Football… Has it always been a Man’s Game?

Despite what you many imagine, football isn’t a game which is only played and watched by men. Millions of girls and women around the world have a passion for the game, and it’s an interest that started long, long ago.

Women’s football in England has undoubtedly become more popular since the inception of the WSL in 2010 – but there is still an on-going issue with the recognition that athletes and teams receive from the worldwide media, with their male counterparts receiving a higher status. 

Even with the history behind it, people are still unaware that 100 years ago women’s football was at the height of its popularity, repeatedly attracting bigger crowds than the men. A team at the centre of these glory days were the Dick Kerr Ladies.  

“They played their first ever match on Christmas Day in 1917 in front of 10,000 spectators, and that was the biggest day in their history,” said Gail Newsham, former footballer and author of ‘In a League of Their Own!’.

 “They actually were formed at munitions factory in Preston to help raise money for the local military hospital, and in that first game they raised £600 for the wounded soldiers being treated at the military hospital. They were true pioneers.” 

Within the women’s football community, Gail is widely regarded as the go-to source for history on the Dick Kerr Ladies, having kept note and rescued a wealth of stats, facts and figures that would otherwise be lost forever.  

“The biggest crowd was on boxing day in 1920 when 53,000 people came to Goodison Park at Everton to watch them play against St Helens Ladies. But on that day, there were actually between 10,000 to 14,000 locked out of the stadium and unable to gain admission, so there could have been 60,000 or more!” 

One of the team’s biggest stars at the time was Lily Parr, a winger with over 1000 goals under her belt in an extraordinary 32-year career. Putting that into perspective, Parr scored over three times the amount as footballing legend Bobby Charlton, outshining his 249 goals. 

“What’s important to remember, though, is that Lily wasn’t a professional footballer; she didn’t get paid to play,” added Gail.

“She joined the Dick Kerr Ladies when she was 15 years old, around May of 1920, and during her first couple of months with the team she was playing at left back. It wasn’t until 1921 when she was moved up onto the left wing, where she made her name as a goal scorer. 

“What made her special was that not only was she a great player with a great shot, but she played longer than anybody else did, so the longevity of her career makes her stand out more than others, and because she played for so long it enabled her to score as many goals as she did.”

Lily came from a very poor background in St Helens. Her brothers were fond fans of the Rugby league which undoubtedly has a kicking element to the game, and this is where she reportedly learned to kick with precision and power like few others at the time. 

To sum her up in one word, Gail simply described her as “exceptional”. 

“Quite simply, she was a true pioneer of the English women’s game” said Jean Williams, Professor of Sport at Wolverhampton University. 

“Tall, strong and fast, and a goal tally over her lifetime that can rival just about any player, male or female. She just absolutely loved playing football and was unquestionably one of the stars of the team.”

Like Gail, Jean also boasts expertise in the history of English women’s sport, and has since dedicated a great amount of her spare time to sharing the forgotten tales of the Dick Kerr Ladies.  

Yet very few football fans have ever heard about Lily Parr, a pioneer in the women’s game who in today’s society would be praised as an icon and admired by millions of young girls. Instead, it seems that her incredible talent has been wiped from the history books of English football. 

So much so that it took 24 years after her death for her achievements to be noticed, as she became the first female to be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum in 2002. 

But why did it take so long for her achievements to be recognised? It’s quite simple really. It all boils down to a 50-year ban on English women’s football that was sanctioned by the Football Association (FA) back in December 1921.

Their statement said:

Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.

Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of these matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects.

The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.

For these reasons the Council request clubs belonging to the association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.

“The tipping point for the FA in English women’s football was the Goodison Park match with 53,000 supporters,” said Gail. 

“I think it was a wakeup call for the established FA at the time that women’s football was getting too popular and that something ought to be done about it. The men were jealous that they were getting bigger crowds at the time, and then the FA came out with a load of rubbish that the women’s frame wasn’t right to play football and that it could affect their fertility.” 

Outdated beleifs and attitudes towards women in sport were undoubtedly the driving force behind the despicable 50-year ban, but they were also fearful of the financial and societal impacts of the English women’s game. 

“For me, the most important thing that people don’t know is that women’s football was not only drawing in huge crowds, but it was also challenging the status quo of how football is run and managed generally,” said Suzy Wrack, chief women’s sport writer at the Guardian. 

“The FA didn’t like the politicisation of football and money going where they couldn’t control it, and that’s why they got rid of women playing football. I think that’s a really important point because it speaks to the power of football more generally to positively impact society and it undermines football as it exists today, because it shows that there’s alternative ways of doing things that could be hugely beneficial to society. The people who made extreme amounts of money off of the game didn’t want that to be known, and I still think that’s the case now.”

Whilst England continues to be known as the home of football, subsequently the country as a whole have been nurtured to believe that men are the only gender suitable to participate in the sport, following years of neglect and wrongful actions. 

The inequality within the game is clear for all to see, and one topic that’s often discussed in the media now is the staggering pay gap between the two genders. Of course, from an economic standpoint, the men’s game trumps the women’s game with regards to matchday attendances, TV viewing figures and just about every commercial aspect possible, but what if the shoe was on the other foot? What if men’s football was banned for 50 years? And what financial state would the professional women’s game now find itself in? 

The bottom line is that you can’t rewrite history, and the records will always show that prior to a 50-year ban, English women’s football was challenging the men’s game in a way that we haven’t seen since. Consequently, the blame lies with the FA, and the sparkling heritage of English women’s football will always be overlooked and helpfully covered up due to the assistance from the governing body.  

Women footballers now live in a patriarchal society in which they are undermined by their male counterparts. If we were able to go back in time and rewrite history so that the FA never released that disgraceful statement, times may be different. Men and women’s football would equally prosper and succeed, developing at the same time. Simply envision what it could be like nowadays…

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