Alamy Stock Photo Fans hold up an 'equal pay' sign.
# Looking Back
How the history of football reveals a deep-seated antipathy towards women
Suzanne Wrack discusses her new book: ‘A Woman’s Game’.

WOMEN’S FOOTBALL, it seems, is more popular than ever.

As a Uefa report noted recently in the build-up to the Champions League final: “Three of the five biggest attendances ever in this competition have been set this season, and the new-look competition has now amassed an aggregate stadium audience of more than half a million.”

These figures are just the latest in a long line of recent record-breaking feats amid ample evidence that the appetite for the sport is growing by the day.

Yet it may surprise some readers to discover that when it comes to women’s football, spectacular attendances at big stadiums are not an exclusively 21st-century phenomenon.

On St Stephen’s Day in 1920, a world-record 53,000 fans turned up at Goodison Park to watch Dick, Kerr Ladies beat St Helens 4-0, with the attendance eclipsing the crowds that went to see both Everton and Liverpool’s men’s team during that festive period. Moreover, a further 10-15,000 supporters were reportedly turned away on that landmark day, with the ground filled to capacity

The women’s record stood for 92 years before it was finally topped when Team GB beat Brazil at Wembley during the London 2012 Olympics and 70,584 people watched on. It still holds the domestic record to this day, though it was close to being surpassed last month, as 49,094 supporters watched Chelsea beat Manchester City in the Women’s FA Cup final.

Why women’s football took so long to better that watershed moment over a century ago is a complex matter but has much to do with people in power and their antipathy for the concept of women’s football.

Less than a year after that remarkable attendance, the Football Association banned women’s football from taking place on its member grounds.

This move, which was not rescinded until 1969 amid wider societal changes, did not necessarily stop women from playing the sport, but it severely impacted its potential to capture the wider public’s imagination — and the sport is arguably still feeling the ramifications to an extent to this day, as it belatedly plays catch up with the far more lucrative men’s game.

It is just one example of many in a new book, ‘A Woman’s Game’ by Suzanne Wrack of The Guardian, showing how societal prejudices have deeply affected women’s football.

“It’s more about how broader movements going on in society impacted the rise and fall of women’s football,” Wrack tells The42.

“One of the things I write in the book is that there are some surprisingly backward views — things said in newspapers at various contemporaneous moments where you don’t expect it to be so explicit, the vitriol that they have towards the women’s game and the idea of women playing football.

“I found that really interesting because a lot of those views are still fairly pervasive today in a layer of the system, but it’s generally a layer of the system that is a product of a slightly less progressive era.

“It’s slowly going [away] hopefully, and it’s also responding to the changes that happen more generally in society.”


And as Wrack explains, in addition to the football authorities, others were complicit in limiting the impact of women’s football.

As she writes in the book: “The great and the good came out to applaud the FA and condemn the existence of the women’s game. The manager of Tottenham at the time, Peter McWilliam, said that he was ‘convinced the Football Association is right’.

‘I have seen one or two women’s matches, and these have left me convinced that the game can only have injurious results on the women,’ he said.

Arsenal manager Leslie Knighton agreed: ‘Anyone acquainted with the nature of the injuries received by men footballers could not help but think — looking at girls playing — that should they get similar knocks and buffetings, their future duties as mothers would be seriously impaired.’”

Wrack continues: “Most commonly, the ban is known for having been brought in, partly because the FA peddled it this way, it being physically unsuitable for women, because, they had spoken to doctors and got all this expert advice.

“But I think what’s lesser-known is that it was very much an ideological attack. And a response to the fact that these women had been generating huge crowds, detracting a little bit from the men’s game in the eyes of the FA. It had been raising money for charities, and also for striking workers, which the establishment had no control over.

“And I think they were quite scared of the potential of it, of what it was being used to do, the type of good it was being used for. They didn’t like that they had no control over that.

“There was also the fact that during the war, you had women forced into the workplace, and a sort of social awakening of women going into work and [engaging in] recreation and things like that.

“After the war, you had a sort of ‘get back in the kitchen’ type attitude as the men returned. And as a part of that, attitudes change generally towards the idea of women being involved in sport and taking part in activities beyond the home.

“So you had that reverting of attitudes more generally in society. But then you also had
a real political fear about the sort of momentum that the women were gaining in raising money for striking miners in their local mining communities and things like that.

“And yet, a real interesting moment in time, the idea that you stamp on something, basically, to keep control over it, and hope that it dies.

“But if anything, the most interesting part is the women that played on after that ban, or started playing after that ban, and consciously defied it.

“I think that there are some real heroes that need recognition and maybe don’t get the recognition that they deserve.”

aerial-photograph-of-goodison-park-and-surroundings Alamy Stock Photo Goodison Park still holds the attendance record, set in 1920, for a domestic football match in England. Alamy Stock Photo

English football was far from an outlier in this regard — Brazil, Spain, France and Germany were among the other countries to impose similar decades-long bans on the sport. In 1955, for instance, the German Football Federation (DFB) claimed it was “essentially alien to the nature of women” and that “in the fight for the ball, the feminine grace vanishes, body and soul will inevitably suffer harm”.

The FA’s u-turn at the end of the 1960s was primarily a result of the growing popularity of the feminist movement.

“There was huge pressure growing from within the game as well,” adds Wrack. “You had a whole bunch of unofficial World Cups, you had teams like Manchester Corinthians playing all over the world to thousands of fans in various places.

“And there was a real pressure on federations, on Uefa, on Fifa, to [renounce] the ban. Obviously, the rubbish medical reasons trumped-up were completely put to bed by that point, so there’s really no reason for them not to row back on it.

“You’ve got a whole load of people in power at the FA, some of the modern era and influenced by the different waves of feminism being birthed at that time. But then you’ve also got the elder statesman generation, who were of the war age and had a different view of women’s role in the world, in society, in football, in the home. And you’ve got that constant contradiction of old and new that probably [characterises] every stage of any organisation’s existence ever.”

So while the FA’s ban may have been lifted, progress thereafter was gradual rather than instantaneous and remains so to this day.

There have been significant developments for the game on a wider scale, however. One of the most notable was Title IX in America which, per the US Department of Education website, “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programmes or activities that receive federal financial assistance”.

This development was essentially a game-changer for women’s football Stateside and is a big reason why the country have won four out of eight World Cups since the inaugural competition in 1991. 

“I don’t think the impact of Title IX can be stated enough in not just removing a lot of the concrete practical barriers towards the goal of being involved in sport, but towards the way women’s sport is viewed in society generally, it’s absolutely transformative,” says Wrack.

“There were casualties in men’s sport to a certain extent — the ones that aren’t American football and basketball tended to suffer a bit — but you then got this massive influx into women’s sport with universities and colleges going: ‘Hang on a second, we need to put some money into our women’s sport programmes, where is it going to go?’ And soccer was a massive beneficiary of that.

“So you then get these colleges having to put in as much money as they’re putting into their college American football programmes into their women’s soccer programmes. So you’ve suddenly got this huge influx in coaching, finances, scholarships, and a whole attitude shift that says women deserve this as much as men.

“And I think that’s an attitude that is pervasive in the US Women’s National Team today in that they take no crap. If something’s not up to scratch, if they’re not getting something that they should be, they don’t take it. Whereas I think generally, most other places, there’s a little bit of a ‘well, at least we can play’ attitude. ‘Don’t push too much, because we don’t want to be stopped from playing. We’ve got to be a little bit grateful.’

“And there have been attempts to water [Title IX] down over the years, but there’s always been a big backlash to that.”

alex-morgan-of-usa-celebrates-with-the-trophy-after-the-fifa-womens-world-cup-match-at-stade-de-lyon-lyon-picture-date-7th-july-2019-picture-credit-should-read-jonathan-moscropsportimage-via-pa Alamy Stock Photo US women's football has benefitted hugely from Title IX. Alamy Stock Photo

As it recovers following decades of neglect from figures in positions of authority, the growth of women’s football in England, Ireland and worldwide has been substantial. Wrack believes “accesibility” is key to this progress, with high-profile sponsors, broadcasters and various media organisations really buying into the sport both literally and figuratively. Whereas not so long ago, it was a novelty to see a women’s football match on TV, it has now become normalised to an extent.

At the same time though, it would be naive to assume that the type of inequalities that hampered the women’s game for decades have been eradicated entirely. For the most part, access to training facilities, medical support and wages continue to pale in comparison to the men’s game.

“The term ‘professionalism’ gets used a little bit too liberally by the FA and others,” explains Wrack. “I get that there’s probably a little bit of hope that, for example, when you announce the Women’s Super League as fully professional, it almost becomes true to a certain extent, just by saying it, because sponsors’ interest increases in it. And then, by default, more money comes into the game and you are able to professionalise it further.

“But the gap between the pay of the likes of Pernille Harder and Sam Kerr at Chelsea to what Birmingham and Leicester City players are getting paid at the bottom of the league [is considerable]. Or even within a club, Pernille Harder to [less high-profile players], the discrepancy between their pay is massive.

“And we’re not at a stage where women can bank on this as a career for life — where, once they retire, they don’t have to go on and get another job, they don’t have to have a plan B.

“We’re just so far from a game that people can sustainably make a living on at the bottom end of the league, or in the Championship, that so much more needs to be done.

“You look at a player in the lower end of the league table or even in the middle of the league table in terms of Women’s Super League, and 90% of the time they are on one-year contracts.

“So you’ve got players that are potentially having to move every year, to a different city, a different club, and are reliant on whether the club can afford to keep them on.

“If they’ve got other jobs that are helping to supplement it, they’ve got to be prepared to to ditch all of that and up sticks at the drop of a hat essentially every single year. So you can’t put down roots, buying a property becomes difficult, all of that kind of stuff. And you’re basically living this nomadic lifestyle on a really low wage.

“And it’s not sustainable. And you’re not going to keep people playing in those conditions, which is sad. You lose a lot of people from the game who just cannot physically sustain that lifestyle anymore if they want to have family or if they want to buy a house, if they want to have just a little bit more financial stability, that means they’re not wondering where their next paycheque in September is coming from once they finish the season.”

Overall though, Wrack is optimistic when considering how far the sport has come and where it can potentially go in the future.

“There’s so much potential for the development and growth of the women’s game. And the most interesting thing is we’re at quite a pivotal moment, particularly in England, where you’ve got the Barclays sponsorship deal being renewed, and the broadcast deal still in its early stages, and getting close to a point where discussions about when that will be renewed have started taking place and all that kind of stuff.

“So you’re at a critical juncture where you can really decide what the game should be, where money should go. And for me, that’s exciting, because there’s a huge potential to look at the women’s game and look at the men’s game, and take the best bits [from the latter].

“We’re at a point in women’s football where we can be radical without having to do much and really make a better game that’s far more enjoyable and accessible and community-based than the men’s game.”

‘A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Women’s Football’ by Suzanne Wrack is published by Faber Publishing. More info here.

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