Simon Kuper

The conspiracy against women’s football

The women’s game is only now recovering from the 1920s ban

The conspiracy against women’s football
(Illustration: Getty)
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A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Women’s Football

Suzanne Wrack

Guardian Faber, pp. 250, £14.99

The moment before the fall of women’s football can be precisely dated. On Boxing Day 1920, Dick, Kerr Ladies FC beat St Helens 4-0 at Everton’s Goodison Park in front of 53,000 paying spectators, a sellout crowd.

That was too much for the men at the Football Association. Hysterical at the sight of women running about as they liked and scared of competition from the female game, they banned it a year later. ‘The game of football is quite unsuitable for females,’ its ruling explained. From then on, the FA barred men’s clubs from letting women use their fields. Female players were condemned to jumpers for goalposts in parks. In the following years, many of the world’s other leading football associations followed the FA’s ban. That crowd at Goodison in 1920 would remain the record for an English domestic women’s game until 2019.

Only now is women’s football roaring back, with the European Championship set to fill major stadiums when it kicks off in England on 6 July. The female game’s rocky road is traced here by Suzanne Wrack, the Guardian’s full-time women’s football correspondent – the first person in that role at any British newspaper.

E.P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class that he wanted to rescue forgotten people who had lived their lives almost unseen at the bottom of society ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’. That’s the moral purpose of Wrack’s book. Almost all male football writers (including me) have ignored female footballers. Other men have attacked them, sometimes physically. The second ever official women’s football match, Scotland vs England in 1881, in front of a crowd of 5,000, was abandoned when hundreds of men stormed the pitch and the players were forced to hide in an omnibus.

Women had to be kept out of all territory marked male. And, indeed, many pioneers of women’s football held avowedly feminist aims. Nettie Honeyball (a pseudonym) told a newspaper in 1894 that she had founded the British Ladies Football Club ‘with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the “ornamental and useless” creatures men have pictured’. She looked forward to seeing women in parliament one day.

Female football took off with the first world war – the moment of female ‘mass industrialisation’, as women replaced men in factories. They soon founded works’ teams and began playing charity matches to raise money for wounded soldiers.

The story of Dick, Kerr Ladies team, which grew out of a factory in Preston, is retold here, and screams to be made into a Netflix series. The team continued playing after the FA’s ban, and one of its stars, Lily Parr, who, aged 15, featured in that Boxing Day game at Goodison, would play for it into the 1950s.

Only in the late 1960s, during the feminist ‘second wave’, did national associations start unbanning the women’s game. Even then they didn’t give it any help. Still, an unofficial women’s World Cup in Mexico in 1971, funded by a sponsor, drew vast crowds, including a reported (but unproven) 110,000 for the final. Not everyone came for the football (the players wore hotpants), but over the next few decades the game grew unstoppably.

The century-old standard jibe from male detractors is that women’s football isn’t as good as the men’s professional game. That line of attack misses the point – how could women become good with almost no chances to play or get coaching? – and is now in any case losing validity. Each new international tournament gives the women’s game a jolt, as girls around the world discover football is for them. The current generation of players is the best ever. The next will be better.

‘This is a hugely exciting time,’ writes Wrack. The women’s game is the biggest growth opportunity in football, and quite likely in all of global sport. Club games are starting to get routine coverage in leading media. Even Manchester United, disgracefully one of the last laggards, finally has a women’s team. England’s professional women’s league still struggles, but has grown to the point that it probably matches that of the US, where the national women’s team has just been granted equal pay with the men. Elsewhere, Barcelona’s women this spring twice drew more than 90,000 spectators to the Camp Nou stadium, the two largest crowds in female football history. All this matters beyond football. ‘The effect on girls and boys of seeing women sweat, run, jump and fight should never be underestimated,’ writes Wrack.

And she argues: ‘The mere act of playing football is unequivocally a feminist one.’ This has been true for all of history, but we may now finally be getting to the point where women playing football is simply normal. Next we might reach the stage when the stars among them acquire some of the entitlement of the men: the Dubaigate scandal, when a handful of female players jetted off to the Gulf to avoid coronavirus restrictions, is a problem of success.

Wrack suggests that the men’s game ought to pay reparations to the women’s game for its 50-year restraint of the competitor’s trade. A few billion quid could do wonders to develop girls’ and women’s football around the world. But Wrack’s long discussions of how to push the English women’s game forward can get a bit wonkish for outsiders.

The book has other flaws. The history relies too much on overlong quotations from very dead newspapers, and we didn’t need reheated match reports. All in all, though, this is an impassioned rescue of brave pioneers from enormous condescension, and a joyous look ahead to better days.