The Forgotten History of Women’s Football
This summer, England’s women’s football team competed in the European Championships. As the Women’s Super League has grown in recent years, recently receiving a cash injection intended to double participation by 2018, the profile of women’s history has risen. European championship games were made available to stream on Channel 4’s website, whilst all of the England games were shown during prime slots on Channel 4. However, the growth seen in recent years gives the impression that the women’s game, and its growing popularity, has been a recent development. The longer-term history of women’s football in this country gives an insight not only into the development of the women’s game, but into the history of gender inequality more broadly.
Histories of gender in modern Britain often find themselves overshadowed by narratives of suffrage, centering around the apparent ‘victory’ achieved in 1918 with the Representation of the People Act. Alongside the conventional criticism levied at the disproportionate emphasis placed on this milestone, namely that the vote was restricted to women over the age of 30 meeting property qualifications, a focus on the political achievement of suffrage ignores the continued, and even enhanced, discrimination women faced in the field of sports and leisure.
As Claire Balding has explored in the recent Channel 4 documentary, commissioned to support coverage of the European championships, before 1918 the women’s game had been extremely popular. For example, in 1917 two rival teams from munitions factories in Preston, Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helens, played a match to a crowd of around 10,000 people. As women were increasingly working in typically ‘male’ jobs, such as in the factories, during the Great War, football teams were formed as a means of team-building, and often fundraising for charitable causes. Before the end of the First World War, and the Representation of the People Act, the women’s game had therefore not only been widely supported and well attended, but embedded into local communities.
In 1921, wary of the growing popularity of the women’s game, the Football Association banned women from playing on FA affiliated pitches. This forced the women’s game onto racecourses and public parks, where the same professionalism and support was difficult to replicate. Thus, as suffrage campaigners celebrated their, albeit limited, political victory, progress with regards to equality in football was being reversed.
The banning of women’s football was not only about gender, but also about class. Women’s teams, such as Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helens, were often formed in working-class communities. The banning of women’s football on FA affiliated grounds therefore amounted not only to an attack on women, but an attack on working-class women, whose pastimes appeared to transgress middle-class notions of ‘respectability’.
Along with this policing of ‘respectable’ behavior, the history of the women’s game is also a history of sexuality. For example, Lily Parr, star striker for Dick Kerr ladies, was known to live with her partner, Mary. 6ft tall, commonly seen smoking and drinking brown ale, Lily transgressed gender norms. Whilst playing football was of course not inevitability synonymous with the desire to engage in same-sex relationships, women’s football provided a site in which queer relationships could be explored; a context in which transgression of gender norms was arguably accepted to a greater extent than in wider society.
Thus, in its 1921 ‘ban’ of women’s football, the FA robbed the women’s game of its history, a crime which has implications for the game today. Whilst it is often assumed that the inability of women’s football to generate the large crowds and loyal followers of the men’s game today is a product of its infancy, it is arguably a result of the momentum taken away by its prohibition during the early 20th century. Recovering the history of women’s football not only gives us important insights into the way class and sexuality have informed gendered experience, but provides an opportunity to restore its heritage and increase respect for the women’s game today.