Despite this, what emerged from reports of women’s football at this time was still little more than a picture of a novelty.

However, during WW1, over one million women worked in the munitions factories, challenging the gender order through their “patriotic skill work and control of machinery.” A widely circulated poster entitled ‘On Her Their Lives Depend’ sought to draw women into munitions factories by glamourising and feminising the munitions worker’s patriotic importance, to the perceived male war effort.

The factories created a space that contributed to the war effort that was not an exclusively masculine enterprise and therefore women were able to be involved in war through their supportive roles. These spaces allowed for an entry, in many cases, into sport amongst workers. Especially for working-class women, factories became a space for women to coalesce around common activities such as football, which ultimately expanded the game’s purpose beyond a mere spectacle. Football organised through the workplace was designed to foster a competitive spirit on the sports field between women who came from various geographical locations that would then be replicated back in the factories.A report from Sutton Glass Works in Lancashire states that the ‘girls’ brought “the same indomitable spirit to football as they did to munitions making.”

The game became a means to provide entertainment and fundraising for an increasingly lost and weary society and support the men at war. This recruitment and support reinforced feminine ideals, whilst allowing factories to display their patriotism. For example, a Christmas Day match in 1917 between Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and Preston North End attracted 10,000 spectators. Games were justified by factory owners as charitable events that were devoid of any real intention to progress the women’s game, and by the end of the war, football ‘exhibitions’ were estimated to have raised the equivalent of £18 million. 

The factory-centred game meant that a large proportion of women participating in football came from the working-classes. They did not have the means, time nor freedom to develop the game outside the confines and protection of their workplace, hence the phenomenon did not initially appear as a threat to the more organised and expansive male game.

Women began fulfilling their role within the community through a different avenue. Proceeds being donated to charitable funds and women were seen to be tangibly aiding their local communities. However, the sheer fact that the majority of women’s teams were based upon the premise of fundraising and factory unity meant that they were not destined for longevity. It was still considered a novelty and the Yorkshire Evening Post reported in March 1918 that “women’s football will only continue to have a vogue whilst the war is on.”

Whilst an increased number of women were playing the game and attracting spectators, this factory-organised football meant that the women’s game still remained contingent upon male demands. Factory management was still largely male dominated, whilst sporting bodies remained exclusively male. The premise of the game as a fundraising tool for the war effort meant that it reinforced the gendered dichotomy between the men as ‘protectors of the state’ versus women as ‘carers of the state’. This language of temporary care and provision whilst the men were away was also a means to subordinate any progression to professionalism.

During wartime, just as the male warrior was venerated on the WWI battlefields, “motherhood and maternity were elevated to a mythical, heroic, and quasi-religious status.” Social changes were driven by women entering male realms; first into factory work, and then through playing sports. However, this notion of charity through sport intersects with the female construction of caregiving and pushes down the competitive side that typifies the male playing of the game. Women’s movement into male dominated areas was justified in these ‘crisis’ situations yet it seemingly did not pose an overt threat to the male game.

The end of the war marked the disbandment of many factory-based teams. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies had formed originally from a manufacturing company in Preston during the war. However post-war, some teams like Dick, Kerr’s, embarked on mass recruitment movements. This signified a shift in intention from fundraising and light-heartedness to a genuine desire to compete and develop the women’s game independently.

Whilst teams like Dick, Kerr’s Ladies were managed by men, operating outside the factory meant that women had more independence in organising their game. Due to some women’s newly expendable income, football still could become a means of leisure and entertainment in a weary, post-war society.

Arguably, it was the actions of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies that acted as a catalyst from the shift in attitude towards the women’s game. The proliferation of organised female-only football clubs had a significant role in publishing the female game and their games drew in large spectatorships. Top women’s matches regularly drew in a spectatorship of around 20-30,000, whilst it is estimated that there were over 150 women’s clubs throughout Britain.

When Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played their first post-war away fixture against Newcastle United Ladies at the start of the 1919-20 season, they attracted 35,000 spectators, whilst a match on Boxing Day in 1920 at Goodison Park attracted over 53,000 spectators.

However, teams such as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies tended to be dominated by individual players, such as Lily Parr, who only had the means to play because they were young, unmarried or working in factories amongst other women, and away from home. Whenever one of these factors changed, societal expectations and difficulties often forced them to stop playing – an issue that clearly did not, and still does not, seem to affect male teams.

Pre- and during the war, a means for men to accept women’s football was to reduce it to a form of comedic entertainment. Whilst this continued,  genuine contempt for the activity was reasonably limited and it was often viewed with benign indifference or somewhat patronising congratulation, because it was framed as ‘charity’.

However, with the advent of more international matches and active and organised teams such as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, attitudes began to change and the game began to be seen as a tool for dangerously pioneering social change. During 1921, Dick Kerr’s Ladies received over 180 requests to play matches around the country. Internationals had long existed, but the crowds that the matches were attracting demonstrated that women’s football had the potential to grow post-war.

During 1920, England and France staged a series of international matches, some of which attracted crowds of over 20,000 people. These games invited further criticism of the game, for it was evident that the game was being lifted onto a higher plane than only domestically organised ‘recreation’. The Aberdeen Press and Journal reflected this changing shift from one of deference to one of resistance; that “the visit of the international team of French girl footballers to this country has revived the discussion as to the desirability of football as a game for women”.

Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. - Wikipedia

Fears of sexual deviancy permeated the rhetoric surrounding women’s football and it became assumed that the game must be a breeding ground for these perceived dangerous and immoral tendencies. The fact that women were attempting to ‘threaten’ this male sport through potential monopolisation of spectators and facilities, became a concern.

The continued popularity of women’s teams, especially Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, was evident in the large crowds they attracted. Individuals, like Lily Parr, were elevated to celebrity status in the British Press. Yet, their prowess was still placed in opposition to the ability of men. For example, referring to Parr, the Yorkshire Evening Post stated that “taking sex and age into consideration, there is probably no greater prodigy in the country than Miss Parr, the outside-left of the famous Dick, Kerr’s Ladies”.

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies became an example of how factory-based football could develop into a more coherent and popular phenomenon. In 1921, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played games in front of a total of 900,000 spectators. Under the leadership of Arthur Frankland, affectionately referred to as ‘Pop’ by the ladies, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies proved that women’s football could be as much about talent and demonstrations of skill as it was about fundraising and entertainment.

In 1920, Dick Kerr’s Ladies played 30 matches, which was considerably more than any British professional men’s team at the time. The reason why this threat is so prevalent is because football is such an inherent part of the British psyche and social fabric.

Dick, Kerr's Ladies FC: remembering the greatest women's football team in  the world – talkSPORT

As women played the game and subverted traditional societal practices, it forced men to justify the game as a masculine realm through emphasis on the inferiority of the female body and temperament. As the game became independent of factories and male influence, it became a threat in terms of reconfiguring and entering into male spaces and male practices that traditionally typified the male existence. 

In 1921, the FA ultimately decided to ban women playing football on FA-affiliated pitches, grinding the women’s game to an abrupt halt. This ban would not be lifted until 1971.

Playing had football become double-edged; it destabilised traditional female roles, whilst also representing a vehicle for women to provide support for society during the war. Inevitably, the increased surrender of resources, spectators, facilities and time to the women’s game, at a time when the men’s game was recovering from the wartime hiatus, meant that it became a tangible threat and an ‘easy’ phenomenon to quash in order to realign the gender roles that were more distinct pre-wartime.

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