On Christmas Day 1916, a football match provoked
profound change in British society. A team of women from Ulverston munitions factory
in Cumbria, took to the field against a side of female
players from the rest of the country, winning 11-5. The idea caught on. Over the following
months, teams emerged from other munitions factories where,
in support of the war effort, hundreds of thousands of women
were entering the workplace for the first time.
Matches were played with the aim of raising money for hospitals and charities for wounded
soldiers and, initially, the Football Association and the
press were both supportive of these games. Though with the praise,
unfortunately, also came the publication of letters condemning players for the “unmentionable
garments” they wore on match days.
Yet the sport grew exponentially. By September 1917, so many teams had formed that a nationwide
league was under way, and the inaugural final of
the Munitionettes Cup was played in May 1918, in front of 22,000
people at Ayresome Park. Victory established Blyth Spartans as one
of the best sides of the time and, with the sport’s burgeoning
popularity, landmark fixtures added to the growing momentum. A Christmas Day 1917 match,
for instance, which was organised by munitionette Grace
Sibbet, drew 10,000 spectators and raised the equivalent of
£40,000 for the Moor Park VAD Hospital. Prior to these events, the First World War
had devastated national sports. The men’s Football League and FA
Cup were suspended from 1915-19, with clubs under pressure to encourage players to volunteer
for military service, prior to the advent of conscription,
in 1916. But now a new game had emerged. With teams
cheered on by thousands-strong crowds in Preston, Newcastle, Glasgow, Coventry and other industrial
areas across the country, women’s football had
established itself as the sport of the wartime working class.
But the end of the war brought new challenges. In 1919, the Government dealt a major blow
to women’s football through its Restoration
of the Pre-War Practices Act. Women were forced to leave their
factory jobs, decimating most of the teams and scattering their players to different
parts of the country. Faced by crisis, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies acted
decisively. Manager Alfred Frankland persuaded the factory
owners to guarantee jobs for his players. And Dick, Kerr’s had big plans, for which
they received the owners’ financial backing. Recognising that the best
players from other teams across the country had found
themselves in precarious positions, Frankland set about individually recruiting them.
For the price of relocation and leaving their families, the players would be given factory
jobs and be part of an all-star football team.
The result was one of the strongest women’s football sides of all time,
which included stars like Lily Parr, goalkeeper Annie Hastie and captain Alice Woods. Dick,
Kerr’s became the dominant side of their era, at their peak
attracting as many as 35,000 supporters to their games.
And their ambition took them even further. From late April to early May 1920 Dick, Kerr’s
played four fixtures against a side drawn from the finest
French players of the time. In total, 50,000 spectators witnessed two wins and draw for
the home side, before the French won a final game, 2-1 at Chelsea’s
Stamford Bridge. France coach Alice Milliat had become a major
pioneer for women’s sport. And together, these teams
brought women’s football onto an international stage for the first time. The Stamford Bridge
game was even covered by Pathé News, the newsreel technology
innovators, whose cameras recorded the game’s highlights,
ensuring an even broader audience. By the end of 1920 Dick, Kerr’s were popular
enough to attract a crowd of 53,000 at Everton’s Goodison
Park. This followed a year in which they had played almost 30 domestic games, been on a
return tour of France, and in December, played the first
ever football match held under spotlights. Remarkably, their success had been achieved
in an extremely turbulent post-war society. In 1919, hundreds
of thousands of soldiers returned from the frontlines with unparalleled psychological
damage from the trench, only to be met with rocketing levels
of unemployment and very little state support. There was widespread anger at the Government
and employers for the terrible conditions. So much so, that
millions of workers went on strike from 1919 to 1922. Others directed their anger at those
they perceived to have taken their jobs, and in 1919 race riots
broke out in port cities like Liverpool and Cardiff.
Voting rights changed drastically too. The suffragette movement achieved a partial victory
when some women were finally granted the right to vote
in 1918, while men gained universal suffrage.
In other areas, the Government maintained reactionary stances, passing legislation against
homosexuality in 1921 and actively encouraging women to return
to domestic roles occupied in pre-war Britain. By 1921 women footballers had become the antithesis
to this socially conservative atmosphere. They wore
shorts, smoked cigarettes and many cut their hair short, flaunting convention of the time.
Further moral panic ensued when it became suspected that women’s
football teams incubated same-sex relationships. The success of women’s football was also
a sore spot for the Government. While ex-soldiers in
desperate situations were being failed by a lack of state support, women’s football
stepped up in their place, raising the equivalent of hundreds of thousands
of pounds for relief charities. Then, when women’s teams began to fundraise
for workers during the major 1921 coal strike, the
Government was undermined to an even greater degree by what, increasingly, was a force
pushing at major social and political boundaries. Resistance
got louder. It was claimed that women were unsuitable
for football, a view supported by the press, who even published
reports from leading doctors, providing a contrived medical rationale for such bias.
Not all of those voices were male, either. Dr Ethel Williams, the
first female doctor to practice in Newcastle, while broadly
supportive of female participation in sport, had, she said, ‘always been sorry that they
had taken to football instead of taking up some of the more suitable
games.’ Dr Mary Scharlieb of Harley Street concurred,
determining football to be a ‘most unsuitable game, too much
for a women’s physical frame.” There are strong suggestions, too, that jealousy
was at work. The 1921 FA Cup final had drawn a crowd of
50,018, whereas Dick, Kerr Ladies, in an exhibition played a few months later, attracted a very
healthy 53,000. That popularity likely embarrassed
the male game. Worse from their point of view, it threatened male
society with another source of female empowerment. On 5th December 1921, The FA played their
trump card, ordering that, on account of those subjective
medical opinions and, more vaguely, claims that gate receipts were being misappropriated,
its member clubs should no longer allow women’s games to
take place on their grounds. It was devastating, but it was met by retaliation.
In the aftermath, over 30 regional teams gathered in
Liverpool and, under the Presidency of Leonard Bridgett, manager and coach of Stoke Ladies,
founded the English Ladies Football Association, the ELFA,
with the aim of ‘popularising the game among girls and to
assist charity.’ The ELFA even made provisions to alter the
game, making it more suitable for female players. Their
proposals included reducing the size of the pitch, playing with a lighter football, eliminating
charging and allowing use of hands to protect the face.
An exhibition was held under the new laws, with invitations sent to
various members of Fleet Street, urging them to revise their opinions about the women’s
game. A further exhibition was held on Boxing Day,
to which this time members of the medical profession were
invited, giving them the opportunity to reconsider their diagnosis.
By 1922, the association members had agreed upon a set of laws for its fledgling association
and also devised a structure for its first competition, the
English Ladies Football Association challenge cup, which Leonard
Bridgett’s Stoke Ladies would win, defeat Doncaster & Bentley 3-1, in front of 2,000
supporters at Cobridge. The FA’s ban remained hugely detrimental,
though. Crowds suffered and players who had previously
performed in the same grounds as their male counterparts, were consigned to inferior facilities,
condemning the game to the shadows and its stars to relative
anonymity. Ultimately, starved of funds and restricted
by more natural obstacles, the ELFA would barely last a year
before folding. It would be another fifty years before, in 1971 and at UEFA’s insistence,
the restriction on women’s playing rights was lifted, and a
further 22 until, in 1993, the women’s game was able to operate
fully under the Football Association’s umbrella.