Women’s football in Britain has deeper roots than might be expected. In 18th-century Inverness in Scotland, single women played an annual match against their married counterparts, though the motives behind the contest were not purely sporting. Some accounts say that the games were watched by a crowd of single men, who hoped to pick out a potential bride based on her footballing ability. It represents the sport’s earliest – and by far the strangest – form of scouting.
This curious courtship ritual took place in the century before the modern sport was codified. When women took up football as we know it today, they did so against the backdrop of the suffrage movement and calls for greater gender equality.
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Women’s first steps in the modern game
By the late 19th century, with the men’s game spreading across Britain like wildfire, women also began to take up association football. Early pioneers included Nettie J Honeyball, who founded the British Ladies’ Football Club (BLFC) in 1895. Honeyball was an alias: like many of the middle- and upper-class women who played in the late 19th century, she was not overly keen to publicise her involvement with a contact sport played on muddy fields. We know more about Lady Florence Dixie, who was appointed president of the BLFC in 1895. The daughter of the Marquess of Queensberry, Dixie was an ardent believer in equality between the sexes, and worked as a field correspondent for the Morning Post during the First Boer War.
The BLFC arranged games between teams representing the north and the south of England, where money would be raised for charitable concerns. The matches attracted healthy crowds, with thousands of people often on hand to see their encounters. Early newspaper reports were not particularly generous, however, with a Manchester Guardian reporter suggesting “when the novelty has worn off, I do not think women’s football will attract the crowds”.
While these games were more than mere novelty acts, crowds did drop off as the growing popularity of the men’s game came to dominate public interest. In a world where women were not yet allowed to vote, it would take extraordinary circumstances for their efforts on the football pitch to attract widespread attention; those circumstances arose in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War.
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Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and the munitions teams
The Football League was able to complete its 1914-15 campaign as planned, but suspended competition at the season’s end as the nation’s men signed up to the war effort.
Women across Britain did the same. Though they undertook a wide range of roles during the conflict, the most enduring image is that of the munitions girl. An estimated 700,000 women took up work as “munitionettes”, producing the bulk of the weaponry used by the British army during the war.
Just as men had done before them, women working in factories began to play informal games of football during their lunch breaks. After some initial trepidation, their superiors came to see these games as a means to boost morale and thus increase productivity. Teams soon formed and friendly matches were arranged.
At Dick, Kerr & Co, a Preston-based locomotive and tramcar manufacturer that had converted to munitions production at the outbreak of war, the female workers showed a particular aptitude for the game. Watching from a window above the yard where they played, office worker Alfred Frankland spotted their talent and set about forming a team.
Led on the pitch by founding player Grace Sibbert and under Frankland’s management, they soon drew significant crowds to see their games. Known as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, they beat rival factory Arundel Coulthard 4–0 on Christmas Day 1917, with 10,000 watching at Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium.
The team’s popularity grew rapidly and they enjoyed sufficient longevity to dispel any suggestions of being a novelty. Over the following years, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played numerous friendly matches to raise money for the National Association of Discharged and Disabled Soldiers and Sailors, winning the majority of their encounters.
Though the war had ended in 1918 the Dick, Kerr’s side and other women’s teams continued to draw large crowds. By 1920 there were around 150 women’s sides in England, with more still in Wales and Scotland. That year Dick, Kerr’s Ladies packed 53,000 into Everton’s Goodison Park; incredibly, an estimated 14,000 were left outside the ground unable to get in.
They later played what is considered to be the first women’s international, against a French side led by the pioneering Alice Milliat, and toured the country with stops in Paris, Roubaix, Le Havre and Rouen.
The remarkable Lily Parr
The team had always fielded gifted players, but by 1920 they had unearthed their one true genius: Lily Parr.
Parr grew up playing football with her brothers in St Helens, north-west England, and began her career with the local ladies’ team at the age of 14. When they played against the Dick, Kerr’s side, she caught Frankland’s eye and was offered a job at the factory – as well as a spot on the team. No money changed hands, but this could be called the first meaningful transfer in the women’s game.
Parr was the exceptional player of her time and a remarkable character to boot. Openly gay, close to six-feet tall and with jet-black hair, she was a chain-smoker with a ferocious appetite and a fierce left foot. The National Football Museum credit her with 43 goals during her first season playing for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and around 1,000 in total. At Parr’s request, her payment was supplemented by packets of Woodbine cigarettes.
By 1921 the popularity of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies was at its peak. Headlined by goal-scoring phenomenon Parr, they regularly attracted crowds in the tens of thousands and contested more than 60 games over the course of the year. Women’s football more broadly seemed in robust health. Having grown up alongside the suffrage movement, it seemed appropriate that the sport was booming at a time when around 8.4 million women had recently gained the vote.
But 1921 ended in catastrophe for the women’s game. The Football Association (FA) – ostensibly the governing body for the sport as a whole, but really only concerned with men’s competitions – had always taken a dim view of female participation. Women’s football was tolerated during the war, with the men’s game largely shut down and money being raised for servicemen. But in the years that followed the conflict, the FA sought to assert itself. With crowds for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and others remaining healthy, there was a genuine fear that the women’s game could affect Football League attendances. The FA felt compelled to act.
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A decisive ban
Their solution was decisive and brutal. On 5 December 1921, the FA moved to ban its members from allowing women’s football to be played at their grounds, effectively killing the women’s game overnight. While they could still play the sport, women were reduced to doing so at a recreational level. The FA also forbade its members from acting as referee or linesman at women’s games, creating another major hurdle. To all intents and purposes, the edict outlawed women’s football in England.
Explaining their decision, the FA released a statement in which it concluded that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Several doctors agreed that the sport posed a serious physical risk to women. Not for the last time, a group of men were legislating on what a woman was allowed to do with her body.
The FA also suggested that “an excessive proportion of the [gate] receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects”. No such obligation to donate profits to charity existed for men’s clubs and no proof of financial impropriety was presented, but there was little the women’s clubs could do in response.
There was outrage from players, with the captain of Plymouth Ladies remarking that the FA were “a hundred years behind the times” and calling their decision “purely sex prejudice”.
If any club could survive the ban it was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, and in 1922 they set sail for a tour of North America. Under instruction from the English FA, Canada’s Football Association prevented the team from playing, but they were able to take to the pitch in the United States. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played nine men’s teams in the US, where women’s football had yet to gain a foothold, and drew crowds of up to 10,000 spectators.
The Dick, Kerr’s side continued to play at non-FA grounds, becoming Preston Ladies FC in 1926 after Frankland fell out with the factory owners; Parr remained with them until her retirement in 1951, aged 46. They drew good crowds given the circumstances, but could not hope to emulate what they had done before the FA’s ban. They were among the fortunate few: many clubs did not have the profile to continue and simply ceased to exist.
It was not until England’s men won the World Cup in 1966 that serious efforts to revive the women’s game began. The Women’s Football Association was founded in 1969, but progress remained painfully slow as the FA still refused to lift their ban. It took pressure from the governing body of European football, UEFA, to finally force the FA to end restrictions on women playing at its grounds in 1971. By this time, half a century of progress had been lost.
It is difficult to quantify the effect that the FA’s 1921 ban had on women’s football, but it is clear that it significantly restricted the sport’s development in England and, by association, throughout Britain. Women’s football might not have rivalled the men’s game, but it would have been considerably closer without an enforced 50-year exodus from FA grounds.
It is worth recalling that when the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies side visited the US in 1922 they played men’s teams. Women’s football simply hadn’t caught on across the Atlantic. When it did, and without the restrictions imposed in England, the United States emerged as the benchmark for women’s football during the second half of the 20th century. The US team has since won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals; England have no major honours in the women’s game.
In 2002 the great Lily Parr was the only woman named among the inaugural inductees to the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Stanley Matthews and Bobby Moore. Finally, in 2008, the FA issued an apology for the 1921 ban. Without it, perhaps she would not have been the sole female representative among some two-dozen men.
Jim Weeks is a writer and editor with a particular interest in the historical and cultural dimensions of sport. Though currently based in south London, his heart resides in his native west Wales.
This article was first published on History Extra in December 2017