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How women fought for their right to play football after the FA deemed it “quite unsuitable for females” in 1921

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Georgia Edwards
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As the 2019 Women’s World Cup kicks into gear, we’re looking forward to a long, hot summer supporting our Lionesses. But did you know women playing football hasn’t always been as easy as hitting the back of the net? Georgia Edwards investigates…     

The Women’s World Cup is in full swing, and football fever is taking over. We’ve subscribed to our favourite podcasts about the tournament, and know which bars and pubs are the best to watch matches in.

We’ve already seen some extraordinary moments from the tournament, including a massive 13 goals scored in one match. Even before the tournament kicked off we’d seen some great moments for women’s football, including the unveiling of a statue of Lily Parr, the first female star of football, almost a century after she made history.

Given that it took so long to honour Parr, it won’t come as a great surprise that women playing football hasn’t always been so well-supported as it is in 2019.

Here, we take a look at the history of women playing football in the UK, from the start of something wonderful at Dick, Kerr & Co through to the modern day team, our brilliant Lionesses. 

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When did women first play football?

The first recorded women’s football match in the UK was in 1895 where the North beat the South 7-1, but it wasn’t until the First World War that women’s football really grew in popularity.

Previously women had been discouraged from playing the sport, but during wartime factory owners decided it would be good morale for working women, and thus would increase production. And so, women’s football was encouraged.

Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. was founded in Preston as a work team for the company Dick, Kerr & Co, which produced ammunition for the war. During their lunch break, the women would play football outside and, after beating the men who also worked at the factory, decided to form a team.

Women working on the fabric of seaplane wings at Dick, Kerr & Company in Preston in January 1918.
Women working on the fabric of seaplane wings at Dick, Kerr & Company in Preston in January 1918.

The team drew strong crowds and would play in charity fixtures to raise money for injured servicemen during and after the war.

By 1920 there were around 150 English women’s football teams. Among them were the Bolkclow, Vaughn & Co team from Middlesbrough, named for the factory they worked in, and Blyth Spartans Ladies.

That same year Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. played at the first women’s international against a team of French players, beating them 2-0 in front of a crowd of 25,000. And on Boxing Day that year the team drew a crowd of 53,000, with thousands more outside, playing St Helen’s ladies at Everton Goodison Park Ground, beating by far Everton men’s highest attendance that year of 39,400.

But all was not to remain rosy for long…

Why did the FA ban women’s football?

The FA had tolerated women’s football during the war, when men were away and money was needed for soldiers. But when the First World War ended and crowds for women’s football matches remained full, the FA feared that Football League attendance would suffer. And so, on 5 December 1921, the Football Association banned women from playing football on FA-affiliated grounds.

The organisation said: “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” 

It found support from doctors who said playing football put women at serious physical risk. Football League managers also supported the decision and the assertions of the medical community, with Arsenal boss Leslie Knighton saying: “Anyone acquainted with the nature of the injuries received by men footballers could not help but think – looking at the girls playing – that should they get similar knocks and buffetings their future duties as mothers would be seriously impaired.”

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The women of Britain were furious. The captain of Plymouth Ladies FC, Jessie ‘Jean’ Boultwood, said: “The controlling body of the FA are a hundred years behind the times and their action is purely sex prejudice.

“Not one of our girls has felt any ill effects from participating in the game.”

Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. was also aghast. In 1922, the team defied the odds and continued with a planned tour around North America. Although they were banned from playing in Canada under the FA’s instruction, they played nine men’s teams in the US and drew crowds of 10,000 people.

But, most women’s football clubs did not survive. Decades later, when the Women’s Football Association was formed, it was with just 44 clubs.

How did women get back into the FA?

In 1966, the England men’s football team won the World Cup, and the excitement kick-started efforts to reinstate women’s football. In 1969 the Women’s Football Association was founded with 44 members, although the FA still stood by its ban.

It took 50 years for the FA to lift its ban: in 1971 the FA finally allowed women’s matches on its members pitches, and use of its referees.

The official WFA-backed England team was assembled by November 1972, beating Scotland 3-2 in their debut match in heavy snow in Greenock.

In 1983 the FA finally invited the WFA to affiliate with it.

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Trudy McCaffery dreamed of being a professional football player however even with the ban lifted it still wasn’t possible in England. Lucky for her she got scouted by an Italian football team.

“I thought, how amazing is this?” she recalled to the BBC. “I can probably actually make a career out of this. I will be able to play football in the way I’d wanted to.”

Even her parents were not supportive, speaking about her mother she added: “I wouldn’t say she was horrified, but she was absolutely determined that this was not going to happen. If it had been a boy, they probably would have said: ‘Fantastic, you have to go for this.’ At the time football was not considered a legitimate career for women.”

Upon arriving in Italy, McCaffery and her teammates discovered just how big women’s football was there: “We had no idea until we got there how big ladies’ football was everywhere else apart from England.”

It seemed England still had a long way to go. When she returned to England after playing in Italy, and playing in front of 90,000 in Aztec, Mexico, she had to go back to playing for a local school team. England was far behind many other countries in terms of recognising women in football.

In 1989 Channel 4 started to regularly show women’s football and by November 2014 over 55,000 tickets were bought to see England v Germany at Wembley.

Women’s football was on the up.

Women’s World Cup 2019

And so, here we are. 2019. The 8th Women’s World Cup.

The competition is taking place in France, and has been described as the most important in history. With a bigger audience than ever, this year is a turning point for women’s football. Fifa said ticket sales were “smashing records”, giving global female football stars a platform and a chance to emerge. Among those we’re sure will stun audiences this year is England forward Jodie Taylor, who has played 43 international games, scoring 17 goals, and finishing as top scorer at the UEFA Women’s EURO 2017.

The Lionesses' Jodie Taylor is a player to watch during the 2019 World Cup.
The Lionesses’ Jodie Taylor is a player to watch during the 2019 World Cup.

Kelly Smith, who is widely regarded as the greatest footballer to play for England women’s, says: “When I was playing, there were only two or three teams who could potentially win a World Cup. Now you could name six to eight teams who could potentially do something special at this tournament and it just makes it more competitive, it makes it better for viewers to watch.

“And there are just so many cool stories out there of the women. There are a lot of social media campaigns promoting the players and teams. There’s a lot more exposure and visibility now, which just didn’t happen when I was playing.”

Of course, there is still some way for the game to go until it achieves parity with the men’s version. America’s Hope Solo and Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, considered two of the best players in the game, are both not playing at the World Cup as a protest against pay inequality between the men’s and women’s teams.

Their protest sits alongside the World Cup itself in raising visibility for the sport, and and in ensuring that women can play football on a provisional level for a long time to come.

Images: Getty


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Georgia Edwards

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