Women who matter | West Midlands photographer offers clearer picture of grassroots game

Seen within the more than 100-year history of women’s football in the United Kingdom, another novel aspect of Dhaliwal’s presentation is that she concentrates on her subjects as individuals. Pictures within Jean Williams‘s recent work, A Game for Rough Girls? A History of Women’s Football in Britain (Routledge, 2003), show the players of post–World War I vintage in standardized group photos. Williams picks out the common elements: “mobcaps, tunics and full-sleeved shirts” marking women as working class, with the women’s body shapes hidden to suggest “restraint and order” (84). Male trainers and female chaperones are prominent.

Dhaliwal

The women in Dhaliwal’s portraits must be identified in accompanying text, yet they stare down the lens, proudly, almost defiantly. In creating these images, Dhaliwal has contributed to the public memory of the women’s game, a notable deficiency when compared, Williams writes, to the profusion of memorials and stadia that commemorate male players in the UK. Starting in 1921, after the rise to prominence of munitions teams such as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies of Preston—and marking the beginning of the Football Association’s nearly 50-year ban on women using FA grounds—women’s football largely faded from public view. Williams writes:

In conversation, people frequently ask if women play for ninety minutes, on full-size pitches and so forth. The common-sense idea that women can’t play is evident in these, mostly innocent, enquiries. The assumption that the sport must be very different from the men’s game is also a factor. This sense of the unusual is reinforced by the human geography of Britain: male participation in football is so ubiquitous that we know about it and will probably have seen at least part of a game even if we don’t want to. To appreciate when, where and how women play, we have to take the time to find out. (69)

While difficult to find evidence for such statements, other than the oral histories that Williams compiles, football seems to generate special passion among women players. One must consider the sacrifices in time, the necessity to integrate training and matches with school and work schedules—the famous example involves England internationals Eniola Aluko and Karen Carney sitting for A-level qualification exams during the 2005 European Championships. Inhospitable weather in the UK can be another deterrent, topped on the fact, as Williams writes, that football is “rarely a casual exercise option” compared to swimming or other individual pursuits.

A charity-match program promoting a Birmingham derby, Aston Villa Ladies XI v. Birmingham Beau Belles XI, 2 May 1971. (http://www.btinternet.com/~bclfc/)

Dhaliwal herself says she grew up “football mad” and played the game with support from her parents. Her work transpires at a unique period in the story of Birmingham City Ladies and of women’s football around England. Having qualified for September’s World Cup finals for the first time since 1995, the England national team again has raised the sport’s profile. But, as in the United States, women’s football struggles for a financial and cultural foothold.

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