Last year, Sky One showed a two-part documentary about the history of football. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good, but it did raise the fascinating issue of the ban on women playing football imposed by the FA from 1921 to 1971, following huge success enjoyed by women’s football teams, especially in Lancashire, during and immediately after the First World War. Now, Channel 4 have made a documentary, presented by Clare Balding, purely about this part of football history, which isn’t at all well-known.
Most of the women’s football teams were set up during the First World War, as works teams at munitions factories – partly as what would now be called “team building”, partly as a way of keeping fit, and partly just for a bit of light relief at a very difficult time. Then they began organising charity matches, to raise money for wounded soldiers and families who’d lost their breadwinners. And the best teams were – naturally! – from Lancashire, notably Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, a team of “munitionettes” who worked at the Dick, Kerr & Co factory in Preston.
It even sounds as if, after the war, women who were known to be good footballers were given jobs there so that they could get them on the team. Their two star players, Lily Parr and Alice Woods, were both from St Helens, and had previously played for St Helens Ladies. Most of the matches were local, and they attracted huge crowds. 27,000 at Gigg Lane. 33,000 at Burnden Park. And, on Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 at Goodison Park, with another 14,000 locked out. Seriously impressive attendances. And considerable press coverage as well.
Then, in December 1921, the FA banned women from playing football. Well, it tried to. It banned them from playing on grounds belonging to Football League clubs. So they were reduced to using public parks or dog tracks instead. Interest dwindled. Press coverage pretty much stopped. Presumably the ban didn’t extend to, say, rugby or cricket grounds, and the teams did keep going, but the FA ban did pretty much kill women’s football as a force, and it didn’t really revive until the late 1960s – and still doesn’t attract the sort of interest and coverage in this country that it does in some other countries.
So why was it banned? That’s the question. There were a lot of questions being asked at this time about women’s role in society generally. During the war, women had taken on jobs previously only done by men: now, a lot of men wanted women shoved back into a domestic role. All those arguments about whether girls should be taught domestic science at school, whilst boys were studying academic subjects. I’m not sure that this would actually have been that much of an issue in industrial, working-class areas of Lancashire, where women traditionally did work, but then the FA wasn’t exactly representative of grass-roots football. One of the official excuses given was that football was unsuitable for women and could damage fertility – the sort of theory that was very much tied in with wanting to get women out of a sphere that was seen as a male-only preserve.
The other official excuse given was that the money from charity matches wasn’t going to charity, but was being appropriated in “expenses” or used for “non-charitable objects”. This was 1921. The date’s important. In April 1921, coal mining, which had been nationalised during the war, was privatised, and the new owners immediately started talking about wage cuts. Strikes were called. The idea – this being before sympathetic strikes were banned – was that members of the transport and railway unions would walk out in support of the members of the mining union. But they didn’t. The miners were left to go it alone. And then they were locked out by the mines’ new owners.
A team whose two star players were from St Helens really wouldn’t appreciate being described as “near Wigan” 🙂 – but this was very much a Lancashire thing, with the biggest teams being based in areas fairly close to the big Wigan-Salford coal mining belt. Some of the money from the matches was going to help support the miners and their families. So was that what really pissed off the men in suits at the FA, and was that the real reason for the ban?
I don’t know. It makes a cracking story. Women are pushed out of the national sport for half a century because the Westminster elite were trying to do down the proud (I’m talking about Preston: I’ve got to get the word “proud” in there!) working classes of our great County Palatine. But would the Establishment really have had that much influence over the FA? We’re talking the 1920s, not the 1870s. Then again, I suppose it didn’t have to be the Establishment: there wasn’t too much support for the starving miners and their families in many other quarters either. It’s certainly a very interesting theory.
I think jealousy was probably the main cause, though. The men – and they were all men, and that’s an issue even now – at the FA just couldn’t bear the fact that female teams were attracting so much interest and such huge crowds. Part of it was financial – they didn’t like the idea that ticket receipts etc which might otherwise have gone to men’s football were going to women’s football instead – and part of it was just pure male ego. They couldn’t bear seeing women make such a success of something they thought should be a male-only preserve.
And, of course, the FA got what they wanted. Women’s football went into decline. It’s never, in this country, got back to the level that it was at in 1920. It’s a lot bigger now than it was even a few years ago (oh, and don’t even get me started on the fact that United still haven’t got a ladies’ team – it’s a disgrace, and I find it extremely embarrassing especially given that the City and Liverpool ladies’ teams are two of the most prominent in the country) but even the women’s Euro 2017 event, currently taking place in the Netherlands, isn’t attracting the sort of interest that Dick, Kerr Ladies did back in the day. You can’t force it. There are plenty of other sports – tennis, for example – in which the women’s game does attract considerable interest. But how different could it all have been if the FA hadn’t done what they did in 1921? They killed something that was giving a lot of people a lot of harmless pleasure, and, whatever crap they came out with about it being unhealthy, they did it largely out of spite. Red card. Very definitely a red card. And give the match ball to Clare Balding and Channel 4: Channel 4’s historical documentaries aren’t always very good, but this one was excellent. Very, very interesting.