World War, Mon Amour – A Brief History of Women’s Football

The story of women’s football has always had the theme of ‘them against the world’. So, it’s fitting that unrequited love began with the kiss of World War.

It’s 2014. You step out of the tube station, into the buzz and activity present in and around London even on the quietest of days. But today’s different. Today, as you weave through the crowds towards your destination, you feel that Olympic Way is an appropriate name for the path you’re walking on, especially when you catch the first glimpse of the iconic stadium. The grey November skies fade into the background; how can they not when 55,000 have made their way there despite the chilly winds? Wembley’s witnessed two record-breaking crowds during the London Olympics just two years ago – 70,584 (England-Brazil, women’s quarterfinals) and 83,000 (USA-Japan, women’s final). But those were matches for medals and glory that transcend time; this is an international friendly between England and Germany. So why should you care? Why should you stop for just a moment before you leave the crowds behind and continue on your way? Well, for starters, the last time an English women’s team drew a crowd anywhere close to that was 1920.

Now imagine Boxing Day, 1920. It’s been just over two years since the Armistice. Life’s limping back to normal throughout Europe and America. In the north-western corner of England, right by the River Mersey in Liverpool, the atmosphere is more of exuberance than austerity. Goodison Park, the home of Everton Football Club, is creaking at the seams under the combined weight of 53,000 fans. All the records from that day will show that around 14,000 more were turned away. For us now, in the 21st century, it might be incredulous to imagine that the occasion was a women’s football game – Dick, Kerr Ladies of Preston versus the St. Helens Ladies, from the neighbouring area of St. Helens. How could anyone have known then that women’s football wouldn’t see such heights of frenzy again for close to a century? No amount of foresight could have predicted it, prevented it, which is why it must have been all the more devastating when the blow fell. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How did women players find themselves there, to begin with? Surely such an atmosphere wasn’t always part of the fabric of society? Such adoration and respect for women in a sport considered a masculine arena, at a time when they were expected to be as invisible, quiet and “well-behaved” as possible. But to trace the origins of anything, the best place to start is, you guessed right, the beginning.

Football and women: Them against the world

Football for women seems to be have been encouraged by Scotland and Italy as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, though as part of local “marriage” customs where prospective grooms apparently chose their brides for their footballing ability from specially scheduled games! Over in England, Preston North End allowed women free entry to all home games starting April 1885, and other clubs followed. Preston would feature heavily in the history of the women’s game, but nobody could foresee that just yet. In a few years this scheme had to be discontinued because of its immense popularity, but if it proved anything it was that women were equally interested in the game. Everything pointed towards the logical next step, which would have been for them to be allowed to play that very game.

History of Women's Football - Women's football in 1895 (Alexander Boyd, 1854-1930)
Women’s football in 1895 (Alexander Boyd, 1854-1930)

Enter the British Medical Journal. An article published in 1895 stated that the BMJ could “in no way sanction the reckless exposure to violence, of organs which the common experience of women had led them in every way to protect”.

Originally named “Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal”, it was founded in 1840, the same year Penny Black made its debut as the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. In 1857 it was renamed the British Medical Journal which it remains to this day, still being mailed weekly to British Medical Association members. The journal started off with articles on “stillborn children, amputation at the shoulder and the climate of the Isle of Wight”, so what prompted it to issue a blanket statement on women and football remains somewhat of a mystery, but that is what they did.

Coincidentally, or because this article kickstarted a chain reaction conducive to the then social and political movements, 1895 would prove to be an eventful year for women’s football. Women with ties to the growing suffragette movement (a movement to allow women the right to vote) formed the Ladies’ Football Association. The head, Lady Florence Dixie, offered this classy, but firm rebuttal in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette – “There is no reason why football should not be played by women, and played well too, provided they dress rationally and relegate to limbo the straitjacket attire in which fashion delights to attire them.” Simultaneously, Nettie Honeyball was organising what would be the first official recorded football game between two women’s teams (women from North London faced their southern counterparts). A feminist herself, she had formed the British Ladies Football Club in 1894 to prove to the world that “women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured”. Historical books show that a “huge throng” showed up for the event and funds were raised for charity. Though the interest would die within the year, this would become and remain women’s football’s identity for the years to come, cementing their inevitable ties with politics.

World War, mon amour and the mighty Dick, Kerr Ladies FC

World War I. Not an event you would expect to be associated with anything positive. Then again, in times of uncertainty and suffering, doesn’t opportunity always arrive from unexpected quarters? Clearly, women’s football never imagined that it needed the war to even exist. Not that there was any “women’s football” back then, official or otherwise. After the formation of the men’s Football Association (FA) in 1863, the men’s game had reached professional status and was enjoying a certain popularity, though its working-class associations were still a few historical events away. Once the league and cup was suspended by the Football Association in 1914-1915, it would take 5 more years before it restarted. Out of the 5000 men playing professional football in Great Britain that year, 2000 were estimated to have signed up to fight. Amidst this absence of young and able-bodied men, emerged strong, capable women who took up previously masculine responsibilities and jobs. Though it should be noted at this point, that most of them were paid less than half on average as opposed to the men.

British & German soldiers of WW1 declare an informal truce and play a match of football between trenches, Christmas 1914

In particular “munitionette” would become one of the most popular tropes of the war for Great Britain, with up to one million having signed up for duty. These women risked their health and, at many times, their lives to ensure that their menfolk at the front had enough equipment and armaments to engage in combat with their enemies. Imagine the working conditions of such a munitions factory girl over a 12 hour or more shift – handling explosives and detonators, operating heavy machinery, lifting and pushing heavy artillery, wearing wooden clogs to prevent conduction of any possible current from all the metal, filling bullets. Imagine, in particular, a group of workers called “the Canary Girls” whose job was to fill TNT shells, which was hazardous work that not only turned their skins yellow, but also caused nausea, dizziness, vomiting, deformities, infertility and more.

In this actively poisonous environment, can you blame some of these women for making the most of their 10 and 15 minute lunch breaks and organising kickabouts? One such group of women was working for Dick, Kerr & co in Preston. Their employers realised that allowing them to play competitive sport might be good for production and community morale, and so it was encouraged (they were even paid 10 shillings per game for compensation!). This idea spread to other factories, and soon, a women’s league was organised.

 

On Christmas Day 1917, when, 5347 kilometres away in New York City, Jesse Lynch Williams was celebrating the premiere of a play (Why Marry?) that would go on to win him the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1918, 10,000 gathered to watch the inaugural women’s league game. Contested at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End, it featured the Dick, Kerr Ladies. They would go on to become the most successful women’s football teams in the history of English football, existing for over 48 years (828 games: won 758, draw 46, lost 24).

As one of the earliest known women’s association football teams in England, Dick, Kerr Ladies also set the bar for excellence and inspiration within a very sport span of time – the first women’s team to wear shorts, they represented England in the first international women’s association football game (defeating a French side 2-0) as well as the first “women’s international” versus Scotland (a resounding 22-0 victory), and it’s estimated that they raised a whopping 1,80,000 pounds over their entire history!

Women’s Football: Unrequited love

By 1921 there were about 150 women’s teams, most of them from the North and the Midlands. The games were regularly driving in crowds of over 10,000, and a large portion of match-day funds were being donated to the likes of the National Association of Discharged and Disabled Soldiers and Sailors. (So what if the women’s game was still strictly amateur?) Then on December 5, 1921, in a year when Dick, Kerr Ladies had played 67 matches to a cumulative crowd of 9,00,000, the FA released this outrageous statement –

Complaints have been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel compelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged. The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.

Further, it urged the men’s clubs belonging to the association to “refuse the use of their ground for such matches”. This time around they were backed by the opinion of Harley Street’s Dr. Mary Scharlieb who claimed that football was a “most unsuitable game, too much for a women’s physical frame.” The formation of the English Ladies’ Football Association just a few days after the ban was ineffective. It folded in over a year, and women continued to play in local parks and even dog-tracks, with no money or infrastructural support from the FA, no resources, coaches or pitches.

There are logical claims that the popularity of the women’s game was threatening the men’s at a time when the latter was shuffling towards a semblance of normalcy (only 50,018 were in attendance at the 1921 men’s FA Cup final as opposed to the 53,000 and more who showed up to support Dick, Kerr Ladies a few months later), that it had dangerous potential to be a driving force for empowerment, an entity separate to the men. Soon after Dick, Kerr Ladies played their first game, the British parliament had passed a law allowing women over the age of 30 to vote, as long as they were “wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities”. This made around 8.4 women eligible to actively affect how their country was run. But the political angle in football ran deeper than that.

The Triple Alliance was formed in 1914 between the rail and transport unions and the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. After the war, Great Britain were not the only nation facing economic depression. This necessitated a reduction in wages across the nation, including the miners. On March 31, 1921, it was announced that miners who didn’t accept the conditions would become unemployed. April 15, 1921 is widely regarded as “Black Friday” with the other two in the Triple Alliance not recommending strike action in support. Besides the seeming betrayal from the transport and rail unions, miners had to worry about supporting their families without a job. Charity funds raised by Dick, Kerr Ladies and others were used to help them during this “Miners Lock Out”. Such contributing social and political participation posed a threat.

Whatever the argument, there was no arguing the ban. It would take exactly half a century before it was lifted (coincidentally the same year that Switzerland finally allowed its women a right to vote), and another half a century after that for the FA to officially apologise on behalf of their predecessors. But tell that to the likes of Lily Parr and Alice Woods, two of Dick, Kerr Ladies’ star performers, whose team lost the support of its employers from the factory in 1926, and who in turn lost deserved opportunities to write even more of their story in the annals of history; the existing story already nowhere near as well-known as it should be. Tell that to all of those to come who would be relegated to school parks and dog-tracks, and have to pay their way in pursuit of a sport they loved. And tell that to all of those who have played the sport in the three and a half decades since the ban was lifted, but are only just beginning to find the kind of support, attention and success they deserve. There’s no doubt that it has taken far too long for women’s football to scale even half of the heights of their 1917-21 counterparts, but if anything, history has a way of redeeming itself.

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Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.