The surprising early history of women’s football

An estimated 17.4 million tuned into the 2022 women’s Euro’s final earlier in the summer, an event which was an undoubted success for a sport which has gone from strength to strength in recent years. However, while crowds of the size that watched the Lionesses during the tournament may seem a recent phenomenon the truth is that this is not the case. In fact, in the early 20th century the women’s game was on a par with the men’s in terms of popularity and engagement. The history of women’s football reflects ideas about gender roles and reveals much about historical misogyny, while serving to add nuance to an understanding of women’s lives in the past.

While football and women’s football has a long history in this country, with clubs being formed throughout the 19th century, it was the First World War which really brought the establishment of women’s football. This is because when women took over the factory jobs usually done by fighting men football teams were set up by factory bosses to keep up morale. Support for these teams grew during the war and continued afterwards with record crowds watching the matches. In fact, on boxing day 1920 a record crowd of 53,000 watched Dick Kerr’s ladies from the Dick, Kerr & Co munitions factory beat St Helen’s ladies 4-0 at Goodison Park. Therefore, women’s football was obviously very popular.

However, this ended abruptly in 1921 when the FA banned women for playing football on Football League Grounds saying football was “quite unsuitable for ladies and ought not be encouraged”. Prior to this, opposition had been growing to the women’s game, undoubtedly influenced by contemporary misogyny and attitudes towards gender roles. The FA’s ban may also have been politically motivated because teams were seen as getting increasingly involved in left-wing causes. During the war, matches had raised money for charities sending aid to the Western Front but once the war ended teams started supporting more political causes. For example, in 1921 funds were raised for miner’s protesting wage cuts. Thus, women’s football was seen as dually subversive and as needing to be ended.

Shockingly, the FA’s ban was only lifted in 1971 but fortunately it did not succeed in ending the women’s game and a Women’s FA was established in 1969 with 44 member clubs. It still took another 20 years, however, before a national league was established and the WFA to became more closely affiliated with the FA. There is still a long way to go but this year’s Euros demonstrated that after so many years of suppression women’s football is moving in the right direction.

This brief exploration of the early history of women’s football raises interesting questions and shows how women’s football is at the intersection of many issues including gender, social class, and politics. It also complicates the idea that women’s lives in the late 19th and early 20th century were solely based in the home while simultaneously emphasising the presence of misogyny throughout the 20th century.


Image: Matt Hecht on Flickr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel