Footballers At War: The Rise of Women's Football 1914-1918

Footballers At War has proven to be one of the most intriguing and inspiring series of blogs we have produced here at TFHB. They have taught us that footballers played their own part in the theatre of conflict, whether it be the First or Second World Wars, many in the form of domestic adversity and others in the face of fierce and colossal battle. With this year marking 100 years since WWI we generally moved our focus to 1914-1918 and looked in to who was involved in the fighting as well as the social ambivalence shown towards such 'heroes' going off to fight to Belgium and France. However, there is one group in British society which we have only looked into lightly - women. The First World War would prove a vital turning point for the female game and attitudes towards a woman's role in the social fabrication of Britain. 

To look into the state of women's football in 1914 is to first gain a picture of just where in society females actually stood. Prior to 1914, the role of women in society was epitomized by the suffragette movement, pioneered by Emmeline Pankhurst in order to attain the right to vote in elections. The almost medieval views of a women being too weak, too sensitive and incompetent to vote or to play sport were beginning to be rethought by a number in society. The movement saw tensions at a peak a year before War broke out with the death of Emily Davison who threw herself in front of the King's horse at Epsom. It was a statement of intent from women but one which was ignored as the threat of war became more and more likely.

In terms of sport the role of women is staggering to discover. It is of no surprise that such games like football and rugby were not seen as suitable for a women to participate in due to the physicality and the tactical nous involved - both reasons of course absurd. Middle Class sports like tennis and archery were perhaps seen as the most 'suitable' for female participation pre-1914, often due to the attractiveness of play or the chance for flirtation whilst playing. Football was of course played by a select number of women - most notably the British Ladies Football Club, pioneered by the elusive character of Nettie Honeyball. A piece entitled, "Modern Mannish Maidens" in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in 1890 (albeit 24 years before WWI) is perhaps one of the most notable examples of genuine misogyny in public opinion,
"It is not only the de rigeuer in society that a women 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."[1]
Women's football was clearly as game played sparsely across the nation - numerous newspaper articles from the time speak of moral outrage at the idea of a mother, or prospective wife playing sports. The Rhyl Observer was quick to highlight the importance of making the female game as graceful as possible, in order for the game to not descend into one of an unladylike manner. Such opportunities to see the women's game were few and far between before the First World War. The outbreak of war in 1914 was also calls from within the suffragette movement for a hiatus on all forms of protest towards the male-dominated parliament in order to fight a greater German threat.

Tennis: A game more befitting for women

The general attitude of men across the nation just a few months before conflict was entirely different. The Yorkshire Evening Post noted the conduct of women attending a football match in Huddersfield as 'unseemly', before the Aberdeen Evening Express questioned whether ladies should be allowed to attend football at all. A reader wrote in to describe how many male fans could be found swearing vehemently, even becoming like 'apes' whilst watching their respective sides. The writer finally notes the contagious enthusiasm of a crowd infecting women watching - football it would seem needs not the inclusion of ladies.[2][3]

The men's game was not officially suspended until the start of the 1915-16 season after a wealth of calls from various social circles at the time, mainly due to the average professional already boasting a number of the key physical attributes needed to be on the frontline. It was with the gradual decline of the Football League that women's sport began to be projected to the wider public. Tim Tate, who wrote "Girls With Balls: A Secret History of Women's Football" notes that female football became a vital lifeline to many war widows, children and wounded soldiers as an escape from the horrors of trench warfare.[4]

Women's football was vital escape from the horrors of War.
During the First World War, women played a vital role on the home front, helping to make munition and supplies for the allied forces across the English Channel. From these munition factories developed the first female teams - with the workers dubbed "Munitionettes". Teams like the 'Dick, Kerr's Ladies', 'Blyth Spartans Ladies' and the 'Bolckow, Vaughn Ladies' all began to compete in front of large wartime crowds. The lack of men's football from 1915 meant that the women's game could take off, becoming a source of enlightenment and hope in a period dominated by anything but.
-Forthcoming Match in Nottm-
Inspired by the useful lift given to charitable organisations in other centres, the girls employed in the Ministry of Munitions Inspection Department have issued a challenge to the female operatives in another local factory to meet them in a football contest...It should take place on the ground of the Nottingham Forest F.C., the secretary has obtained special permission from the F.A. to play it."[5]
Such positive accounts are as common to find as ones of outrage and distain. A women writing to The Aberdeen Free Press offered a view of genuine anguish as she saw females playing the sport in...SHORTS! In a letter entitled "A Protest on the Grounds of Unseemliness" (later found in the Yorkshire Evening Post) she cries,
"No one is more in favour of common sense and utility of dress than I am...But with this garment I should also like to put on a certain amount of womanly reserve...What I maintain is that men's costume should be donned by women as a last resource, as a necessity, as a means to the carrying-out of our present-day war work, and not unless absolutely necessary. Then let women refrain from football matches as an entertainment even in aid of red-cross funds."[6]
Even in such domestic adversity, from 1916 women began to not just watch the game but play it. The Yorkshire Evening Post actually described the lady writing as a 'prudish ignoramus' in response to such claims. This is evidence of slight change in some social thinking towards women's sport, even if some people were still of a conservative way of thinking. In Leeds it was noted that hundreds of pounds had been raised for various charities as well inspiring a growing number of potential female footballers in South Yorkshire. The footballers are even described as revealing 'no little skill and wonderful stamina'. Such praise is refreshing to read, just three years after the negativity the game previously endured.[7]

Munitionette Football

Tim Tate is correct, with the War progressing the role women played in the War became increasingly appreciated and was the lifeline he so aptly describes. In Newcastle it is written of women footballers displaying performances of grace and cleverness, a notion far removed from, "Modern Mannish Maidens". The Lancashire Daily Post in 1918, wonderfully portrays the shift in attitude towards girls playing the sport,
"Last Saturday I had the pleasure of seeing ladies football at Deepdale and of realising for myself one or two aspects of this new development of the women's labour movement —what it means at the moment and what it may mean in the future. There are those who believe it will be an ephemeral kind of thing, that when the men come home and the real football is resumed women’s football will not able to survive, least in a public sense. That may be true but it need not concern anyone for the time being. What is material is that just now the girls are taking their mission in the game very seriously, and that mission is assist in some way towards the charitable side of the war and the same time provide themselves with little new recreation and interest. I was agreeably surprised at some of the football displayed."[8]
So which side are we to thank for such a rise in interest for women's football? Of course we have already named a number of 'Munitionette' teams, but one in particular truly deserves the title of pioneers - The Dick, Kerr Ladies. The side revolutionised the women's game, even playing in front of 53,000 people two years after the War ended. Indeed the extract above later notes the side as being formed from former swimmers - an example of the 'modern athletic girl'. By 1918 the side were unbeaten, with special praise being given to centre-half Florrie Redford for her freedom on the pitch. The team would also see the mercurial Lily Parr feature as the Dick, Kerr Ladies later went on to tour the country, and play in front of large crowds - much to the F.A's later resentment. (Read about the F.A's controversial attitude to women here)

Dick, Kerr Ladies
So there we have it, another piece dedicated to the heroes of the First World War. What we see here is not those on the frontline but those at home which kept morale high and offered people a sense of escape in a time where whole worlds were often crashing down. Women began to become more respected by those in society, and football offered ladies a chance to showcase just what they could do - the skill they undoubtedly had, the passion they produced and grace with which they could bring to the game. By 1919 the suffragette movement had reached a successful conclusion, with the pioneering efforts of those munitionette footballers no doubt a reason to be thankful for.

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

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[1] 'Modern Mannish Maidens', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1890
[2] Yorkshire Evening Post, 7 April, 1914
[3] Aberdeen Evening Express, 26 February 1914
[4] Tim Tate, Girls With Balls: A Secret History of Women's Football, (London: John Blake, 2013)
[5] Nottingham Evening Post, 3 May 1917, 
[6] Yorkshire Evening Post, 28 November 1916
[7] Yorkshire Evening Post, 18 April 1917
[8] Lancashire Daily Post,  16 March 1918


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