Thanks to greater media attention and airplay in recent years, you might think women’s football has never been more popular. But you’d be wrong. For those who still like to criticise the women’s game as being somehow less important or commercially viable, here’s the inconvenient truth: women’s football in the UK was once even more popular than the men’s, and would have become bigger and bigger if it hadn’t been forcibly curtailed by the FA.
It’s a story that defies the stereotypes of sport and the sexes, and has its roots in the dark years of World War One, when the nation’s young men departed en masse for the trenches. In their abrupt absence, women found themselves thrust from domestic drudgery into factories across the country. It was tough work – many women, known as “munitionettes”, were tasked with creating armaments, and had to work amid dangerous machinery and noxious chemicals. Health and welfare advisors were dispatched by the government to keep tabs on the well-being of this new generation of workers, and encouraged sports as a respite from the harsh environment.
Factories began to set up their own women’s football teams, and before long one team stood out as the most popular. This was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC, so-named for the Preston-based Dick, Kerr & Co munitions factory the players worked at. Founded in 1917, the team rapidly became the talk of the town, drawing thousands of onlookers to their very first match. As with other women’s teams, their games raised money for charity and the war effort, and the concept of females playing football was generally regarded as a wholesome novelty. But the sheer popularity of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC helped change that perception, and establish women’s football as a real, legitimate sport in its own right.
"Lily had 'a kick like a mule' (and) was the only person I knew who could lift a dead ball, the old heavy leather ball, from the left wing over to me on the right."
The team even had a celebrity player in the looming, formidable form of Lily Parr. She was an awesome presence on the pitch – almost six feet tall and capable of hammering the ball into the back of the net with frightening force. One account has her literally breaking a male goalie’s wrist with the force of a ball, and a teammate recalled how Lily had “a kick like a mule” and “was the only person I knew who could lift a dead ball, the old heavy leather ball, from the left wing over to me on the right and nearly knock me out with the force of the shot”.
Praised even by male footballers for her power and skill, Lily Parr was a hothead who was sometimes sent off for fighting with rival players on the pitch. She also had a spiky sense of humour, once walking into the changing room, surveying her teammates wrapping their ankles and knees in bandages and support stockings, and quipping, “Well, I don't know about Dick, Kerr’s Ladies football team, it looks like a bloody trip to Lourdes to me."
On boxing day that same year, their match against a rival women’s team was watched by a whopping 53,000 people at Goodison Park, with more than 14,000 more potential spectators locked outside the stadium. The ladies were bona fide celebrities, flooded with offers to play across the country. But the bubble soon burst – pricked by the FA itself.
Towards the end of 1921, the FA made the shock move of effectively banning mainstream women’s football. In a meeting, their members cited “complaints having been made as to football being played by women”, and claimed that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. The women’s teams were no longer permitted to play on official FA grounds, bringing this golden era of women’s football to a crushing end.
This was largely down to straightforward prejudice, and the worry that the men’s game was in danger of being completely overshadowed. Frank Walt, secretary of Newcastle United, echoed widespread sentiment in the upper ranks of the FA when he declared that “the game of football is not a woman’s game” and “the time has come when the novelty has worn off and the charitable motives are being lost sight of, so that the use of the professionals’ ground is rightly withdrawn.”
Yet there were possible political reasons as well. Teams like Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC, as well as raising money for charity, had also been getting involved in left-wing causes, such as fund-raising for miners protesting wage cuts in 1921. As Barbara Jacobs, author of The Dick’s Kerr’s Ladies, points out, women’s football had “become a politically dangerous sport, to those who felt the trade unions to be their enemies”.
That said, many men were appalled at the resolution. Major Cecil Kent, secretary of Liverpool FC, said that “the only thing I now hear from the man in the street is ‘Why have the FA got their knife into girls’ football? What have the girls done except raise large sums for charity and play the game? Are their feet heavier on the turf than the men's feet?’”
Women’s teams continued to play on non-FA pitches, but the lack of media visibility inevitably dimmed the game’s allure. It’s only now, all these decades later, that women players – picking up the baton from Lily Parr and other trailblazers – are being given their rightful place in the limelight.