The forgotten history of women’s football

·4-min read
The forgotten history of women’s football

Build up is continuing towards this Sunday, when the Lionesses will face Germany in the Euro finals, in an eerie parallel with the men’s team a year prior. The rivals are preparing for a Wembley show-down, with England vying to win their first European Championship. As we celebrate this historic moment, the Standard goes back in time to how it all began.

In the 1800s in England, men’s football clubs were popping up throughout the country. It is less well-known that there were also efforts made by women to also get involved with the sport, with small teams beginning to form.

One of the first recorded women’s clubs was the British Ladies Football Club in 1895, made up predominantly of middle-class women, and based in North London. Their first game had an audience of 12,000 people, with subsequent games reportedly amassing thousands of spectators. However, the club itself was incredibly short lived, disbanding the next year.

During these early days for the women’s sport, the press and public at large held largely unfavourable attitudes towards women playing football. It was widely discouraged by both the press and public, with pitches sometimes being mobbed by crowds.

This all, of course, changed during the First World War. With many young footballers signing up to fight, the Football Association suspended the men’s league in 1915. This was a pause that would last until 1919.

It was from this wartime period that the women’s game began to shine. Around 150 teams sprouted into existence, formed in the new and often industrial workplaces of women.

Vintage Women's Football - In pictures

Dick Kerr's ladies' football team (in white) from Preston take on the French Ladies International team at Herne Hill, London (Getty Images)
Dick Kerr's ladies' football team (in white) from Preston take on the French Ladies International team at Herne Hill, London (Getty Images)
Ladies' Football (Getty Images)
Ladies' Football (Getty Images)
1914: Confusion in the goal mouth during a ladies football match (Getty Images)
1914: Confusion in the goal mouth during a ladies football match (Getty Images)
1919: Female workers from the Handley Page Aeroplane works play against the Stirling Tele Company Women (Getty Images)
1919: Female workers from the Handley Page Aeroplane works play against the Stirling Tele Company Women (Getty Images)
1925: The captains of the French and English Ladies football teams greet each other (Getty Images)
1925: The captains of the French and English Ladies football teams greet each other (Getty Images)
1934: Members of the Belgian Women's Football Club at Liverpool Street Station (Getty Images)
1934: Members of the Belgian Women's Football Club at Liverpool Street Station (Getty Images)
1934: hree women taking part in a training session for a football match which will take place during a fete on Whit Monday at Maidstone, Kent (Getty Images)
1934: hree women taking part in a training session for a football match which will take place during a fete on Whit Monday at Maidstone, Kent (Getty Images)
1936: Mrs Dorothy Henham who was crowned Carnival Queen for Guy Fawkes Night kicks off at a football match between local teams at Faversham (AFP/Getty Images)
1936: Mrs Dorothy Henham who was crowned Carnival Queen for Guy Fawkes Night kicks off at a football match between local teams at Faversham (AFP/Getty Images)
1939: Members of the Preston Ladies Football Club listen to their captain, Miss Parr, as she discusses tactics with the aid of a cloth pitch diagram (Getty Images)
1939: Members of the Preston Ladies Football Club listen to their captain, Miss Parr, as she discusses tactics with the aid of a cloth pitch diagram (Getty Images)
1939: Members of Preston Ladies' Football Club take a break to enjoy their milk ration (Getty Images)
1939: Members of Preston Ladies' Football Club take a break to enjoy their milk ration (Getty Images)
1954: Members of 'The Amazons' women's football team, training at Combe Martin, Devon (Getty Images)
1954: Members of 'The Amazons' women's football team, training at Combe Martin, Devon (Getty Images)

Organising charity matches between workplaces, it seemed, was an excellent way of raising funds to aid the war effort, as well as boosting the morale of workers.

The biggest team of the time came from a munitions factory. Dick Kerr’s Ladies F.C beat the men of the factory, before rising to international stardom. They are the first recorded women’s team to play an international match, against a team of Frenchwomen from Paris.

Their popularity peaked when a boxing day match drew a full stadium of 53,000, at Everton’s Goodison Park on Boxing day of 1920. A further 10,000 spectators were turned away at the gates. The overall attendance of this game remained an official women’s record for 98 years.

After this wild success, the English Football Association, helmed by Lord Kinnaird, sought to put a stop to the popularity of Women’s football. On the 5th of December 1921, the FA formally banned women from competing in their grounds, as well as from using their training facilities.

The women lost all FA Accreditation and were formally consigned to the shadows, and without the structure and support, hopes for an official affiliated women’s league collapsed.

It took 50 years for this ban to be lifted.

After the men’s Mexico World Cup in 1970, Mexico held an unofficial tournament for women.

They held lucrative sponsorships from martini & Rosso, and drew huge crowds to very the same stadiums the men’s teams had used only a year prior.

An independent team representing England took part, the youngest member being 13-year-old midfielder Leah Caleb. England did not win, but their game against the Mexican home side is said to have drawn an attendance of 80,000.

The English Football Association overturned their ban the very next year, in 1971.

This was not the saving grace of the women’s game, with a World Cup taking a further twenty years to occur. Taking place in China in 1991, and perhaps seeking to distance it from the far reaching superiority of the men’s World Cup, FIFA officially dubbed it ‘The first FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup’.

Of course there is still a massive gap between the profile of the men’s game and women’s.

I myself played in the Tottenham Ladies Youth Academy in the 2000s. I remember practicing in ill-maintained parks and rented astroturf spots - none of the gloss of the men’s youth academies.

But as more attention turns to the women’s game, hopes of more grassroots funding and changing attitudes, the beautiful game is becoming more accessible for everybody.

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