Jealousy, Intimidation And Bare-Faced Sexism: How The FA Kept Women Out Of Football For Fifty Years

Women's football used to be more popular than men's, so what happened?

Dick Kerr's ladies' play the French Ladies International team

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

It was a remarkable day on the 26th December in 1920, when England’s unofficial national football team – Dick, Kerr Ladies – took on St. Helens Ladies at Goodison Park in Liverpool. A record-crowd of 53,000 people attended, with a further 15,000 locked outside, hoping to get in and watch what would be the most significant game in women’s football history.

Because, it wasn’t just the largest ever crowd to watch a women’s football match in England (still to this day) but it became the biggest nail in the coffin for women playing the game professionally. The resulting actions that came from that match are why the women’s game still lags in popularity to this day, and why this year’s Women’s World Cup is so important for the legacy of the sport.

Before that fateful game in 1920, women had begun playing football for charity during the First World War alongside their new day-jobs, both filling men’s roles at work and, with this, funding the organisations that helped them after they returned injured. But very quickly, women’s football became more popular than the men’s game, frequently drawing larger crowds and making huge amounts of money for said charities. When near 70,000 fans wanted to attend the Dick, Kerr Ladies vs. St Helens Ladies on boxing day - which, for comparison, is double the average crowd Everton currently play for in their home ground of Goodison Park - this became glaringly clear.

As men returned from duty and criticism grew of the so-called masculine sport, jealousy and intimidation of the women’s success reigned, and the Football Association decided to ban women from playing on any FA-affiliated grounds, essentially burying the sport for women altogether.

To look at the way in which women’s football in England is received now, you would never guess it was once considered more entertaining than men’s. For decades, since the FA lifted its ban in 1960, the game has been scoffed at, with women only able to play professionally full-time last year. Even now, as we enter the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the women can only hope and pray their games receive the same level of support the men’s World Cup did last year.

Even in the US, where the women’s team are undoubtedly more successful than the men’s, gender discrimination exists from within governing bodies. Unequal pay, coaching, medical treatment and training grounds all stand in the way of the women’s full potential, no matter how many trophies they bring home.

It seems that, largely, the huge success women in England had within the sport all those years ago has been long forgotten. No one remembers that Lily Parr, a woman who started playing football for Dick, Kerr Ladies at age 14, was considered the best footballer in the world by many of her esteemed colleagues – men included. Nor that the women raised the equivalent of over £623,000 for charity at some of their most popular games. Their commitment to a sport, played purely for the good of everyone, was simply erased from history by an organisation threatened by gender liberation.

Because, it wasn’t just the fact women’s games were drawing more attention than men’s that caused the intimidation and so the ban, it was the way these women were using their new-found popularity. In 1921, when the mining industry was suffering a major post-war recession, the women raised money for local miners in financial difficulty. The government and mine-owners were locking men out of their jobs for not accepting pay-cuts, starving the men into submission. As Dick Kerr, Ladies – the most popular team in England – began to financially support these workers and their trade unions, they became associated with the Labour party and NGO’s that had become enemies of the current government.

Seeing women play what was considered to be a men’s game was one thing, but having them participate in national politics was the final straw for the Football Association. They initiated their ban, and began a smear campaign against the teams manager, Alfred Frankland – whom owned the Dick, Kerr & Co, the locomotives company that many of the women worked at during the war and what naturally became their club name.

Implying that the team was skimming money from the charities they fundraised for, the FA released a statement claiming complaints had been made against the receipts going to ‘other than charitable objects’ and dubbed the game ‘unsuitable for females’. Implying the match was too hard on their bodies, they had a doctor – Dr. Elizabeth Sloan Chesser – issue a warning about the health risks that said football was ‘more harmful to women than men’.

‘The FA brought out its tame doctors to verify that, in fact, football did terrible things to women's bodies,’ said Barbara Jacobs, author of The Dick, Kerr Ladies, ‘Mr Eustice Miles had a scientific reason for believing this, or so he said - "The kicking is too jerky a movement for women and the strain is likely to be severe." So, are we to assume that women's bodies are unsuited to jerky movements? That's put paid to sex, hasn't it?'

The hilarious comparisons aside, external doctors did affirm the game was no more likely to injure women ‘than a heavy day’s washing’. Alas, the FA stood firm. Essentially, with their ban on the women using FA-affiliated grounds that gave them no space to play, the smear campaign that turned fans against them and reduced attendance, plus the health warnings that spread fear among families and friends to stop the women from competing reduced the women’s game into a ‘minor sub-culture’. Which is basically where it’s sat ever since.

‘The controlling body of the F.A. are a hundred years behind the times and their action is purely sex prejudice,’ said the Plymouth Ladies captain at the time. It’s jarring because, reading her quote from 1920 now, almost a century later, it still resonates today.

Today, clubs actually lose money by entering the Women’s FA Cup because the prize money is so low – even despite sponsorship. Still the gender pay gap for the women's team is blamed on lack of attendance at games without a hint of irony, despite the FA's heinous actions – and subsequent failure to truly try and bring real exposure or progress to the women's game for almost a century.

Because, it took not only the creation of the Womens Football Association in 1969, but also an order from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) for the FA to actually remove their restrictions on the playing rights of women's teams - 50 years after the initial ban. It then took another 22 years before the FA actually brought the WFA under it's direct control, and only in 2008 when men's teams began to affiliate to women's teams did the FA decide to draw some exposure to the women's game and create the Women's Super League - equivalent to the men's Premiere League. Last year, in fact, is the first that women can play full-time, having previously competed professionally alongside 9-5 jobs.

Now, the England women’s team are hoping the growth of support from this World Cup will help cement their endeavour for gender parity, and with the Women’s FA Cup Final this year attracting over 45,000 people – they are on their way.


England Women played Denmark in an international friendly this week

England Women played Denmark in an international friendly this week1 of 1

England Women played Denmark in an international friendly this week

Alas, it’s no comparison to the thousands who attended before systematic sexism stifled not only women playing the game but also attending. Female fans were actively encouraged to attend games back in 1885, when crowd aggression became a major concern – clubs hoped that having women at the game would dampen tempers, so much so that Preston North End club actually allowed free entry for women in April 1885. The scheme was so popular, with thousands attending the first game, that they had to call it off in the 1890’s because they were losing too much revenue.

Of course, keeping women so clearly talented and passionate out of the game for so long has proven detrimental to football overall. Decisions made by the English Ladies Football Association (ELFA) back in 1921 were eventually adopted by the FA to the betterment of the game. For example, using a lighter football was first suggested by the ELFA, minds that would clearly have been of use behind the scenes of the FA – an organisation that only promised to have a third of their board members be women in 2017.

The women’s game itself was more technical too, and thus entertaining, with women unable to match the brawn that male players used having to find other ways to score goals. Because, when you don’t have brutish aggression, you rely purely on skill. It’s why Lily Parr was able to score 967 goals of the 3,022 the Dick, Kerr Ladies amassed during their 26-year reign. And why Dick, Kerr Ladies – whom recruited the best players across England – only lost 9 of the 643games they played.

And when you watch today’s female footballers play professionally, that skill is still evident. It’s what will drive England’s success this year in the World Cup, and return the women’s game to their rightful spot as the most popular sporting spectacle. Unsuitable for females, they said? Just watch the women play and tell us how unsuitable it is.

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