The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off tomorrow evening and there’s still a lot of work to be done to stop women being sidelined. The winning team will get €3.5m, compared with €33.5m earned by the French winners of the 2018 men’s tournament, writes Robert Hume.
“An unseemly exhibition,” reported the Leeds Mercury in May 1881, referring to a women’s football match in Glasgow. A bunch of so-called “ladies” attempting to “compete with men in every department of life” scorned the Blackburn Standard.
Dressed in white knickerbockers, red stockings and belts, mop caps and high-heeled, pointed boots, the players were dubbed freaks in fancy dress. Respectable women were supposed to be ‘dainty’ creatures. Football was a pastime for men — or “rough girls” (Oscar Wilde).
We know women had played football since at least the 16th century. In Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘A Dialogue Betweene Two Shepherds’ (c1580), Will tells Dick that his mother “with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes”.
Mary Queen of Scots owned a football at Stirling. But kicking balls around in fields or castle courtyards were private affairs, not shocking public displays. Such was the risk of playing under their real names that in the late 19th century many women footballers assumed aliases to protect their identities and avoid reprisals.
One newspaper mocked women’s “meagre training” and their “utmost ignorance of the game”. Another printed a photo of a goalkeeper combing her hair during a “lull” in the game.
“A footballer requires speed, judgement, skill, and pluck…” reported the Daily Sketch. But in a match at Crouch End, London, in March 1895, “the ladies wandered aimlessly over the field at an ungraceful jog-trot”. The “umpires” (“referee” was not used) were ridiculed for overseeing a farce, failing to award corners, allowing touchdowns, as in rugby, and blowing the whistle after only 60 minutes.
Signing himself “No Goal”, a correspondent claimed in The Pall Mall Gazette (February 23, 1895), that a woman was physically incapable of stretching her legs sufficiently to shoot goals: “Let women write books, paint pictures, ride horses, row boats, but for the love of heaven, stay them from making sights of themselves on the football field.”
The British Medical Journal claimed that women footballers’ “reckless exposure” of their organs risked bruises to the chest that could become cancerous. But no evidence was ever provided of any serious injury sustained by a woman in these early days.
Described disparagingly by the Wicklow News-Letter as “lady footballers”, Kate Byrne and Mary Ann Hill from Bray were sentenced to a month each for stealing a football worth four or five shillings in January 1909. Having found an “old” football in the road, one of them kicked it into some bushes ready to collect later when the coast was clear.
During the first world war, football matches between women munition workers became highly popular.
The 1917 local newspapers recorded scores of “ladies” football fixtures in Britain and France. Gates of up to 20,000 paying spectators were typical, with the proceeds going to support wounded soldiers. Many hoped that enthusiasm for this “curio” was simply a wartime fad.
When peace came, tolerance evaporated, and allegations resurfaced that the game was “quite unsuitable for women” and “not to be encouraged”. “A woman loses much of her natural charm in actions that are devoid of grace,” reported the Derby Daily Telegraph.
Respectable women would not prance around in front of thousands of spectators, “degrading and making fools of themselves”, (Dundee Evening Telegraph, June 29, 1921).
But crowds continued to grow, and there were at least 150 clubs playing regularly in 1921, all “ladies” kitted out in jerseys and shorts — just like men. The most famous team was Dick, Kerr Ladies FC of Preston, which attracted 53,000 spectators to one of its matches at Goodison Park, Everton. Other stars included the Soup Canteen Ladies and the Marley Hill Spankers.
The thriving women’s game sent shivers down the spine of the male football establishment, which claimed that the sport was too strenuous for women; although one reporter reckoned what he witnessed to be no more taxing than a day’s heavy washing. Whereas the French authorities encouraged women to play football as a healthy recreation, in Britain teams were gradually shut down.
On December 5, 1921, the FA banned women’s professional football. It was to be sidelined for 50 years.
The equal opportunities climate and women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and ’70s helped lift the ban on women playing football.
In 1973 the Women’s Football Association of Ireland was established, and the Republic of Ireland made its international debut with a 10–1 defeat in an away friendly game against Scotland.
Evidence of the sport’s growing popularity was the setting up of the first FIFA Women’s World Cup, held in China in 1991. Twelve teams qualified for the final stages and 20,000 spectators regularly attended matches.
The films Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002) have encouraged girls to play. In 2010 an “unprecedented growth” of women’s football was reported in Ireland, especially in Mayo and Cork (Western People, December 21, 2010).
According to a recent survey by Debate.org (2018), 83% of voters said that girls and women should be allowed to play football.
When FIFA president Sepp Blatter claimed in 1995, “the future [of football] is feminine”, he was doubtless aiming to attract fresh sponsorship. But 25 years later there is still far less prize money than for the men’s game: this year’s winning women’s team will receive €3.5 million, compared with €33.5 million earned by the French winners of the 2018 men’s tournament. Women have also yet to be properly represented in managerial roles: 15 of the 24 national squads qualifying for the 2019 World Cup finals are managed by men.
Prejudices against women’s football may have lessened but are still alive; and, for a few diehards, the question of “suitability” has never completely gone away.