8 March 2018

Nowadays, there is an undeniable discrepancy between coverage and earnings of female and male footballers all over the world. Despite demanding schedules for both male and female players, the recognition of women’s tournaments remains significantly less than that of men’s. However, what many football fans are unaware of is that only one century ago, during and immediately after World War I, the situation for men and women’s football was reversed in England. In fact, women’s teams throughout the country enjoyed considerably large crowds and societal support until the Football Association essentially banned women’s football in 1921 – a year in which women’s football was all the rage.


How it Happened


With the start of World War I, the men of Britain were sent to the front lines in droves, and the English men’s football league was suspended for the year of 1914-15 by the Football Association. Consequentially, as the men poured out of England’s work force, women poured in to the country’s munition factories – and onto its football pitches. Welfare officers, responsibly for the health of women in the factories, suggested sport, especially football, as a means of escaping the horrors of war while keeping fit. As such, of the 900,000 women who had come to work in the munition factories, around 150 teams were established across England, each representing their own factory.


At first, women’s teams played against each other as well as teams of wounded soldiers with ticket profits going towards charities for local hospitals, ex-servicemen, and needy children. While the matches did, over the years, generate what would today be 14 million pounds in charity, crowds began attending less for altruistic reasons and more out of sincere awe at the level of skill the women had developed. They had come to appreciate the beautiful game being executed by teams of competitive, speedy, and skilful women.


The Team to Watch 


Of the 150 teams that formed between 1914 and 1921, one team’s success and grit stood out – the Dick, Kerr ladies of Preston. Achieving national fame and even traveling to the US, where they beat a number of men’s teams, the Dick, Kerr ladies came to attract large crowds of fans. Their most noted match took place on Boxing Day of 1920, when 53,000 fans filled up Everton’s Goodison Park and the Dick, Kerr team defended their reputation as one of the best teams in England, defeating St. Helen’s women’s team 4-0. With 14,000 eager spectators being locked out of the stadium due to over-capacity, the women’s football league was no second-best sporting event. It was the sporting event. 


Among the team, one woman of 6 feet whose shot once broke the arm of a male keeper she had been training with had gained unprecedented popularity in England’s sphere of female athletes. Lily Parr, the Brit who has scored the most goals in a life time, male or female, is on record for having hit the net over 1,000 times between the years of 1920 and 1951 with her Dick, Kerr teammates.


But with the end of World War I and the return of England’s men from the front lines, the success of England’s women’s football league was coming to be thought of as counter to women’s societal roles. In an attempt to divert attention from the women’s league back towards the reforming of the men’s league, and so as to initiate the return to England’s more traditional understanding of gender roles, the FA banned the use of its fields for women’s teams. This directly limited the number of spectators who could attend each match, slowly but surely leading to a dwindling attendance rate and overall interest. While some teams, such as the Dick, Kerr ladies, persisted playing through the ban, others weakened and vanished without the societal or institutional support that had enabled them to rise from the beginning. Just like that, the success of England’s women’s football league was substantial yet short-lived.


In 1971, after having already done considerable damage to the existence of women’s football in England, the ban was finally lifted in response to football’s increasing popularity among girls and women in the 1960s. Since then, women in England and around the world have clearly begun to take the field once again, and with force. Originally off to a comparatively slow restart in the 1970s, England’s women’s league has regained momentum with over 1 million viewers now tuning in to the FA women’s cup final each year. With regard to international football, 83,000 spectators filled the Wembley Stadium in 2012 to view the World Cup final between USA and Japan’s women’s teams – a testament to the regrowth of popularity of women’s football on a global scale. Equally noteworthy was the National Football Museum’s decision to officially recognize Lily Parr’s status as Britain’s highest scorer in 2002 – 24 years after her death. With institutions stepping back on board, and with society trending towards doing the same, we’re excited to see how women’s football continues to develop over the years.