England | Rough girls, delicate boys

England and Arsenal Ladies captain Faye White at a Football Foundation–sponsored event at White’s old school in Horley, Surrey, 16 Apr 07. White presented uniforms as part of a junior-kit scheme to help build boys’ and girls’ football. (Copyright © Alan Crowhurst)

England women try to surmount culture of contempt

And why shouldn’t girls play football, anyway? Coom to that, why shouldn’t they play it as well as t’ men? ’Tis all a lot o’ rot to say that it’s dangerous—’tis no more dangerous than other sport. There is always a risk aboot everything. Oh, I know we’ve got plenty o’ difficulties to overcome, but we’ll manage ’em all reet. (“Meg Foster—Footballer” [1921], p. 1)

Leicester, England | With the United States and England preparing to meet in a Women’s World Cup quarterfinal Sept 22 in Tianjin, China, the contest matches players who, to some degree, owe their footballing fortunes to the deeds of Lancashire forebears.

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, formed in Preston in 1917 by munitions workers at Dick Kerr and Co Ltd, would endure in various guises until 1965. With the encouragement of factory overseers seeking to galvanize women joining the workforce in World War I, the women donned the Newcastle United–like black-and-white strip and, with numerous other women’s football collectives, helped create the “plucky heroine” ideal. Such an ideal was celebrated in mass-produced pulp magazines, as in the story of “Meg Foster—Footballer,” quoted above. Dick, Kerr’s at the peak of its popularity played to average crowds of 25,000, raising thousands of pounds for charitable causes.

In 1921, the side—including the 15-year-old inside-right Lily Parr, who would score nearly 1,000 goals in her career—played before an aggregate crowd of some 900,000. On Dec 6 of that year, the English Football Association banned women’s football from the grounds of FA-member clubs. As Jean Williams, senior research fellow in the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University, explains in the interview below, the decision set the course for women’s football—and not just in England.

Seeking new audiences abroad, the Dick, Kerr team set sail for North America in Sept 1922. Thinking they would be playing women’s teams on arrival, none could be found. Instead, “the team learned they had been booked to play men’s teams across industrial districts,” writes historian Alethea Melling. Playing against male immigrant teams, their bobbed hair perhaps seen as a sign of radicalism, the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies on tour only solidified the growing impression of America as conservative and tradition-bound. Soccer was a game of the “rabble.” “Nativism and anti-foreign sentiment,” Melling continues, “worked to reject soccer as a national sport.”

Paradoxically, of course, women’s soccer in the United States ultimately would benefit from the sport’s low cultural status. Men sought more “authentic” American sports, and women could adopt the game, aided by Title IX legislation, without an accumulated gender bias.

The FA, with what would be a 50-year restriction on women’s football, literally cordoned off the sport as a male bastion. Attitudes hardened to the extent that any commentary on the present England squad, read in this cultural context, serves to confirm the minor importance of the women’s game. More severely, Williams writes of the “peculiarly English expression of contempt for women who play football.” Demonstrations of the attitude are manifold. On the website of the liberal Guardian broadsheet, columnist Martin Kelner illustrates the patronizing tone (“A Triumph of Hope Over Dick Van Dyke Any Day,” Guardian Sport Blog, Sept 16):

There are frustrations in watching women’s football, especially when one of the less accomplished players insinuates herself into a flowing move and invariably misplaces the pass, but incidental pleasures too; like finding a favourite gender stereotype confirmed, when the England striker Kelly Smith took her boots off and kissed them after each of her two goals against Japan. How appropriate, I thought, for the women’s game to come up with a shoe-related celebration.

Interview with Jean Williams

GG: Your book A Game for Rough Girls on the history of women’s football in Britain takes its title from a saying attributed to Oscar Wilde. “Football is all very well a good game for rough girls, but is quite unsuitable for delicate boys.” You speak of the “contemptuous” attitude that British have taken to women playing football—how has this attitude come about?

JW: The attitude came about from several sources, really. The Football Association in England was formed in 1863, and they had to accept professionalism in 1885, and then we had the Football League in this country. By 1895 there was a touring women’s team run by a woman called Nettie Honeyball, the secretary, and Lady Florence Dixie, who was a kind of patron. They raised quite a lot of money. Their first game was in front of 10,000 people. … Women’s football had grown to such popularity by 1921, attracting crowds of 55,000, for example, at Goodison Park, that the FA banned it from the grounds of the Football League and clubs affiliated with the Football Association. That ban was to last for another 50 years before it was lifted. So [the attitude has] a long history.

GG: So women’s football is still recovering from this history.

JW: Right. … It’s really popular for the Football Association to say that [women's football] is the fastest-growing sport. In actual fact, if you ban something for 50 years, and suddenly you allow it to happen, then it’s almost bound to grow. Women did continue to play during the ban, it’s just that they weren’t allowed to attract large spectator support. So many of the public didn’t know about it as a women’s sport.

In an undated newsreel, “Playing Adam’s Game,” Dick, Kerr’s Ladies goes through a training routine. Says the introductory intertitle: “ ‘Weaker sex?’ said the Captain of the famous Dick Kerr Women’s Football Team. ‘Not much weakness about us.’ Watching their training we agreed.” (www.britishpathe.com)

GG: The story of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies of Preston is well-known. But there were, you write, 150 women’s teams in 1921 at the time of the FA restrictions. What do we know about the lives and experience of the women who played at that time?

JW: It’s something that I would like to know personally very much more about. We do know something about them, because they compiled scrapbooks. They kept them, and they passed them on to relatives and also to various collectors of women’s football memorabilia. So we have postcards, programs, photographs and these very valuable scrapbooks. If we stick to Dick, Kerr’s just for now, many of the women actually played football when they went to work in munitions factories during the First World War. They were actually helped to play by the welfare supervisors of these various factories. When the soldiers came home from the First World War, a lot of the women had to be retrained. And many of Dick, Kerr’s actually worked at Whittingham [Hospital] and mental-health facilities in the UK and retrained as nurses, and then some of them retrained again to become bus conductresses and various other jobs.

But, broadly, wherever you find groups of women working, you’ll find groups of women playing football. The Lyon’s Ladies tea houses which were a big part of English social history all had women’s football teams. Engineering factories, for example, where bicycle components were put together … also had women’s teams.

GG: You presumably had to work to find these scrapbooks and these historical records. Where did you end up finding them?

JW: You’re not kidding about that. I found the vast majority by word of mouth. I would take a scanner and a laptop and also a camera, and I would just go and sit in people’s homes—people were kind enough to invite me into their homes to speak about this. As an academic, we say that it is held in the private domain. These are sources that are not generally available in the public domain. I think this is what contributes to the fact that there isn’t an awful lot known about this history of women’s football. …

My new book, A Beautiful Game, has a chapter on the United States, and I found broadly very similar things there. I’ve been helped there also by the archivists of the women’s colleges: Brown, Smith, Radcliffe, for example. And again we’re looking at people’s … scrapbooks and so on to put together a picture of women’s soccer in the U.S. colleges.

GG: In this earlier British history, is there a connection between feminist activism—the suffrage movement, for example—and the development of women’s football?


JW: The patron, Lady Florence Dixie of the British Ladies’ Football Club around 1895–96, … she’s a pretty interesting figure in her own right. She was an adventuress. She would go on travels on her own, and she was very concerned with the rights question in a way that a lot of aristocrats and very upper-class women were. Nettie Honeyball doesn’t seem to have been quite so politically motivated, but she certainly, if you ever see the photographs of her, is a pretty formidable character. I would maybe have liked to have met her. But they were definitely formed with the notion of promoting women’s sport.

Just the issue of women’s dress around this time would have been enormously contentious. You’ve got the issue of women who were wearing split skirts or culottes or whatever you want to call them to go cycling who were harangued in the street and had things thrown at them. They were actually attacked. The notion of women wearing shorts or culottes as some of them wore to play football in 1895 seems to be an issue of female modesty. So even if they weren’t politically motivated, they were certainly challenging certain ideas about female modesty at that time.

Dick, Kerr Ladies were not particularly political at all. They seem to have formed around female enthusiasm and the game. When the soldiers came back from the First World War, Dick, Kerr players were more than willing for these guys to have their jobs back. Grace Sibbert, who set up the first Dick, Kerr’s game, was actually married to one of the guys who went to fight during the First World War.

It wasn’t really until maybe the 1960s, 1970s on both sides of the Atlantic when women started to see sport as part of a political agenda. For example, your Women’s Sports Foundation with Donna de Varona and Billie Jean King are much more political still now in terms of their activism than ours.

GG: The FA restrictions lasted until 1971. Alethea Melling writes of women playing on farmers’ fields and rugby pitches during this 50-year period. Is it right to say that women’s football went totally underground?

JW: It kind of is, but is also isn’t. If I could give an example of the Dick, Kerr Ladies tour in 1923 to the United States. They were trying to think of alternative ways to draw large crowds. Again, Dick, Kerr’s first game was in front of 10,000 people. Although [they] managed to draw 55,000, their regular attendance was around 25,000. So when they came over to the U.S. to tour, they thought they would be playing against women’s teams. That didn’t happen. I don’t know why … no one from the women’s colleges played against Dick, Kerr Ladies when they came over.

But what actually happened is that they ended up playing against the men’s professional teams who were forming a professional league in the United States at that time. They won a few, they drew a few, and they lost a couple.

The promoters of women’s football were looking for an alternative means to present them to a paying public. When that wasn’t possible, then … if they went onto local parks—even sometimes they would share greyhound-racing tracks—it enables them to have some sort of theater to present their football as entertainment. Once you can play on the ground it enables you to charge people to enter. So the question of money is also something that needs to be looked at more.

The cover of Williams’s new book, A Beautiful Game: International Perspectives on Women’s Football (Berg, 2007), features a 1906 card of an early female footballer. The caption reads, “A Fine All-Round Player.”

GG: You suggest that the British attitude toward women’s football is that it is “inauthentic” compared to the men’s game. Does that attitude carry on to this World Cup?

JW: It’s kind of ironic that the Football Association now is employing public-relations officials who are coming up with slogans like “the beautiful game” and “our beautiful game.” When I came over to the States for the ’99 Women’s World Cup and also in 2000 we had slogans like “This is my game, watch me play.” And it strikes me that all of those phrases are a little bit defensive, because they’re actually trying to make the thing seem more normal—given that the FA pursued a policy for 50-odd years of saying that it wasn’t suitable for women.

Even when they lifted the ban, they didn’t actually get actively involved in women’s football until 1993, for example. They prevented what was then the Women’s FA, an affiliated body that it kept at arm’s length, from promoting a Women’s World Cup in 1972 which would have had the backing of England’s World Cup heroes. That would have changed the face, not only of women’s football in this country, but also possibly globally.

GG: Is playing football for women in the UK still a countercultural activity?

JW: Kind of. But most of the women that I have interviewed and played against … wouldn’t consider themselves to be feminists. They just love sport, and they find it a source of sociability, belonging to the club. But also they love the combination of really quite vigorous, physical activity, but also the absorption of football. A lot of the players you speak to love the tactics and thinking about the game aspect. So it’s not like belonging to a gym, where you kind of distract yourself watching a TV monitor while you’re exercising. [Football] is something that is both physically and mentally absorbing.

GG: Kelly Smith was quoted in the Observer as saying that she needs football to feel alive (Anna Kessel, “England’s Hot Shot,” Sept 2). Is that the kind of passion that you found in the oral histories and interviews that you put together?

JW: At elite levels of the game, what you find, because a lot of women have to work to support themselves and then fit their football training around their work, they actually organize their week around the game. The women’s games in the UK take place on a Sunday afternoon, because that’s the only time the pitches are free. Everything revolves around that Sunday-afternoon kickoff. Monday they will be resting. Tuesday there’ll be some kind of training that continues throughout the week. And by Saturday they’re thinking about what they’re going to eat, going to bed early, making sure they get plenty of rest. For some women, their lives are organized around playing football at the highest levels that they can.

For a lot of other women, it’s an aspect of sociability. There are a lot of mothers and daughters who play, sometimes on the same team. It’s for all the reasons that people do sport, physical activity and other leisure activities.

GG: In the Daily Telegraph, Bobby Charlton laments the poor state of grassroots football for boys in England (Tim Rich, “Grass Roots in Danger of Dying,” Sept 7). What is the situation of schools football for girls and in other grassroots areas?

JW: In terms of schools, there is another historic element to that. With the formation of the English Schools Football Assocation in 1904, that was a registered charity. Because they had written into their constitution that they were promoting football for boys, when we had the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 in this country, they suddenly thought, “Oh, no, are we obliged to promote it for girls?” And then it took another eight years for them to change their constitution to promote football in schools more generally. It’s becoming a school sport for girls, but it isn’t a widespread school sport for girls.

At grassroots level, with the huge success of the soccer leagues in the United States and that stereotype of the “soccer mom” and “soccer dad,” the huge success of that is that it relies upon a network of communities of volunteers. People do give up their time, and they give up their money. A lot of your leagues are self-funding. … I do think sometimes that sports development offices in the UK can be a little bit less than respectful of the volunteers who give of their time to promote the sport. You could have one sport development volunteer for the whole of the county, but it actually relies on those people getting up and going out and organizing that for their children or the community.

The Football Association touts the England women’s team as “Girls United” on its microsite. Can FA structures adapt to the different cultural and organizational forces shaping the women’s game?

GG: In your view, is the grassroots development of girls’ and women’s football hindered in a way because there is this large superstructure, the FA, already existing that has organized a popular and prevalent game for men?

JW: Women’s football because of the [FA] ban had to develop alternative structures, which it did. But the trouble is since the FA has taken over since 1993, those established structures were not really respected. For example, I used to be an administrator and a player in something called the East Midlands League. Now that was regional, across maybe five or six counties, and we were more inclusive than exclusive. If you wanted to join and you lived a little outside, then that was fine.

What the FA wanted to impose was a county-based structure, so you would have one league per county. The effect of that was a decline in the competitive nature of the games. So a lot of teams just disbanded, because if you could only access a county’s players and ended up having not a very good game, why would you bother? Sometimes the sport development initiatives seem a good idea, but a little bit more consultation would help to build on the existing structures.

GG: That England has reached the World Cup finals for the first time in 12 years, does that indicate that the country is recovering finally from being late, compared to other European countries, in bringing women’s football into the domestic structure?

JW: I would love to say yes, but I’m afraid it isn’t really that straightforward. If I just give you the examples of Norway and, again, the United States, the huge area of discussion around United States soccer is whether it’s been the victim of an American exceptionalism, whether because of the big three and a half—American football, basketball, baseball and, to an extent, ice hockey—whether soccer has been forced out onto the margins as a relatively less manly, less indigenous sport. I don’t know quite how you would explain the success of the U.S. [women's] national team and the great success of the Women’s World Cup 1999.

If you look at Norway, for the size of the country, Norway has had considerable success in women’s football, and yet women’s football isn’t the number-one sport over there, either. That would be handball. …

If you had seen the England team at the UEFA qualifiers that were held in England [2005 UEFA Women's Championship], they didn’t play very well and we went out of that tournament early on. I think it’s a combination that Hope Powell is a great coach—I’ve got a lot of respect for her and the initiatives that she’s brought into the England team—and a generally more professional attitude. I think it’s been the support of the FA in hosting at Loughborough University a development campus, a squad of 20 players. In the case of Kelly Smith, a lot of our very good English players have gone abroad to the United States to play college football. Then it wasn’t very attractive for them to return to England, necessarily. Current debates about David Beckham going to and fro across the Atlantic and his stamina and his carbon footprint—I remember these debates being around since Kelly Smith was first picked for England in 1995. So there are a number of things that we’ll have to look at.

GG: Your new book, A Beautiful Game, covers case studies in the U.S., China and Australia, in addition to England. What more is learned about women’s football in England when compared to those other areas?

JW: A couple of things, really. If I pick the case of a Women’s World Cup, I gave you an example earlier where someone in England taking the initiative to try and promote a Women’s World Cup in the 1970s. That was also the case out in China in the 1970s. There were letters coming in from journalists and administrators in Australia to FIFA about a Women’s World Cup in the 1970s, plus inquiries from the United States. The picture that begins to emerge from this is that FIFA looked at women’s football and then decided not to take control of it until roughly the 1970s. Then you begin to have unofficial Women’s World Cups, in Italy in ’69 and ’70, Mexico in the Aztec Stadium in ’71 and so on.

So the football authorities were then caught in a real dilemma. They didn’t want to take control of women’s football, but certain women’s associations then tried to set up their own version of FIFA—a women’s FIFA, if you like. FIFA couldn’t allow that to happen because they’re meant to be acting for the good of the game and for the good of world football. Consequently, they were sort of obliged to take control of women’s football, although they were unwilling. That’s quite an interesting story.

There’s lots of polite, but sustained, lobbying for a Women’s World Cup into the ’70s. So by the mid-1980s, FIFA president [João] Havelange is saying, “Yes, we’re going to have a Women’s World Cup.” They trial it initially in ’88 as a Women’s World Invitational. In 1991 out in China we have the first Women’s World Championship. They didn’t at that point give it a World Cup name, until later. So you can tell that they were quite tentative and cautious in developing that aspect of women’s football.

GG: There is so much competing for attention with women’s football. This Women’s World Cup and the previous tournament both occurred in September, up against the international football calendar. Is this poor promotion by FIFA? Is there a better alternative?

JW: I was there in the Rose Bowl in 1999. That was clever scheduling, wasn’t it. It was so hot, in terms of capturing whoever was out there, to watch football, to watch a major tournament, to watch a women’s sport, it really did work. One of the dilemmas for the promotion of the women’s game … is how to structure [the schedule]. Are we going to go down the route of having doubleheader games, or are we going to go down the route of stretching the sport calendar, having women’s football in the offseason?—slightly along the same model that they do with Women’s NBA.

I would guess that stretching the calendar is the way forward, because there’s no doubt 1999 proved that a women’s event can pull major crowds—live crowds—but also it can capture that television audience. It was so shrewdly marketed in selling it to the football families, who we already spoke about, who maybe couldn’t get to see the men’s World Cup out in the U.S. in 1994. Something like half of the tickets for Women’s World Cup ’99 were sold in the spring before. So there were some really key lessons to be learned.


About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. [...] Why shouldn’t girls play football? (The Global Game) [...]

  2. Big Ed says:

    As an American, I am always amazed at the lack of media coverage here in the UK for women’s sports. In the US, with university sports receiving millions for TV coverage, our women’s football (soccer) and basketball teams get great coverage, and I find it disturbing that the women’s English football team did so well at the recent World Cup and yet there was so little coverage in any of the mainstream newspapers. We train mostly women here at http://www.get-fit-at-home.com, and, believe me, they are tougher on themselves than men in terms of fitness levels.

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.