Breasts and balls
While medieval girls and women played and were entertained by a variety of bat and ball games, the earliest specific association I know of comes from a mid-15th century poem. This was a satire by the prolific East Anglian monk John Lydgate. In it the poet enlarged upon the attractions of “my fair lady”. She wore a green hood and had two small breasts squeezed together so they appeared like a large “camping ball” (East Anglian dialect for football).
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By the 16th century, women’s involvement in football had moved beyond associations between their breasts and the ball, to a spectator scene. The most famous 16th-century female football spectator was Mary, Queen of Scots.
In the 1970s a ball made of leather and inflated with a pig’s bladder was discovered in the rafters of the Queen’s Chamber, Stirling Castle (Mary’s residence). It is now proudly displayed in the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. It is claimed to be “the Oldest Football in the World”, although archaeologists at Winchester have dug up two leather balls (roughly the size of modern tennis balls) that are about 500 years older.
In June 1568, having abdicated and fled to England, Mary watched a football match on a “playing-green” somewhere between Carlisle Castle and the Scottish border. The game involved about 20 of her retinue, who played for two hours “very strongly, nimbly and skilfully, without any foul play offered, the smallness of their balls occasioning fair play”.
The 16th-century English physician John Caius (pronounced ‘Keys’) recommended a number of vigorous sports and pastimes to improve health – but not football. Although he discouraged men from playing football because they were likely to get their legs broken, it’s interesting that Caius suggested women take up bowls as suitable exercise. Football, he appeared to have thought, was not suitable for women.
The playwright James Shirley had one of his comic characters express a similar sentiment: women were unsuited to football because they were too light and knocked down too easily. At first glance this seems to contradict other evidence. For in a pastoral “dialogue between two shepherds” the Elizabeth courtier and poet Sir Philip Sidney has a mother recall a time “when she, with skirts tucked very high, with girls at stool-ball plays”. (According to some sources, however, this was written by Sidney’s sister, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.)
This, however, was not the ‘violent’ men’s game of that name, but perhaps what was sometimes called ‘balloon ball’ – batting a large inflated ball back and forth, much like modern volleyball. Alternatively, Sidney may have meant a bat and ball game popular with young women of the period. A diarist even recorded that at Oxford on Shrove Tuesday 1633 women played stool-ball and men football.
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The 18th century
So we come to the earliest indisputable reference I’ve found to a woman participating in a football match. It comes from a contemporary newspaper account of a match played on Shrove Tuesday, 23 February 1773.
The game involved married gentlemen playing against bachelors in Walton, a village in Yorkshire. After more than an hour’s struggle, with much pushing to the ground and several broken shins, the married men were in trouble. Until, that is, a bold woman “seeing her husband hard press’d, entered the field to his assistance”. Instead of being intimidated by the “superior strength” of her opponent she, “like a true Amazon… pursued the ball, and soon determined the victory”.
Just over 20 years later, a doctor from Inveresk in Midlothian noted some peculiarities about the women of his parish: “their manners are masculine”. Nor did this surprise him, since these “fishwives” did the same work as the men. Besides playing golf frequently there was an annual Shrove Tuesday football match between the married and unmarried women.
Because the married women were said to have always emerged victorious, a few modern commentators have speculated – when it was fashionable – that the game’s origin was a fertility rite. But there’s no evidence to confirm this.
Victorian lady footballers
Finally we come to the British Ladies’ Football Club, formed in 1894. This was the brainchild of Nettie Honeyball and Lady Florence Dixie. Nettie saw it as a business opportunity and was keen on turning young middle-class women into professional footballers. Florence, on the other hand, used her privileged background to speak out on a range of topical political and social issues – including family planning and suitable women’s attire.
Following an advertisement to recruit teams, a match was played between the North and South in north London on 23 March 1895. A crowd of more than 10,000 saw the North win convincingly 7–1. But press coverage was largely negative. There was ‘tut-tutting’ about the supposedly unfeminine kit, while the North’s tricky left-winger, Miss Gilbert, was unkindly nicknamed “Little Tommy”.
Further exhibition matches were played around the country, yet the novelty soon wore off. In the long term this initiative failed to establish an officially sanctioned league. The FA actually banned women’s football for a time.
So it’s clear that women’s football has a long and often repressed history. Thankfully we’ve since moved on. Women’s football is encouraged in schools up and down the country, and this World Cup in Canada promises to be the biggest ever.
Yes, the women’s game is still regarded with less interest than men’s football. But that’s largely for historical reasons. With the ball finally rolling in the right direction, however, all eyes are now on the women equalising with the men.
Dr Ariel Hessayon is a senior lecturer in the Department of History at Goldsmiths, University of London.
This article was first published in 2015.