A Short History of Early Women’s Football: A Reflection following the Lionesses’ Momentous Win

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

Nearly 3 years ago, I started writing my university dissertation on the implications of the 1921 ban on the development of women’s football. Despite all the change that I had already seen in the women’s football space over the years, the general essence of the piece was that the game had been handed such a disservice in being banned for 50 years that the narrative was still pretty gloomy when comparing it to the men’s game. 

It’s not an overstatement to say that the Lionesses’ win has changed that narrative. In ‘soft’ terms – front page spreads, players reaching a million social media followers, discussing the game with your male work colleagues in the lift – the impact has been profound. Now looking at women’s football through this historical lens and seeing the trajectory of where we got to on Sunday, we have to take the right actions to build on that momentum. There’s a long way to go, but I’ve never felt more positive about the direction of travel for women’s football and women’s sport.

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With the Lionesses’ win, many people have been pointing to the fact that when an England team last won a major tournament in 1966, women’s football was banned. The 1921 ban ultimately defined the course of women’s football history. It institutionalised the game as a male arena that women could not easily permeate. It embedded societal attitudes with regards to gender stereotypes in one of the biggest cultural stages in the country.

As Gail J. Newsham argued of the ban, “the chauvinists, the medical ‘experts’ and the anti-women’s football lobby had won – their threatened male bastion was now safe.” It was this resetting of the public attitude towards women’s football and the overt difficulty to foster the game, which stunted its development in the proceeding years. 

The end of physical barriers was signified when the FA ban was lifted in 1971, but the ban fundamentally stunted development of women’s football. Therefore, women have had to continually negotiate discourses of femininity and respectability.  It was not until 1997 that the FA outlined its intentions to develop the women’s game from its grassroot base, despite it being the top participation sport for women and girls in England.  

The Lionesses’ win and a successful Women’s EURO tournament has undoubtedly broken the mould of the women’s game having to always operate against the backdrop of male domination. However, when focusing on this history, we often forget the period of prosperity and development that women’s football had pre-ban. 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 back 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.” 

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At this stage, the game was mostly a comedic spectacle for the crowds who were rather perplexed at the notion of women out of a muddy field, wearing dresses and kicking a ball. Players were not able to develop the game into a tangible phenomenon at this point that distinctly rivalled the men’s game in terms of ability or respect. 

Early organised 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 and laughed at.” Despite this, what began to emerge from reports of women’s football at this time was still little more than a picture of a novelty.

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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.

These factory 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 comedic 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.”

Through this, the women’s game became a means to provide entertainment and fundraising for an increasingly lost and weary society and support the men at war. For example, a Christmas Day match in 1917 between Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and Preston North End attracted 10,000 spectators. 

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Games were justified by factory owners as charitable events that were devoid of any real intention to progress the women’s game, but by the end of the war, football ‘exhibitions’ were estimated to have raised the equivalent of £18 million. 

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 somewhat of 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.

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.

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. 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. 

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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. In 1920, Dick Kerr’s Ladies played 30 matches, which was considerably more than any British professional men’s team at the time. 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; saying 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”.

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.

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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.

Alice Barlow, who played for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, told the BBC in 2005 that the ban was a shock and they “could only put it down to jealousy. We were more popular than the men and our bigger gates were for charity.”

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Playing football had 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.

It is difficult to say how women’s football may have developed if it were not for the 1921 ban, but we can say that it achieved its aim in re-allowing traditional male spheres, such as football, to re-flourish. The post-war climate of restoring traditional ways of life was exemplified in the rebuilding of the men’s football leagues and growth of internationals once again. The development of women’s football was never a part of this re-establishment. 

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Women’s sport more generally remained within the confines of amateur and charity. It would not be until the modern day whereby external factors would allow for the development of the game; such as more women with a disposable income and increased television coverage of female sport. 

When considering the development that has gone into women’s football since the lifting of the ban (the investment, the existence of female pundits, the sponsorship deals, the TV coverage, the professionalisation of the sport, the ad campaigns denouncing sexist abuse), it has all lead to the healthy conclusion of the Lionesses’ win and it is why the win was so utterly historic for women’s football, women’s sport, world football and this country. It shows the indisputable sum that attention + investment = success and development.

2 thoughts on “A Short History of Early Women’s Football: A Reflection following the Lionesses’ Momentous Win

  1. Now she’s roaring. . Bout time xx

    3PB Barristers London, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Winchester and Oxford.

    This email may contain privileged information. If you are not the intended recipient please inform me and please destroy the email / its contents.

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  2. So glad you did this. Go Ms Emm xx

    3PB Barristers London, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Winchester and Oxford.

    This email may contain privileged information. If you are not the intended recipient please inform me and please destroy the email / its contents.

    Please note that I am regularly in court for the whole working day and that I might not be in a position to read your email / respond to it the same day.

    If you need to contact me urgently please do so via my clerks: robert.leonard@3pb.co.uk sarahjenking@3pb.co.uk Tel: 01202 292102

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