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

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!

1. The First Women's Football Match (1881)

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.

It was 7th May, 1881 that women's football saw its first recorded match. The sides involved were (surprise, surprise) England and Scotland. Played at Easter Road in Edinburgh - the match was watched by a decent number of spectators (2000) - perhaps more out of curiosity than anything else. Despite this, newspapers from the time comment of the 'fair idea' some women had of the game. An article from the Edinburgh Evening News notes the final score as 3-0 to the Scots. Many of the women playing at Easter Road played under  false names. The reason for the change of name was simple. Victorian Britain, despite its advances in technology and transport, still lacked any social equality. It was far too risky for these women to risk announcing their true identities.

Although seen as a novelty, the match was received with only small mutterings of disregard. It was not until a follow up game a week later that public reception turned more skeptical and unfortunately violent. The match, played in Glasgow saw spectators heckle and criticize the players, leading to them being chased from the field. The Nottingham Post stated that this match would probably be the 'first and last' of its kind. Furthermore, the article mentions frequent interruptions during the match, which the players ignored, playing on regardless. It was testament to the attitudes of women at this time - angered by the social misogyny which they had began to fight. In addition to this, it was to be an insight into the future of the women's game - as strong characters and pioneers fought for respect over the next century. A huge moment for football.

2. Public Perceptions of Women in Football (Victorian Era)

Image result for british ladies football clubAlthough not a specific moment, we've included this to get across just what women and girls had to overcome in order to play the game they loved. Developing during the '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 1890s.

3. Nettie Honeyball Places an Advert in the Papers (1894)

Although, as simple as an advert in the paper - what it provoked deserves to be mentioned in this list. The advert for the British Ladies Football Club, posted in The Graphic by player and 'secretary' Nettie Honeyball (it is debated whether this was her real name), was received by around thirty women. Upon their subsequent training sessions, the ladies improved and showed immense spirit and resolve, never shirking from a practice. For many, they would hope that the end of the century would bring more feminine freedom and the suffrage granted to women in New Zealand a year before was testament to a changing world.

The Star posted an article in January 1895 entitled, "The New Women". The article interviews the aforementioned Nettie Honeyball and alludes to the backing of the club from the wealthy Lady Florence Dixie, daughter of the Marquess of Queensbury. Dixie herself had long been an advocate of woman's rights and feminism - it is no surprise therefore, that she lent her support to Honeyball's cause. Honeyball explains to the reporter all about the club: stating facts about the training regime; the initial reaction of the female players and Lady Florence Dixie's choice for the sportswear.

What is refreshing to see is Dixie's requirement for the players to wear practical clothing and specially made boots. According to Honeyball, Dixie's choices were in order for the women not to be 'ridiculed'. Furthermore, in relation to the style of football the British Ladies Football Club were to play - Honeyball is adamant that there will be no 'charging', "ours will be a game of science". The attention to detail from those organising the club is staggering and rarely written about. It shows us that women were fascinated by football, as much as men - a lesson we need to remember to this day.

4. British Ladies Football Club's First Game (1895)

Perhaps the most well known club of the Victorian women's football craze, The British Ladies Football Club is an example to a truly pioneering movement. It was in March 1895 that they would play their first game. Despite later than originally planned, the club played an exhibition match featuring players from the "North" against those from the "South". Both sides belonged to the BLFC and both had trained for a number of months. Honeyball notes that the members had been learning lessons from Millwall players via a blackboard and were knowledgeable to all the rules.

The game itself was greeted by a large number of spectators at the Crouch End Ground in Hornsey. Figures range from 10,000 to 12,000 attendees. The match itself was won 7-1 by the Northern side. Reaction to the match was generally negative, with the Yorkshire Post writing that the play was 'comical' and more suited to a house lawn than a public football ground. Further condemnation was found in other areas of the press as the Peterhead Sentinel writes a misogynistic account of the game. Despite commenting on the tremendous enthusiasm of the crowd and further stating that the attendance was far larger than any other match played there, it decides to focus far too much attention of what the players wore, rather than the actual game.

It would be a reception which would hound the women's game for the next century, but in one afternoon in 1895, 22 women had changed the opinions of many. It was not just a football match they played at Crouch End, it was the start of something far bigger. A final article we found was from a 'lady correspondent' in the Lichfield Mercury. The correspondent writes positively of the play and the quality of the game, writing that any cries from the crowd were cries of encouragement. What it had shown to Honeyball, Dixie and the rest of the North and South teams was that they were just as capable as men. In a time of mass social division - they had done something incredible.


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