With the extraordinary success and popularity of the US Women’s National Team, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when women’s soccer not only barely existed but was actively discouraged.
The history of women’s soccer is a fascinating tale of popularity and skill on the one hand, and blatant sexism and economic interests fighting against it on the other. One of the most enlightening ways of coming to understand this history, and the roots of struggles that continue today, is through Gail Newsham’s influential In a League of Their Own: The Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965. First published in 1994 (with a more recent 2017 edition on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Dick, Kerr Ladies football team), this book is an extraordinary work of historical recovery, with lessons for today.
In the briefest terms, women’s soccer has been played as long as soccer has existed. Moreover, women’s “organized” soccer also more or less rose simultaneously with the men’s game. Indeed, there were enough organized women’s teams in England in the 1880s to hold international competitions. While there were the antiquated but expected concerns that the physical activity might be dangerous for women’s health or that it was immodest for men to be watching women running around the pitch, numerous teams were formed, and the games picked up rather large crowds. The most successful and most famous of these teams was The Dick, Kerr Ladies, and their story, which had been largely forgotten until Newsham arrived on the scene, is a fascinating one. Like a number of men’s teams at the time, the Dick, Kerr Ladies football club was a factory team, organized by women who worked at the Dick, Kerr company in Preston, Lancashire. The company was in general a locomotive and electrical equipment manufacturer but, during the first World War, it (like a lot of companies), turned to the manufacture of munitions and hired a great number of women to work the factory floor, as many of Preston’s men had gone off to war.
While Newsham’s account provides a number of fascinating narratives of individual players and games that would be worth anyone’s time to read, I want to stress here that the club was extraordinarily successful in most ways that would matter for a football team. For example, when they invited a team representing France to play them for a series of matches to benefit war veterans, over twenty-five thousand people watched the first match; the two teams then went on a tour that took them to such grounds at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. Later, the Dick, Kerr Ladies returned the favor by attending a number of games against the same team, this time in France. While playing upwards of three times a week (while still working their factory jobs), the team raised a massive amount of money to benefit families affected by the war, and other charities over the years. In 1920, the Dick, Kerr Ladies played a game at Everton’s Goodison Park in Liverpool to a crowd of fifty-three thousand spectators (with a reported fifteen more thousand wishing to get in). At the time it was the second largest football game ever played. Had everyone been able to get in who wanted to, it would have been the largest game ever, for men or women. The team played all over England, against around 150 other organized women’s teams.
In 1921, their record was a mind boggling 67 wins, 0 draws, and 0 losses, with 448 goals for and 22 goals against. Their opponents were teams such as St. Helens, Scotland, Hull, Stoke, Swansea, as well as teams composed of all-stars of England as a whole (e.g., Dick, Kerr Ladies vs The Best of the Rest of England). Moreover, it was not uncommon for there to be more than twenty thousand fans at their games. Newspaper coverage of the team was extensive. While some of the initial popularity may have been based on the curiosity of watching women play, by the end of 1921, it could be said that they were the most popular football team in England.
A few decades later, women’s football barely existed and had largely disappeared from nations around the globe. While the Dick, Kerr Ladies still existed in different forms until 1965, they no longer played at professional football grounds, no longer had credentialled referees, and no longer could be said to be drawing crowds of the same large size. So, what happened? How did things change so radically?
As Newsham relates, the popularity of the women’s game made the leadership of the English Football Association nervous and take note, especially as some of the men’s teams in the Association struggled to draw crowds. The worry was two-fold but, of course, interconnected: one, that competition from the women’s game would draw fans away from the men’s teams (indeed, it likely already was doing so), and two, that the game itself would come to be known as a “women’s game” rather than as a men’s game.
As a result, the English Football Association Council passed a unanimous resolution (60 in favor, 0 opposed) in 1921 that declared football unsuitable for women, and it followed this resolution with actions that were, on the surface, supposed to protect women. In short, they established a number of rules that made it very difficult for women to continue playing in any organized or large scale manner: first, clubs belonging to the English Football Association were not allowed to allow female teams to play matches at their grounds; second, credentialled referees were not allowed to referee women’s matches.
Because these rules effectively made it difficult for the Dick, Kerr Ladies to play games in England, they attempted to organize a tour, a trip abroad. At this point, the English Football Association had enough global power to convince most other nations to ban the women from travelling or playing in their countries (significantly, however, they did have a successful tour of the United States, although playing men’s teams). Moreover, given the power of the English Football Association as a rule maker for the game, the English ban on women’s football on professional grounds became a ban on women’s football in most European and Latin American countries. While the Dick, Kerr Ladies carried on in different forms until the 1960s, as did a few other women’s teams, in general, the game was effectively silenced.
To stress, the women’s game was disciplined both in terms of law (rules, regulations) and in terms of discourse. This silencing was so effective that had Newsham not begun a recovery project, the entire history would likely have fallen out of memory. Instead, with Newsham’s activism and the interest of others, the story gets told fairly widely (especially in the U.K.), with members of the team entering the Football Hall of Fame. Indeed, Lily Parr (who is often credited as perhaps the greatest footballer of all time) now stands in statue form outside the National Football Museum in Manchester.
While the recovery of this history and the stories behind the Dick, Kerr Ladies is fascinating on its own grounds (and I strongly encourage you to purchase a copy of the book), I do think we can draw a few lessons from this episode in football history. First, public and institutional policy can have an enormous effect on the success of particular endeavors. Hence, while the FA’s decision to ban women’s football very much hindered its progress, Title IX in the U.S. is a policy that very much encouraged the growth of soccer. Secondly, while it is easy to see the sexist discourse from a century ago, it has never completely disappeared. Discourse and ideology have strong holds on our present even as they grow more subtle. So, when we look at the current arguments against equal pay for the USWNT, some (although not all) of those arguments were based on ideas like positing that the men’s game required more skill.
What Newsham provides us with, and we should be most grateful, is not only the recovery of the story of a successful women’s team from a century ago, but she also gives us an understanding of just how much work has gone against them, and women’s soccer in general, over time.
As the National Women’s Soccer League and the Women’s Super League grow and prosper, as other leagues open around the world, as the international game continues its growth in popularity, I hope we all learn to give a little thanks to the Dick, Kerr Ladies and to Gail Newsham.
More information can be found at www.dickkerrladies.com