The rise, fall, and rise again of women’s football

Words: Rebecca Johnson

On Boxing Day in 1920, a crowd of 53,000 people piled into Goodison Park to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies play St Helen’s Ladies AFC. Alongside the huge attendance, there was an incredible 10,000 additional people locked out of the game and turned away. Those that had managed to get in were treated to a thriller as the Dick, Kerr Ladies knocked four past their opponents. Both teams raised £3,000 for ex-servicemen in the process.

Just a year later, women’s football was banned in England.

On December 5, 1921 the Football Association (FA) made a statement asking that their member football clubs prevent women from playing on their pitches. The ruling effectively banned women from playing football – something that didn’t change until the late 1960s.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women’s football was relatively popular. Nettie Honeyball led the charge forming the British Ladies’ Football Club at the end of the nineteenth century, which toured the country playing games.

The game experienced a surge in popularity early in the twentieth century as a result of the First World War. When war broke out, women began working in factories as the men went off to fight; like the men, women formed football teams named after their workplaces and played against each other.

Arguably the most popular women’s side was the aforementioned Dick, Kerr Ladies. Like the Manchester United treble winning team of 1998-99 and Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ of 2003-04, the Dick, Kerr Ladies were the unbeatable force of football during this period. 

The standout star of the side was Lily Parr. The Vivianne Miedema or Pernille Harder of her day, Parr is reported to have scored around 1000 of Dick, Kerr’s 3500 goals, having played 828 matches and won 758 of them.

The team made a name for themselves and had some incredible opportunities, including travelling to France in 1920 for what was one of the first international tours done by a women’s football side. 

And although the football was entertaining and of good quality, one of women’s football’s main attractions was the money that it raised for charity. After the war, men returned from the front with all manner of injuries, physical and mental, and often money taken at the gates for matches was given to charities to help injured ex-servicemen.

So why did the FA decide to ban women’s football, when it was popular, and raising money for such a well-approved cause?

In a statement published in the Times on 6 December, 1921, it was declared that following complaints about women playing, football had been decided to be ‘quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.’

As well as deeming football ‘unsuitable’, the FA also suggested that the money raised through matches was not actually going to charitable causes. ‘Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of these matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of the receipts to other than charitable options. The Council are further of opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects.’ There was no real evidence to suggest that money taken from games was being pocketed by players rather than going to charity – but the issue of ‘unsuitability’ held up as good enough reason to enforce the ban.

Historian Jean Williams argues that one reason behind the ban was the changing status of working women. As the women had taken over from the men in the factories during the war, they gained more independence, which spilled into their lives outside of work, too. Arguably this and the kits that women wore – long-sleeved shirts, shorts and football socks up to their knees – reinforced a masculine image, something which the FA were cautious of.

One reason behind the ban was the changing status of working women. As the women had taken over from the men in the factories during the war, they gained more independence, which spilled into their lives outside of work, too.

Attitudes towards women are also reflected in a piece published in the Guardian days after the ban. Dr Mary Scharlieb, a Harley Street physician, and Eustace Miles, a former amateur real tennis champion, both offered their thoughts. Dr Scharlieb described football as ‘a most unsuitable game; too much for a woman’s physical frame’, and Miles said that she considered it ‘quite an inappropriate game for most women – especially if they have not been medically tested first.’ ‘The kicking is too jerky a movement for women,’ she added, ‘and the strain is likely to be rather severe as well.’

The outcome was that women were forced off the pitch for almost fifty years. Teams scrambled to play on rugby pitches and muddy fields, but the game’s popularity waned as men’s football began to dominate again.

The ripples of the ban are something modern football is still feeling. Attitudes towards women playing football only began to change towards the end of the 1960s; in 1969 the Women’s Football Association was formed, and in 1971 the ban on women’s football was lifted so that women could play on the grounds of affiliated clubs. 

Despite its fifty-year hiatus, though, women’s football has been growing steadily since its reinstatement. The first Women’s FA Cup game was held in 1971: Southampton beat Scottish side Stewarton Thistle 4-1 at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre. Twenty years later, the Women’s Premier League was formed in 1991 in a first nationwide competition.

In the present day opportunities for girls to play football have increased. More football teams have girls’ youth sides, and women’s football is more easily accessible to watch with top flight-games from the Women’s Super League (WSL) and Championship available on free-to-air platforms. Media coverage of major tournaments like the 2017 European Championships and 2019 World Cup have also seen a boost in the profiles of players not just in England, but worldwide: names like Vivianne Miedema, Megan Rapinoe and Steph Houghton have become familiar.

But it’s important not to forget those original pioneers. Lily Parr was one of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen: in 2002, she became the first female football player to be inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, and has since been honoured by the organisation with a statue. Without women like her, who entered into what was, at the time, a man’s world, and created a foundation of interest for future generations, the women’s game wouldn’t be where it is today.

learn more

  • PODCAST: You’re Dead to Me – the History of Football
  • BOOK: A Game for Rough Girls? A History of Women’s Football in Britain – Jean Williams
  • SITE: The history of women in the FA

Rebecca Johnson is a journalism student and freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.