When Women’s Football Was Banned

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.

75 thoughts on “When Women’s Football Was Banned

  1. I wonder which level women‘s football could be played at even today if human beings weren‘t as stubborn as they are…

  2. Even in these comments we see a few people who fail to understand that the men’s game has historically benefited and been given preferential treatment over the women’s. This ban shows onto some of the set backs the game faced and even the current WSL is still trying to find its place. I find it easy to follow my women’s Australian Rules team with little issue as it’s a chance at winning trophies for the club. Made getting a women’s membership to put my dollars to support them in addition to the men’s side.

  3. Nowadays some men are mocking women's football, when we men are the reason why it's at that state. Imagine disallowing women from a whole sport, just because your masculinity feels endangered…

  4. Will you all be covering the history of women and football in countries where they don’t even like the idea of women attending matches?

  5. Its funny they got more crowd attendance then what Burnley gets now in PL, says who played better football

  6. In Brazil, the game was prohibited by the president in 1941, when questioned about he said: "the ladies' feet were not suited for football shoes"

  7. I think women on the international stage should be paid the same as men. Classic example is with the USA team where the women are winning trophies and the men cant even qualify for the world cup. Great video by tifo once again, I took inspiration from their style and produced a video on Mo Salah vs the Average Man where I look at his physical attributes and also into his shoulder injury from the 2018 Champions league final

  8. Once again, there are more comments by men who are so uncomfortable with their masculunity, they have to degrade women. How would you feel if every time you played your favourite sport, that you were terrible at it and should quit.

    It's time to grow up lads, learn to embrace a changing world and stop treating women the way our fathers and grandfathers treated them, as second class citizens. Encourage and support your female friends, family and partners. Kick out the misogyny and sexism, it's bloody pointless. Raise your daughters with the mindset that they can do anything they want.

  9. A good reminder that society doesn't just move forward. No matter what you achieve, there will always be people trying to move things backwards again. You have to keep pushing.

  10. Your videos are always so well-researched but not too long or dry. I love the women's game because they aren't rolling around after every foul.

    I do hate the people on the Match of the Day Facbeook that tell the women to make them a sandwich whenever BBC posts women's football content.

  11. Why is this necessary? We’re out here enjoying the women’s World Cup and having a good time. It’s not banned now, homosexuality is not illegal now. We’ve progressed, move with the times, for goodness sake.

  12. Seems like yet another story of FA incompetence and stubbornness.

    After all this, it's incredible to think we are one of the best international sides in the game – shame to see so many still rehashing the same arguments from the 20's which banned the game in the first place.

    Didn't know about the massive amounts of fundraising the early teams did too, imagine the type of people that are livid that a women's football team are helping those in need.

  13. Wow I'm angry but this is incredible I have been educated. Patriarchy is a curse, never have been so embarrassed to be a British man

  14. Don't really understand the comments saying "they'll never be as good as men". So? That's not really the point is it?

  15. Maybe you should post Yemen Team in Asia cup who played in 2019 Asia cup, the story was the same as you posted about Iraq.

  16. Oh dear… the puns that emerge from Dick Kerr’s , I doubt that name would fly in 2019…? . Anyways Oranje ladies ftw!

  17. Make a video about Lampards tactics so the Chelsea fans can what they might be getting since he's heavily linked to the job

  18. Yet another proof of white men oppressing people. It's still happening now – In England the average attendance for MENS football is 40,000+ yet WOMENS football is <5000. Something needs to change. UK embarrassment of the world, for sure.

  19. From the mid/late 1990s I have researched the formative yet "hidden history" of Female Football, although you have missed some incidental details, you have encapsulated that period very well … I thank you for educating the ill informed majority.

  20. Great video but so devastating. If there was never a ban in 1920 and the women’s league kept evolving under FA, imagine how much bigger women’s football and women’s sports in general would be these days. There would be less naysayers underselling it’s quality. These footballers were suppressed by a bunch of patriarchal old men who couldn’t bare to see a women’s league popularity compete with the men’s. Even more depressing that it took THAT LONG to lift the ban. Society has come a long way since then but still has so far to go

  21. It's absolutely disgusting… And still is… I don't think a women has been bought for more than a million pounds, and yet a man has been bought for 200 million. Astonishing.

  22. This skews into socialist propaganda around 04:00 not that I am complaining but the origins of the Premier League video also look at matters with a strong bias towards what Englands working men in the 1970's and 1980' thought as you fail to reference any womens views, ironically the same as Parliament during the reports and reviews that founded the Prem.

    I am grateful for the highly political, learned and well researched video on the theme of English womens professional football and how it was almost suppressed due to the needs of capital to return England to the fiscal norms of business as usual. It may be worth noting that this was done despite the fact productivity went up when women ran munitions at a number of factory sites.

    That is a more worrying criticism of a top down ordering of society as the vertical perspective loses so much knowledge when it ignores information and analytics from the horizontal view. Seriously I mean it thank you, no one else is making mature and relatable content on these vital historical, cultural and social phenomena. My reservations aside, Well done 🙂

  23. Please mention how FIFA is now pressuring teams and owners to have a Female team for every Male team , otherwise they will not get the licence . Since when FIFA can order people what to do with their own money ?? FUCK FIFA !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *