"An Age of Progress": Did Sport Inspire Women's Suffrage?

Over the past two and a half years, since we set up The Football History Boys, there are two areas of history which we have researched and written about extensively - the Victorian Era and Women's sporting history. This piece is going to combine the two as we explore the sporting revolution and the impact of women. Prior to c.1860 the social order of Britain was relatively firm - the 1832 reform act had promised much but delivered little. Women were well and truly second class citizens held back by a misogynistic, male dominated society. However, from 1863 the 'sporting revolution' saw the codifications of football, tennis, rugby and a great deal of other games. As popularity in each grew, the opportunities for women to play also evolved by the end of the nineteenth century - coinciding with the campaign for female suffrage. How much was the suffragette movement inspired by sport?

The subject of gender in sport is always one of interest, but also one which is vital to understand as it highlights just what prejudice and negativity women overcame in order to achieve general equality. It is worth remembering that it wasn't until 1918 that women were granted the right to vote in the United Kingdom following the suffragette movement and the First World War. In the past we have written about the rise of women's football between 1914 & 1918 and the way it brought females to the forefront of sport and recreation attracting attendances of over 60,000 people.

This piece, however, is one for The Sporting History Boys. Over the next few paragraphs we will see just how the new multitude of sports available helped lead to a new found sense of freedom for women and chance to express them like never before. The sporting revolution was born out of a growing need for what J.A. Mangan describes as a muscular Christianity. Following military defeat in Crimea and an increasingly ungentlemanly and unchristian public school system with codified sport offering a chance to reintroduce these principles.[1] But of course this still excludes women - so where do they fit in?

Dick, Kerr Ladies attracted 60,000 fans

To get a grasp of how women's sport was received by some, an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine entitled "Modern Mannish Maidens" may give us some indication,[2]

""It is not only the de rigeuer in society that a woman should try to look her best; it is, or ought to be, an instinct with herself. If she be very woman, it would seem not possible that she could under any circumstances consent to exhibit herself in an ungainly manner before the world, least of all before men...[On football and hockey] We heard the other day in a certain locality of that eminently boyish and manlike game of hockey being played promiscuously by ladies and gentlemen, we confess we were fairly aghast! After this we need not be surprised if, as rumour tells us, there has been contemplation to start a ladies' football club."

Sport as with most things in Victorian society was based heavily on class divides. What this created was a greater opportunity for women to play 'middle'-class sports like tennis and croquet. On the other hand, 'sports' like croquet were more a social exercise or leisure pursuit, one which led to inevitable flirtation when in the company of men. The same can be said for the earliest forms of tennis - codified in 1874 with mixed doubles becoming the most popular code to adopt at parties and gatherings - hardly an example of feminine freedom - but still a step in the right direction.

The new-found support for female inclusion in lawn tennis was made clear by an article in the Pall Mall Gazette,


"[It] would be a bold reformer who would offer to exclude lawn tennis from a nineteenth-century utopia. Though there is always a congenial soil in England for any form of fair sport, no game has ever before attained such sudden and universal popularity....In England, the tendency to admit women - or rather the tendency of women to be admitted - to an equality and similarity of pursuits with men has been increasing with great rapidity...the advocates of women's rights and the agitators for their higher education will do well and wisely to give what support they have to the pursuit of lawn tennis."[3]

Of course this view was not supported by all - but it does show that opinions towards women and their 'capabilities' were changing towards the end of the nineteenth-century. The above article also offers one of the first connections between sport and 'women's rights' - could sport lead to suffrage? Quite possibly.  What is evident from research, is that women playing sport was a contentious issue. The sheer volume of newspaper articles with concern to such a topic demonstrates this. Lawn tennis and croquet were perhaps lauded due to the potential to 'retain femininity' when playing and the less physical side to such pastimes.

Mixed Doubles

As we delve into the working-class sports like football we see a different attitude towards women. Participation in sport for the working-class female was a less-common event due to restrictions on leisure time and family-living, leaving sport a primarily middle-class venture. However, of the sports played, the physical nature required a difference in fashion, which many thought too revealing. Indeed through fashion we can see signs of female expression and independence. In the cycling world and its boom years of 1895-7 the previous fashion of large dresses was beginning to be removed from popular culture. The inclusion of 'knickerbockers' was greeted with open arms by female cyclists but horror from other social commentators. A letter to the South Wales Daily News asks, "Why on earth the feminine sex want to wear hideous tweed baggy knickerbockers and mannish Norfolk and Newmarket coats atop I know not."[4]

Not all commentators agreed with this however. It is not difficult to also find a wealth of articles praising the changes to fashion and the lifting of restrictions to female sport. On the subject of fashion in football.

""In own mind, as well, probably, as in the minds of the majority of those present (says correspondent the Manchester Guardian) there was some doubt as to the effect number of girls clad in unfamiliar dress indulging in a game which is usually of the roughest character, but I can only say that the impression left on ray mind the afternoon's play was that was an extremely pretty sight. There is nothing ungraceful in a pretty girl kicking football when she has got rid of the skirts which make the action hideous, and the light figures of the girls chasing each other up and down the ground was always pleasant to watch. "

There is no doubt a slightly patronising undertone to the article above, constantly referring to the players as 'pretty' and 'pleasant to watch' when 'chasing each other up and down'. However, it does offer a positivity towards women's sport alien to common opinion. From what we have covered so far, we can see that women were beginning to feel a sense of equality in some sports and begin to be granted freedom to express themselves through fashion and the games played. If such ideals could be found in sport and at a social level, surely soon politics would also begin to come in question.


Sport and politics have endured a strange relationship throughout history. By the end of the nineteenth century sport was given special mention by the conservative party - owing much of its strength to the 'national love of sport', also citing the Liberal party's condemnation of all outdoor games. In the modern-day this seems rather ironic - the Tory party have done little to cement an Olympic legacy and their thirst for fox-hunting being counter-productive in any sporting-political relationship....oh and don't get us started on FIFA![5]

Suffragettes....ON WHEELS!

So what of women's sport and politics? Sports historian Mike Huggins writes that by the end of the Victorian era demands from women to extend their political, educational and professional aspirations were being linked to sport.[6] Historians are quick to make links between women's sport and their later emancipation - Richard Holt noting that the "symbolic act of cycling for women was more important than the reality of female participation. The right to be strong, swift and independent certainly challenged received wisdom about women."[7]

"There never was anything like the sudden and amazing leap into fashion and popularity of cycling amongst ladies in 1895 and 1896. Some always had ridden the tricycles when obtainable, and even they were looked at rather askance by many folks; but when a few mounted bicycles people began to talk! This was intensified by the fact that a good proportion of the first few lady bicyclists rode in knickerbockers, or some other form of what was curiously called "rational" costume—a subject that was hotly debated. The honest truth was that all the machines first built for skirts were terribly heavy and handicapped women rides greatly. Then all of a sudden ladies took to the new and fascinating exercise en masse; good machines at 281bs. made it easy for them really rational skirts were arrived at, and, by common consent, the knickerbockers were countermanded by the universal voice of the ladies themselves."[8]

Cycling was a sport described by modern sports historians as a 'mass phenomenon' due to its pan-class inclusion, but where does it fit into politics?[9] The above article notes the 'universal voice of ladies' - a voice not often heard, or listened too before 1900. The Suffragette movement by 1897 was well and truly operational with the humble bicycle becoming an unlikely ally. The suffragettes were commonly seen on bicycles at rallies and protests, provided an easier way to get about towns and cities. In fact, one Winston Churchill came up trumps to a group of cycling suffragettes in 1912,

"The First Lord of the Admiralty was "held up" suffragettes when driving at Sandwich. Mr. Churchill was the guest of Mr. Astor, and was motoring back to the house, when, about a hundred yards from the residence, two women bicycles rode their machines across the road and stood in front the motor, endeavouring by this means to intercept the First Lord. Fortunately for the women the speed of the car had been reduced at this point, but it was only owing the skilful way in which the car was handled by the chauffeur that very serious accident was avoided as the car got clear of the shouting women. "[10]

In fact, as well as targeting politicians and leading figures in British society, the suffragettes found a great deal of attention when targeting sport. An article in the Independent in 2013 demonstrated this, citing not only Emily Davison's famous intrusion at the 1913 Derby but a series of other incidents relating to golf, tennis and cricket. Some suffragettes even burning down cricket pavilions and flying "Votes for Women" at different sporting occasions. What is also vital to remember is that this wasn't an attack on sport, but simply making use of the sheer scale and enormity of such events - where better to make a point? 

Emily Davison stuns the world

So, did sport inspire suffrage? It is a question which certainly leaves open the door to further research and investigation but also one which can be answered to a certain extent. For me, suffrage was indirectly inspired by the 'sporting revolution'. What sport had offered was opportunities which had never before been received by women. It offered women freedom of expression as well as the platform to demonstrate their independence and skill. Of course what is also noticeable is just who was playing these newly codified games - the middle and upper classes. Sports like lawn tennis, archery and golf were played mainly for their social etiquette and retention of femininity, but with all Victorian leisure pursuits these eventually led to competition between themselves and even against men by 1913 with the addition of mixed doubles at Wimbledon.

And let's not forget the suffragettes too. Great deals of those campaigning for the vote were also of a privileged background, fighting to remove the shackles and surveillance of their husbands or fathers. Even throughout the First World War, the 'munitionettes' demonstrated footballing abilities often on a par with their male counterparts - playing to offer men, women and children a vital lifeline in a time of ruthless devastation. From the vast number of newspaper articles discussing the subject of female sport, we can see a genuine change in opinions at the turn of the century. One article made it clearer than any other - this truly was 'An age of progress.' - Did sport inspire suffrage? You decide!


By Ben Jones (@TFHBs - @TSHBs) Follow me on Twitter @Benny_J


Notes:

[1] J.A. Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
[2] Anonymous, 'Modern Mannish Maidens', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1890
[3] Pall Mall Gazette, (18 August, 1882)
[4] South Wales Daily News, (5 September, 1895)
[5] Exeter Flying Post, (01 October, 1897)
[6] Mike Huggins, The Victorians and Sport, (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004)
[7] Richard Holt, Sport and the British, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)
[8] The Montgomery County Times, (12 June, 1897)
[9] John Lowerson, Sport and the English Middle Classes, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992)
[10] Western Times, (16 August, 1912)
[11] The York Herald, (15 March, 1875)

The Football History Boys are also proud to support the #PassItOn Breast Cancer Awareness scheme by Breast Cancer Care and the FA.

Breast Cancer effects someone every 10 minutes in the UK but an earlier diagnosis can help prevent it taking any more lives. Samia al Qahhi - Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Care says,
"It is vital that women and men of all ages get to know their body by looking and feeling their breast/chest area regularly. Then if they find any unusual changes to go and see their GP."
Football stars like Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott and Karen Carney have all got behind the campaign in the video below - have a look.

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