Women's Football: A Victorian Disgrace?

It's been almost a solid two months since we lasted posted on here but we are back for 2015 and ready to produce a number of articles to hopefully intrigue and enlighten!

Nettie Honeyball
Since starting The Football History Boys with Gareth in February 2013, women's football is perhaps the one topic which has surprised us with just how much history it has. Originally it seemed a pastime restricted to the last thirty years but further research in university and on our own opened up a door into one of the most inspiring and profound subjects within football's seemingly endless history. Likewise, alongside the history of the women's game, the era in which I have found the most interesting was surprisingly that before 1900 - the game's infancy. We have studied men's football under the reign of Victoria so now it's time to explore just where women fitted into nineteenth-century sport. 

Victorian England is famous for a number of things - Dickens, Queen Victoria and Empire are just three examples from an inexhaustible supply of names and events which helped shape the modern Britain of today. However, perhaps one of the era's greatest achievements was in fact, 'sport'. Sport had always been around in some form - whether it be through 'real' tennis in medieval Europe or folk football played throughout the year, notably on Shrove Tuesday. What Victorian Britain brought however was a codification to these games and pastimes as rule books were written and more money was put into Lawn Tennis, Rugby and of course Football.

So where do women fit into this 'sporting revolution'? It is hard to quantify just how many women took part in sport before 1901, but a quick trawl through the vast newspaper archives can give some indication. When it comes to gender and sport, the role of class plays an important part in determining who played which particular game. For example, lawn tennis was seen as a game more befitting of those in the upper middle-class bracket of society, as grace and skill were the most important aspects of such a game. Women were allowed to play tennis alongside men in the mixed doubles as the opportunity for flirtation as well as fun was seen as a major attraction.

Football on the other hand, was different. The game was taken up in huge numbers by the working class, as spectatorship rose and professionalism took centre stage. It was a game which required strength and leadership - two necessities according to Victorian literature, that were not befitting of a woman. However, this did not stop everyone - women had seen greater social freedoms towards the end of the nineteenth-century and playing or watching football could help many women to demonstrate this growing social equality on a larger scale.

Of course, these 'social freedoms' were still a far cry to the modern equality, but sometimes even watching a game of football could promote such an issue. On the other hand, it was all too much for one journalist in 1893,

It would involve no great sacrifice, and be much more creditable to the sex, which is supposed to be all gentleness and sympathy and tenderness, if women would discontinue their attendance at football matches. It has been remarked late that more girls are seen on these occasions on the grounds, and that they apparently follow the game with great interest. Football may or may not be a " manly " sport, but it is certainly not one which women ought to take a pleasure in witnessing.[1] 

This piece in the Hull Daily Mail perhaps encompassed the general feeling towards female participation in the sport. Sports Historian Matthew Taylor has written about the role played by women in football's infancy - stating that football was not exclusively male. Taylor further cites examples of female attendance in large numbers at Preston in 1885 and Leicester in 1899 as demonstrations of enthusiasm amongst women for the sport. For Taylor, the greatest example of this comes with the founding of the British Ladies football team in the 1880/90s.[2]

British Ladies in training
The British Ladies Football Club founded by the elusive 'Nettie Honeyball' and aristocratic Florence Dixie remains one of the most poignant examples of female sporting prowess in the era. J.A Mangan has written of the side claiming they are part of a long significant history, playing charity matches and making a 'manly' game womanly. Mangan also notices the role of class as once more pivotal to female sporting opportunity - football under the stewardship of Dixie meant it was still a preserve of the educated middle-class.

Public opinion of the British Ladies Football Club was generally mixed. The Wells Journal was particularly fond of seeing women grace the football field,

"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. "[3]

Equally, not everyone was as impressed,

"While we commiserate with the British Ladies' Football Club upon this fiasco, we need not conceal our satisfaction at so striking a demonstration of the undesirability of the participation of women and girls in the more violent forms of athletics.' They cannot and never will play football as it should be played, and we trust that the performance at Crouch End will be sufficient to drive this lesson home. For our part we are glad that women cannot- play football. Even were they capable of it, the game would be essentially unsuitable to their sex."[4]

If modern day football is viewed as part of 'Lad Culture' then the 1890s were no different. We often hear people mention the 'good old days' of the game - with commentators and pundits frequently stating, 'you wouldn't see that thirty/forty years ago'. It is evident from these newspaper pieces and wider reading from TFHB that this is simply not true. If ever there was a time where football demonstrated a game intent on a construct of masculinity and manliness then this was it.

So how did women fit into this 'man's game'? I think it is perfectly summed up with a line from the Shields Daily Gazette in 1894. When questioning whether or not the referee for a women's match would be male or female - the journalist simply states, "It, is not known whether the referee will be a man or a woman. Perhaps the former would find difficult in coming to a decision." It says a lot for those footballers pre-1900 that they could still play and attract decent attendances under the misogynistic gaze of male spectators.[5]

The Dundee Courier tried to find some reasoning for women to be able to play the game,

" Even the dead and gone Mrs Grundy never grudged woman a legitimate share in the pleasures and the advantages of outdoor exercises. Mrs Graham's chief reason for playing football is to prove that a girl can do the same things as her brothers. So, no reasonable person denies this, but reasonable people do ask, and with right on their side, whether it is expedient for the girl to do all that her brothers do, or whether she might not with more advantage do something quite different... Indeed, woman is nowadays pretty well at liberty to do what she likes; no one disputes her that...The average boy looks very well indeed in his football get-up ; the average girl can scarcely expect me to say that for her."[6]

It makes for pretty awkward reading as the writer tries to justify why women should not play football - he continues to say how men have given women the opportunity to do 'hard work', with the latter enjoying enough freedoms due to the civilised nature of British society. The Mrs Graham mentioned in the piece should not go unnoticed either. Despite the egotistical nature of the piece, the actual article is called, 'A Chat with Mrs Graham' - the author eventually writes of their conversation, stating how appalled they are at how proud Mrs Graham is of a cut on her nose.

Women's football is as popular as ever
Who was Mrs Graham? Well for a start it was a pseudonym with her real name being Helen Matthews. Matthews had set up Mrs Graham's XI in 1881, a side which went on to tour England and Scotland over the next two decades. Like Honeyball, Dixie and later the Dick, Kerr Ladies she truly was a pioneer of the female game and one which we are keen to remember. Victorian women's football may well have been a disgrace for many, but we are going to finish our archival search with one article supportive of the sport.

"We are fortunately again entering upon an era when women will be strong, as strong as men. Women now swim, row, cycle, ride, box, fence, shoot, play tennis, golf, hockey, cricket, and in very many cases do these things excellently. They are women who been sensibly brought up; their limbs not been compressed, they have not been kept out of the sun, they are strong girls and will become strong women." [7]

Football has been written as a 'history of men', but here at TFHB we are striving to include the extensive history of the women's game too - Pioneers like Nettie Honeyball, Florence Dixie and Mrs Graham need to be remembered not just by football fans and historians but by the wider public. Of course, with good reason the suffragettes like Emily Davison and Emily Pankhurst have their place in history as women who made a difference, but those early female footballers did a lot to prove that a woman could do 'the same things as her brothers'. They challenged the social norms and secured a sense of liberty in a time of anything but.

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


[1] Hull Daily Mail, 13 March, 1893
[2] Matthew Taylor, The Association Game, (Harlow: Pearson, 2008)
[3] The Wells Journal, 28 March, 1895
[4] Bristol Mercury, 26 March, 1895
[5] Shields Daily Gazette, 14 November, 1894
[6] Dundee Courier, 25 May, 1895
[7] Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, 06 April, 1899


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