The Most Important Moments in Women's Football History: Part Two

Football is more than just a game. Over the last 150 years it has become a source of identity, conflict and debate for all who follow and play it. It has reached the furthest corners of the globe and boasts more players and supporters than any other sport. In this list, we will be going right the way through the illustrious, colourful and pioneering history of women's football. We will be looking closer at the teams, coaches and individuals who have overcome negative attitudes, antiquated misogynistic views and repressive social expectations to create an inclusive and popular game supported by millions around the world. Let's see which moments have shaped the game we love!

6. The British Ladies Football Club on Tour (1895-1897)

The ladies played in the face of scathing scepticism at times.
We have already seen the formation of the British Ladies Football Club in Part One, their first game in 1895 between the 'North' and the 'South' saw the Northern ladies run out 7-1 winners in front of over 10,000 spectators. Over the next few years the ladies would go on a tour of the country, playing men and ladies teams along the way. It is reported that the side played over 160 matches up to 1897!

Following their debut they soon went on to play again, featuring in charity matches across Britain. Their second game in Brighton was played in front of 5000 paying spectators on 6th April 1895. The side then moved north and less than a week later as they featured in front of 5000 more fans at Bury's Gigg Lane. Just two days later on 15th April, they were back down south for a match in Reading. Following the Reading match that morning the ladies traveled the 13 miles to Maidenhead for another match in the afternoon. The women were certainly drawing the crowds, whether it was out of curiosity or mockery, the crowds were coming. This was something they were able to seize upon and the game planned filled the calendar.  The ladies commonly played a format of Reds v Blues, sometimes being joined by men who would usually feature in goal if so.

Perhaps the spread of the early women's game will surprise some readers, it certainly did newspaper journalists. A scathing report from the Yorkshire Evening Post on Friday 10th May 1895 reported that the BLFC contained: "a fat lady or two who would have been better minding the baby or wringing out the family washing". However, despite men not coping with the idea of ladies sharing their passion, these early pioneers absolutely should be celebrated. In their first few months, the ladies played 43 matches between March-June of 1895, the following season demand for them was even greater. The women featured in Scotland, England and Wales showcasing that they knew and could play the game. The BLFC would play beyond 1900 and potentially as far as 1907. 1897 though signalled the end of their heyday - one thing was certain, these ladies certainly would not be forgotten.
7. Munitionettes (1915-1918)

You would think that after the popularity of the British Ladies Football Club at the end of the 19th century, that the women's game would grow and grow. However, in the next decade there was an Edwardian decline in ladies playing the beautiful game. In 1914, Britain entered the Great War and initially men's football did not cease to play. With the war only supposed to last 'till Christmas', football continued, but as the war began to develop into trench warfare, it became clear this was not a short conflict. Football was suspended in 1915 and men encouraged to join the army.

The work of the Suffragettes existed before the First World War, calls for the vote and greater equality for women were not uncommon. However, with Britain called to unite to defeat the German threat, many Suffragettes joined the war effort and put their cause on hold. With the men of Britain sent to France and Belgium, women were called to take their places in factories, particularly making munitions. It would be at these factories that football became a form of escape and salvation to many. 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.

Football was still the nation's game and these munitions ladies began placing adverts in newspapers and playing in front of growing crowds. Teams such as 'Dick, Kerr's Ladies' (below), 'Blyth Spartans Ladies' and the 'Bolckow, Vaughn Ladies' sprung up and attracted huge interest. The work done by women in the factories is largely thought to have been a major assist to the Suffragette movement post-war. The work done by women on a football pitch during the war was fundamental to changing attitudes to them playing the game.

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."

To read more about 'Women Footballers at War' take a look at our previous article.

8. The Dick, Kerr Ladies' are Formed (1917) 

As we have seen, the munitions factories played a vital part of not just the war effort but also in the growth and acceptance of the women's game. Without doubt the most famous ladies team of all time is: 'The Dick, Kerr Ladies'. Their name was taken from their factory: Dick, Kerr and Co. Ltd Munitions in Preston, their fame though was far wider than just Lancashire, these ladies were footballing superstars!

The Dick, Kerr Ladies were formed in October 1917, much like the other munitions teams, their purpose was to entertain and escape the world of war that had now engulfed Britain for three long years. The team was pioneered by Grace Sibbert, a factory worker, and Alfred Frankland, her colleague, after they had seen the women were beating the men in kick-abouts during tea and lunch-breaks. Sibbert and Frankland decided that a team needed to be formed and Alfred took the role of manager.

The Dick, Kerr Ladies did not start small, on Christmas Day 1917 they made their formal debut, in front of 10,000 fans at Preston's Deepdale ground! Dick, Kerr were playing rival factory Arundel Coulthard Factory and ran out 4-0 winners, the Daily Post reporting: "Their forward work, indeed, was often surprisingly good, one or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control". That first game, as with the majority the Dick, Kerr Ladies played in were to raise funds for charity, £600 (the equivalent of £50,000 in today’s world) was raised for war veterans that day.

The Dick, Kerr Ladies were, as Tim Tate (Girls With Balls) describes, the major "catalyst" for the change in tolerance of the football authorities towards the women's game. This followed a patronising approach that we've previously seen with this series. The Dick, Kerr Ladies showed a different side to the stereotypical view of women in sport. Wearing their shorts, swearing and spitting, they trained and toured Britain shocking and entertaining all who saw them play.

So much of what we now know about the Dick, Kerr Ladies comes from researcher Gail Newsham who has written extensively about the Dick, Kerr Ladies. Her book can be found here...

9. The Growth of Women's Football (1918-1921)

The May 1919 Ladies' Tyne-Wear Derby
After the end of the First World War, it was thought that women's football would slow in popularity. It was expected that the men would return and dominate the game once more and women would return to their 'humble' side jobs or running the home. However, women had enjoyed the liberation football brings, post-war Britain would include the ladies' game and it was not just the Dick, Kerr Ladies.

Many of the factories from the war effort reformed as official women's sides, Sutton Glass Works becoming St Helen's Ladies for example. Most towns and cities had their local women's representation, continuing to play in friendly or charity matches. Unsurprisingly though, many men struggled to accept the idea of ladies playing the beautiful game, the men's game. David Williamson (Belles of the Ball) wrote: "Those who had been away at the front during the Great War would have had no real idea as to how the country was changing in their absence". Football was the nation's favourite pastime, a previously male dominated sport, but now the women were playing it on grand stages too in front of vast crowds.

The Bexhill-on-Sea Observer perhaps summed up the attitudes held to the women's game. In February 1919 they wrote about a game where five men made up the numbers: "The novel spectacle of women playing football was played at the Down on Saturday... In about a fornight's time it is intended to have a real match, in which gentlemen will play with their hands tied!". Sadly, the tones that emanated in 1919 still exist to some extent exactly 100 years later in 2019. These attitudes did not stop women playing football, nor did it stop the sport growing to where it is today; we at The Football History Boys, are very grateful for that!

10. Goodison Park (1920)

Perhaps the greatest example of the huge growth of women's football comes from one match. At Everton's Goodison Park, the Dick, Kerr's Ladies took on local side St Helen's Ladies in front of an estimated 53,000 spectators. According to Tim Tate a further 14,000 were turned away from the match and left outside the gates on a cold Boxing Day two years after the climax of the First World War. It is with this that these figures are so interesting and vital to the historian. When looking at the 'golden age of women's football' it would be easy to suggest that the reason for such popularity came purely because the men's game had been suspended during the conflict overseas.

But in 1920, the Football League had indeed resumed and recently even incorporated a newly established Third Division. Women's football had continued where it had left off and became a true spectator sport for men, women and children. The staggering numbers on Merseyside, 1920 are more understandable when set against the average attendances of men's teams in England's top flight. For example, the 1920-1 league winners, Burnley, only saw on average 31,535 spectators per game. Everton, whose stadium was used, averaged 37,215 and fellow scouse giants Liverpool 35,440.

The match itself saw the Dick, Kerr Ladies beat their St Helen's counterparts 4-0. The purpose of the game was to raise funds for the unemployed and ex-servicemen, so let down by the authorities after the war. The Lancashire Evening Post records the match as 'remarkable' and comfortably holding the record for money raised at a single event - £3000.

Historical records show that the Dick, Kerr Ladies were indeed one of the nation's greatest draws and their success had the potential to revolutionise sport and society. There is little doubt that the promotion of these players into the limelight had an impact on wider female rights. In 1918, suffrage had been granted and the following year Nancy Astor became the first female MP. Further studies by ourselves even show the formation of girl's football teams at elementary school level - The Dick, Kerr Ladies were indeed role models for many around the nation. Women's football, it seemed, was here to stay.


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If you missed out then catch the previous articles here:


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