June 27, 2011

IconWomen’s football from 1895 – a story of skills, spite and sabotage

Here’s a question for you, asks Chloe Setter. What historical event began this Sunday, 26 June 2011? Top marks if you knew it was the FIFA Women’s World Cup before the picture gave it away. But unfortunately for the players and fans, most people will be unaware of this fact, as will the majority of broadcasters and news reporters, meaning the event won’t get as much coverage as it deserves.

This year, the England team are strong contenders for a good finish. Despite the team never having progressed beyond the quarter-finals in a World Cup, since its inception in 1991, the current squad have 1,041 international caps between them, and confidence is high. A 1-1 draw in their opening match on Monday was disappointing, but hopes are still high.

Leading the team from the front is the coach, Hope Powell, who was recently named as being the most influential lesbian in the UK by Pride London magazine.

Powell, who first played for England when she was 16, has managed the England team since 1998, and now oversees all the other female international squads, including the U23s, U19s, U17s and U15s. She was not only the first ever female England coach, but also the youngest ever England coach – accolades that have not gone unnoticed; she received an OBE in 2002 and a CBE in 2010.

In a recent interview for the Telegraph, Powell said she believed football was a great skill for young girls. “There are so many more opportunities for young girls and women to play compared to when I was growing up, which is great because I truly believe football instils a sense of discipline and responsibility in young people.

“The game is all about being on time, working as part of a team, making decisions – skills you need in adult life. And there’s a really good social aspect to the sport too; the people I played with when I was 11 are still my friends today.”

And Powell is fairly philosophical about the future of the sport: “Thankfully, woman’s football isn’t taboo these days. OK, so it’s not exactly ingrained in our culture but it is a recognised sport; there’s now a Women’s World Cup, a Champions League and the FA will soon launch a summer Super League for women.”

And she’s right: 2011 is proving to be a defining year for the women’s game. The Football Association has recently announced the launch of the FA WSL – a new summer league for women, designed to drive forward the English women’s game by enabling players to earn a decent wage while the WSL clubs develop new revenue streams.

Things weren’t always looking so rosy though – women’s football has suffered mixed fortunes over the years, and its players have encountered much discrimination and hostility.

History of the beautiful game

Women, like men, have been playing games similar to football for centuries. However, association football (the modern game), came about at the end of the 19th century. In England, the first recorded game too place in 1895.

Much of its initial success can be credited to the activist Nettie Honeyball, who set up the British Ladies Football Club.

A true feminist, Honeyball said at the time: “I founded the association late last year (1894) with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured.

“I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to a time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most.”

The first team to achieve notoriety was started by women working at a munitions factory, called Dick, Kerr and Company, in 1917. After a few kickabouts in their lunch breaks, the women’s team challenged the men’s.

By 1920, the Dick Kerr Ladies were so popular that they attracted a crowd of 53,000+ to a match at Everton, with thousands of fans turned away at the gates. The players even needed a police escort.

The team travelled and played internationally for about 48 years, breaking down traditions of clothes and attitude as they went.

So what went wrong?

All the success, particularly the game at Goodison Park in 1920, threatened many in the footballing establishment, with some fearing the women’s game could rival the men’s.

Therefore, in 1921, the FA decided to ban women from playing. It 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.”

The FA couldn’t actually stop women from playing, just from playing on its grounds. This forced them to play at rugby grounds and park pitches, limiting the exposure of the game to the public.

It wasn’t until many years later, in 1971, that UEFA voted in favour of recognising women’s football, creating the WFA (Women’s Football Association), and in 1972, the first official England team was formed. The day-to-day running of the game was passed over to The FA in 1993.

It’s therefore testament to the female players, coaches, referees and fans that the women’s game has come such a long way in a relatively short time, given the restrictions and discrimination it has faced, and still does.

Women’s football is the number one female team participation sport and currently has about 1.38m playing regularly. And younger players are keenly coming up through the ranks, with 42 per cent of the 2.3m children to participate in The FA Tesco Skills programme over the past three years being girls.

Yet, despite the successes, women face an uphill struggle for recognition of their talents. This is particularly reflected in the attitude of much of the media.

Take, for example, this ‘Women’s guide to football’ story, published in the Bristol Evening Post only a year ago.

“Historically a man’s game, the blending of the sexes in the 21st century has resulted in a record number of women watching football – and it’s not just Beckham’s biceps and Thierry’s thighs that are doing it for the girls.

“The female species are increasingly interested in the game, the players and the technique, qualifying many of them for true supporter status.”

The patronising tone only worsens when it comes to explaining the offside rule, in which it gives a sound description “in masculine terms”, then “in feminine terms… a shopping example”. This involves a “designer bag sale”.

Women are also told “Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea for instance, do not play in the World Cup, nations do”.

This sounds like some sort of spoof or perhaps an article from an age gone by, but it seems in terms of some attitudes, little has changed.

There is still a lot to prove, but perhaps, without heaping more pressure on their shoulders, the England women’s team can go some way to showing the doubters that theirs is a game of quality, strength and depth that is in every way as entertaining as the men’s game.

If you want to show your support, watch England take on New Zealand in their next match at the World Cup on 1 July 2011 at 17.15.

All of the games are available live via the Red Button and BBC Sport website (UK only), highlights will be shown on BBC Two and the final will be live on BBC Three.

7 Responses to Women’s football from 1895 – a story of skills, spite and sabotage

  1. Sarah D says:

    This is really interesting. It makes me pretty angry that women were deliberately blocked from playing football on FA grounds. Recently there have been problems for women players over pay, in that they are not paid enough to live on so have to keep up day jobs, even in the World Cup and at all the big clubs. When the men at the same clubs are paid such notoriously high fees it seems to be the most extreme example of wage discrimination I can think of. For a very modest drop in men’s salaries the women’s could increase to a living wage. This would allow them to develop properly and on more equal terms. This would in turn lead audience growth to justify the women’s presence on the pitches and our screens. This is the least the game could do to redress the appalling injustices of the past and the present.

  2. She who dares.. says:

    Great article!! As a keen footballer myself,it has saddened me to live with the fact that despite some of my great achievements with top womens clubs and consistent praise for my talent for the sport (from mainly male managers),that had i been born male,i could’ve been playing in stadiums and earning my wage doing what i absolutely love,instead of watching those i envy on almost every channel whose only difference to me is a penis.

  3. Jody DiPerna says:

    This is a great story. 53,000 at a football match? Thanks for sharing.

  4. Shaun says:

    Only difference is a penis?

    Or the fact that men can actually make football look appealing and women look like there looking for loose change….? Womans football is a joke… The only similarities are the fact we lose on pens!

  5. She who dares says:

    I see you have one on your head too Shaun…

  6. Chloe.Setter says:

    @Shewhodares Tee hee… that did make me laugh!

  7. george says:

    I Read this to me wife she laughed at your comment she who dares ! & agreed Shaun ‘s not only as one on is head but His whole body AKA Pr**K

Milly Shaw


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