Women’s football did not begin with Bend It Like Beckham, however awareness raising that film may have been. As Offside, coming soon to our studio, shows, the history of women’s football goes back a lot further than you might think.
Women’s football goes back as far as the men’s game. In the nineteenth century, as football developed from an unofficial village game into a codified sport with an agreed set of rules (although, of course, arguments about the off side rule are also as old as the game itself), women’s teams developed alongside men’s. Some based themselves in the same grounds as their male counterparts, while others, like British Ladies Football Club, toured the country, playing local teams. This was not a fringe sport either – a game played in 1895 at the home of Reading and featuring the British Ladies Football Club managed to draw a crowd higher than the previous highest attendance for the Reading men’s team.
It wasn’t always easy however. Although the British Ladies Football Club could boast aristocratic support, in the shape of its president Lady Florence Dixie, daughter of the 8th Marquess of Queensberry, the women actually on the pitch still faced prejudice, with most opting to play under assumed names to avoid scandal.
The golden age of women’s football came during the First World War. As men went to fight abroad, men’s teams were no longer sustainable, leading to the development of women’s teams as an alternative. The most famous and successful team of this era was Dick Kerr’s Ladies, which took its name from the Preston munitions factory where most of its players worked during the First World War. They became the first ladies team to play in shorts, and the first to go on a an overseas tour.
Their star player was winger Lily Parr, one of the first professional female footballers – although as a smoker, part of her wage was paid in Woodbine cigarettes! In 2002, Lily was the first female player to be inducted into the football hall of fame.
Even after the end of the war, when men returned from fighting, the women’s game continued to be hugely popular, regularly attracting more spectators than men’s games. On Boxing Day 1920, a match between Dick Kerr’s Ladies and St Helens Ladies at Everton’s Goodson Park ground was watched by 53,000 people, with thousands outside who failed to get tickets. To put that into context, the best crowd the (male) Everton team could muster at the same ground in the 2014/15 season was 39,000.
So, what went wrong? Why didn’t the women’s game continue to thrive? In 1921, the Football Association banned female teams from playing at FA associated grounds. At a stroke, the more than 150 ladies teams playing at that point were excluded from grounds with facilities for spectators. The reason given by the FA at the time was: “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” It’s unclear whether they were worried about the female game overshadowing the male one, or reflecting a wider backlash against women’s war-time independence. Either way, the effect on the women’s game was devastating.
That ban remained in place until 1971. Women’s football has developed gradually since then, with regular television coverage beginning in 1989, and the inauguration of the Women’s Super League in 2011.
One milestone was in November 2014, when 55,000 people watched the England women’s team play Germany at Wembley – beating the crowd of 40,181 who watched the previous men’s team friendly.
With both Sport England and the FA committed to developing the women’s game, it looks as if women’s football might finally have a level playing field.
Offside: The Marlowe Studio, Tuesday 11 April. Book here.