Women are now very much a part of world football culture. But it wasn't always so. Welcome to IBWM, Zahra Halabi.
The existence of football-savvy females is portrayed these days as a phenomenon of the 21st Century. Until recently, it seemed that the media was blissfully unaware of the woman who knew her left-back from her handbag and her offside from her half-price. Football was perceived as a male-dominated industry; with men taking the lead in supporting, reporting, commentating and playing the beautiful game. Women it seems only took to this great industry over the course of the past few years and have only been playing competitively since we first saw Rachel Yanky take to our screens. But is this really so? Has the female football fan only just caught the football bug or are we guilty of forgetting our game's history?
The early to mid 19th Century has produced accounts of women being interested in and attending football matches. Women were allowed free entry to football grounds to watch their football teams which does prove their presence at football grounds, but it has also been argued that this represents evidence of the 19th Century woman’s lack of proper interest in football – otherwise why make entry free?
At the beginning of the 20th Century, as stadia in Britain bettered their facilities, more women began to attend football games. Interestingly for me as a Liverpool fan, there is even evidence of the Spion Kop being used by female supporters. However, at this point in time women’s interest in football had not reached its peak. A spark was needed.
Those of you who know a little about history will know that the period before World War I was a time of women’s suffrage; where women were fighting for the right to vote and for greater equality. Before 1914, it was the time of great politicking, with peaceful Suffragists and more extreme Suffragettes lobbying, campaigning and pulling stunts as they vied for the Government’s attention.
However, this campaigning was patriotically halted in 1914 when Britain prepared itself to go to war and the women involved decided to support the Government in those efforts. With the men away fighting, women in Britain took to the roles that were outside their traditional gender expectations. from rural and farm work to city office jobs. Women were to be found in the Engineering and ship building industries and - crucially for the war effort - many entered the factories as munition workers.
But what has this got to do with women and football, I hear you ask!
Well, in August 1917 a tournament was launched for female munition workers' teams in North-East England. it was popularly known as "The Munitionettes' Cup." The first winners of the trophy were Blyth Spartans, who defeated Bolckow Vaughan 5-0 in a replay at Middlesbrough on May 18th 1918.
The tournament ran for a second year in the 1918-19 season, the winners being the ladies of Palmer's shipyard in Jarrow, who defeated Christopher Brown's of Hartlepool 1-0 at St James's Park in Newcastle on March 22nd 1919.
Historians will recall that this brief taste of ‘liberation’ for woman during World War I precipitated a real change to traditional ideals of femininity. Women emerged in the 1920’s more independent and confident in their abilities and this was reflected in their increased involvement in football.
During and immediately following the war period women’s football enjoyed its first golden age in the UK. Women would use affiliated grounds to stage their matches attracting over 50,000 spectators, sometimes even exceeding the number of spectators at the male matches!
1920 was the year of the first Women’s international game: Preston-based Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat a French XI 2-0. It was also the year that recorded the biggest crowd to date for a women’s game. On Boxing Day, 53,000 watched the same Ladies defeat St Helen's 4-0.
Sadly in 1921, the FA voted to ban the female teams from playing in grounds used by its member clubs. The reasons given were the ‘unsuitability’ of football for women and the corruption in the game; “..the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." However, it seems likely that this was in actual fact a move to preserve the number of spectators at the male matches!
Following this setback, the English Ladies' Football Association was swiftly established. A silver cup was donated by the first president of the association, Len Bridgett. A total of 24 teams entered the first competition in the spring of 1922. The winners were Stoke Ladies who beat Doncaster and Bentley 3-1 on June 24th 1922.
Female football continued in this vein until 1969 when The Women's Football Association (WFA) was formed with 44 founder members. In 1971, the FA Council finally lifted the ban which forbade women from playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs as they sought to take a greater role in the promotion of women's football. The FA then took a huge step in the early 1990’s with the introduction of women’s European and international tournaments. This was the beginning of a new dawn that has helped bring the 21st Century football savvy females to the public eye!
Women's football faced many struggles throughout its fight to be taken seriously and female fans have always been, and still are, in the minority at football matches. However, women are are now at long last being taken seriously as knowledgeable ‘footballistas’. More women are starting to find their voice within the industry and are thriving as football journalists and presenters.
However, to declare this a phenomenon of the 21st Century is a gross disservice to those pioneers of the 19th Century who paved the way with their passion and their desire. We have a rich heritage of women’s football in the UK, both in terms of play and support. I wrote this article to ensure that the true footballistas of the 19th Century are not forgotten!
As well as IBWM, Zahra has previously written for the Liverpool fansite, Empire of the Kop.