Sunday, June 30, 2019

Ladies' Football -- then and now

First off—confession time. I’m not a football fan. In fact, I can think of many things I’d rather do than sit and watch football. And the list of things I’d rather do than be compelled to actually play the game probably includes cleaning the oven. Or the drains.

The closest I ever got was playing rugby in a friend’s back garden when I was about seven. A particularly enthusiastic tackle brought the side of my head into close contact with a concrete clothes post, resulting in the yellow top I was wearing turning a glossy shade of red down half the front and most of one sleeve.

It did not inspire me to take up the game.

But, on the plus side, it gave me an early insight into how much minor head wounds bleed, which has since proved very useful research.

I can appreciate any kind of physical skill, however, and the fact that the England Lioness team have done so well in recent years has not been lost on me. Finding a picture of the current squad was no easy task, it has to be said. I did a quick search to see if I had as much difficulty finding a pic of the current men’s team. A pageful popped up right away.

the 2019 England Women's Football Team
I understand that the women’s team has only recently begun to attract decent sponsorship. Most of the capped players still have day jobs. And I don’t mean as ‘brand ambassadors’ or promoting the latest instalment of their autobiography.

It is certainly only within the last twelve months, at a guess, that the women’s game has started to feature with any regularity on the nightly news—in the sports segment, that is, rather than the man-bites-dog, leave-’em-laughing bit at the end of the bulletin.

If women’s football is finally getting the recognition it deserves, then it’s about bloody time.

Things kicked off (see what I did there?) in 1917. The First World War had been going for three years by this point. Women were the workforce of the country. Conscription, introduced in 1916, ended whatever grumbling there might have been about women doing men’s jobs.

Working in munitions factories was hard, dirty, and dangerous. As a respite from the conditions, women began to kick a ball around whenever they had the chance. The bosses, seeing an opportunity to raise morale and keep the workforce healthy, encouraged them.

On Christmas Day 1917, at the Preston North End football ground, two teams of ‘Munitionettes’ held a match to raise funds for wounded soldiers. One was from Coulthard’s Foundry. The other was the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC from Preston.

Dick, Kerr Ladies won 4-0. The game was attended by an amazing 10,000 spectators and raised the equivalent of £50,000 in today’s money. Obviously, there was a huge demand for such events. Before long, Dick, Kerr Ladies were playing two charity games a week across the country. (And yes, they still held down their twelve-hour-shift day jobs.)

After the war, the ladies’ football teams were expected to disband with the return of the menfolk. Not so, Dick, Kerr Ladies. Instead, they managed to borrow anti-aircraft searchlights from the War Office so they could play evening games and completed a tour of France in 1920 from which they returned unbeaten. The same year, they drew a capacity crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park in Liverpool, with more than 10,000 would-be spectators turned away.

Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, with Lily Parr holding the ball
But the popularity of the women’s game did not please the Football Association. In 1921—the year that Dick, Kerr Ladies played 67 games watched by a total of 900,000 fans and centre-forward Florrie Redford scored 170 goals—the FA banned women’s teams from using league grounds. Florrie Redford, who had also scored one of the four goals in that first game against Coulthard’s, may well have seen the writing on the wall. She was invited to join a French club in 1920 and spent much of her football career playing in France.

Florrie Redford

Various reasons were given for the FA’s ban. It was argued by some doctors that it posed a physical risk to women’s bodies. Many thought it vulgar and unfeminine. Rumours circulated that not enough of the money raised actually went to charity. The most probable reason, however, was the worry by the FA that the women’s game would take away spectators—and therefore gate money—from the men’s game.

Many of the women’s teams fell by the wayside after the ban but Dick, Kerr Ladies kept going. They fielded such players as Lily Parr, who scored over 1000 goals during her thirty-year career and was the first woman to be inducted into the Football Museum Hall of Fame, although—tellingly, perhaps—not until 2002. This year, a bronze statue is planned of Lily outside the National Football Museum in Manchester.

Lily Parr
The ban on women playing on FA league grounds was not lifted until the mid-1960s but at that time it had done its job and women players were the forgotten side of the game. Indeed, when a women’s team known as the British Independents went to Mexico for the World Cup against the home side in 1971, no British fans attended. Instead, more than 90,000 Mexican spectators roared for the underdogs, who lost the game and received more than a few serious injuries, but won the hearts of the crowd.

the 1971 British Independent team in Mexico

And now, nearly fifty years later, the women’s game is finally getting back in the news. It almost makes me want to go and watch them play…

This week’s Word of the Week is pasquinade, meaning a lampoon pasted in a public place. It comes from the statue of a male torso unearthed in Rome in the early 1500s, which was displayed near the Piazza Navona. It was nicknamed 'Pasquino' by the locals, who used to dress it up on certain festival days. Local academics would attach Latin verses to the statue, which gradually gave way to satire. By the mid-17th century, these postings had become known as pasquinades in English.


  1. Thanks so much for this post. Another example of despicable male chauvinism. I, too, am not a football fan, but have thoroughly enjoyed watching quite a few of the World Cup games. I think the women's game is more interesting tactically and, needless to say, there are fewer stupid histrionics. Bravo Lionesses. The USA team has faced the same discrimination in terms of sponsorship and pay, but I think the tide is turning strongly. The England-USA match on Tuesday should be a humdinger. South Africa's team, Banyana Banyana, made it to the tournament and didn't fare well, but made us proud with their efforts and commitment.

    1. Perhaps the ego of the female game has not quite yet devolved to that of the male game, Stan. Let's hope that doesn't happen for a few years yet!

  2. Oh, Zoe, the volumes we could fill on the subject of “too risky, not feminine, vulgar!” But what a wonderful post. What great old photos. Similar things have happened in the USA with baseball during wartime. Now there’s a subject: War. Start one, guys and suddenly you think it’s okay for your sister to take risks of blowing herself up to make bombs abs help you win. UGH,

    1. Apparently, there has been some difficulty tracing the names of players for Dick, Kerr Ladies after the FA ban, as parents of female players were sometimes so opposed to their daughters playing (even to the point of burning their boots) that the women were forced to play under assumed names.

  3. But they didn’t stop them from working in a munitions factory’s??? I’d want burn all my daughter’s clothes before I let her go out and risk blowing herself up so she could make bombs to be dropped on some other mother’s daughter. I’d let her make up her own mind. But I would cry

    1. This was after the War was over, Annamaria, when they were expected to return quietly to hearth and home...

  4. Okay, so to reiterate: the rules for a sufficiently prim and proper young woman are that during wartime, she can work 12 hour a day making bombs and risking blowing herself up. And she can play football professionally to raise money for the war effort. Then, when peacetime comes, she must forfeit all these freedoms and wait for some man to come along to own her in return for giving her a home. These rules I imagine apply to middle class women. Working class women work no matter the circumstances. Always have. Always will.

  5. How could I have missed commenting on this? I read it as soon as it was published and knew precisely what I wanted to say, but somehow it has virtually all memory in this part of the world of Rosie the Riveter and the AAGPBL. Will times ever change? I certainly hope so, for the sake of my granddaughters....and everyone else's.