A Brief History of Women’s Football

Whilst the world’s male football stars are preparing for the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 to begin imminently, the stars of the women’s football world are looking forward to 6th July 2022, when the finals of the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 competition begin. In the interim, however, it seems like the perfect time to look back at the history of women’s football, and how far the sport has come.

A Long and Rich History

Whilst the Football Association (FA) in the UK didn’t represent or support women’s football until 1993, its history goes back much further than that. Women have probably been kicking balls about for as long as men have, and at the end of the Victorian era, all-women football teams were attracting huge crowds. In fact, according to the FA, a game in Crouch End, London, in the 1890s was reported to have attracted a 10,000 gate.

During the First World War, when most men were fighting overseas, women’s football really came into its own. During this period more than 900,000 women worked in munitions factories, and a large number of these factories had their own women’s football teams. Women were encouraged to play not only to boost their morale, but also to keep them healthy for the very physical work that factory life entailed. Whilst the FA considered football a game ‘entirely unsuitable for ladies’ that didn’t stop women from playing, or the crowds from gathering!

The Legend of Lily Parr

One of the most popular and successful women’s teams during this period was the Dick, Kerr Ladies, from the factory of the same name. They were based in Preston, Lancashire and at their peak their games were attracting as many as 50,000 supporters (to give this context, the current Chelsea men’s team generally attracts 40,000 spectators per game). Although there was no official national women’s team at this stage, the Dick, Kerr ladies became the unofficial England team: they were recognised wherever they went and treated as national heroes and international celebrities.

The stand out star of the team was Lily Parr. She was the first female player to enter the football hall of fame, thanks to her incredible goal scoring record. Lily Parr scored over 1,000 goals during her time on the Dick, Kerr Ladies team. Her kick was so hard that she once broke the goal keepers arm. Though most recognise Bobby Charlton as England’s most prolific goal scorer, in reality it is Lily Parr that holds this record. A local newspaper wrote of Parr in 1920:

“There is probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country. Not only has she speed and excellent ball control, but her admirable physique enables her to brush off challenges from defenders who tackle her. She amazes the crowd wherever she goes by the way she swings the ball clean across the goalmouth to the opposite wing.”

A Ban on Women’s Football

Intimidated by the success of Parr, and the other female football stars of the day, the FA became worried that women’s football had grown too popular; they felt that it might take support (and crucially, money) away from the men’s teams. As a result, on 5 December 1921, the FA effectively banned the sport. They issued a statement announcing that any member club could no longer let women play in their grounds: this effectively relegated women’s football to a ‘hobby sport’ that could only be played in parks.

This ban lasted for almost 50 years, and was not lifted until 1969. At this point the Woman’s Football Association (WFA) was formed and British women were finally allowed to play football both nationally and internationally again. By 1994 the FA took on the administration of the sport (so that male and female football was no longer being operated by separate organizations) and now football is the largest sport (by number of participants) for both girls and women in the UK.

It has never been easy to be a female professional footballer; but now is the time for those years of injustice to finally end, and for women to step out of the shadows and attract the attention from the sporting world that their skill deserves.

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