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A brief history of women and the Beautiful Game

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: July 01, 2014

By Gail Middleton

  • Inevitably, the women's outfits became the centre of press attention

  • Women's football quickly caught the attention of the media, and not always for the right reasons

  • Dick Kerr's were one of the best early women's teams

  • Nettie Honeyball, women's football pioneer

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FOR CENTURIES, football has been a male preserve. So, when women began playing the beautiful game, it was enough to make grown men cry. In England, that is!

But, back in the 18th century, in the Scottish Highlands football was linked to local marriage customs. Apparently, the best way of choosing a suitable bride was to see how she performed on the football pitch. Prospective grooms would watch football matches between married and single women's teams – selecting the single girls with the silkiest football skills. In England, footie remained a man's game, and that included watching it. But, by the late 19th century, more women had become interested in the sport. At the same time, several football clubs felt that fans' rowdy behaviour was getting out of hand. One solution came in 1885, when Preston North End announced that women would be given free entry to all home games. The idea being that the presence of their womenfolk would improve the chaps' behaviour.

Whatever the case, over 2,000 women turned up for the first match. Free entry for female fans soon caught on, so much so that by the late 1890s, all football clubs stopped the scheme to cash in on female spectators.

By the 1890s, more women were also playing the game. The first women's match recorded by the Scottish FA took place in Glasgow, in 1892. Scots women were now playing serious footie. Three years later, the first match by English women was played – attracting great interest from public and press.

In disparaging tones, on 27th March 1895, The Sketch reported:

"There was an astonishing sight in the neighbourhood of the Nightingale Lane Ground, Crouch End ... The intelligent foreigner might have been excused for imagining some State function was taking place ... All through the afternoon trainloads of excited people journeyed over all parts, and the respectable array of carriages, cabs, and other vehicles marked a record in the history of Football.

"Yet all that this huge throng of ten thousand people had gathered to see was the opening match of the British Ladies Football Club."

Like the Suffragettes, women footballers were subjected to scorn and derision. Women were supposed to be "feminine" – If they started playing football, where on earth would it lead? To add to male establishment worrries, in 1893, all adult women in New Zealand had been given the vote, so why not here?

The British Ladies Football Club was the brainchild of the wonderfully named Nettie Honeyball. In late 1894, inspired by women's struggle to achieve equal rights, Nettie placed adverts "for like minded ladies" to start a women's football team. The main stipulation being that "the girls should enter into the spirit of the game with heart and soul".

Eventually, Nettie attracted a group of about 30 players and 20 non-playing members. And, with help from Tottenham Hotspurs centre-half, J.W. Julian, the team were allowed to practice at the Nightingale Lane enclosure at Hornsey.

Julian coached the girls, and with twice weekly sessions, they began to improve. The pitch was laid on heavy clay and never free from mud. Yet, as Nettie proclaimed, her girls never shirked practice.

Nettie's club's activities soon attracted the attention of the press. From the outset, in October 1894, The Sketch made its attitude towards women's encroachment on the beautiful game very clear. As you can see, from their cartoons claiming to represent how the women footballers would appear and behave.

Nettie and her team were portrayed as frivolous creatures, more bothered about what they looked like than the actual game. And, if they attracted unwelcome male attention, it was only what they deserved.

So, when it came to deciding what they should wear, Nettie's team would be courting controversy, whatever they chose. One reporter noted: "The orthodox jerseys were made the basis of the attire, but it was seen that a great deal had been left to the coquetry and taste of the wearers ..."

The Manchester Guardian claimed: "Their costumes came in for a good deal of attention ... one or two added short skirts over their knicker – bockers ..." Most damning of all, he ends with "When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women's football will attract the crowds."

The male dominated medical profession also lent its support, backing traditional views that football was not a suitable sport for women. The British Medical Journal published an article condemning those women who played football, saying "We can in no way sanction the reckless exposure to violence to organs which the common experience of women had led them in every way to protect."

Happily, Nettie and her team mates were not so easily deterred. Nettie was on a mission, declaring that she'd founded the club "with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured". But, as far as the press was concerned, Nettie's comments were like red rags to a bull. Even more so, as she looked forward "to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs". No wonder they were worried!

A sea change occurred during the First World War, as women working in factories began to play football during their breaks. Soon, several works teams were formed. And, on Christmas Day in 1916, the Ulverston Munitions Girls – or "Munitionettes", hammered another team 11 – 5. Before long, most munitions factories had ladies' football teams, including probably the most successful of them all, Dick Kerr's Ladies Team, from Preston.

There were also ladies football teams in the Black Country, as mentioned recently in the Bugle, such as The National from Blackheath. These ladies feature in the Bugle's We Will Remember Them. Nettie and her team had paved the way, and now, with most men away fighting, even Lloyd George came on board. But the British Prime Minister supported the women's matches for more political reasons, knowing it helped attract more women into essential war work. This was particularly important by 1916, when conscription came in.

After the war, most women lost their jobs, but many retained their love of football. Several of the ladies teams, including Dick Kerr's Ladies, kept playing. During and just after the War, women's football was wildly popular, some matches attracting record crowds. One game between Dick Kerr's and Newcastle United Ladies attracted 35,000, raising the equivalent in today's money of £250,000 for local war charities. Another match drew 53,000, numbers the men's game could only dream of.

At the time, most of these women's matches were preceded by laying wreaths on the graves of local footballers killed during the fighting. Thousands of pounds were raised for veterans' and medical charities.

In 1920, Dick Kerr's Ladies played in the first ever women's international matches, against a French women's team. Dick Kerr's players also formed most of an England women's team, beating Scotland's women by a colossal 22 – 0. Yet, despite their very real skills on the pitch, women footballers were still subject to criticism and prejudice.

In 1921, the women's game suffered a major blow when the FA banned women's teams from playing on member clubs' pitches, claiming women's football was distasteful. Once more, all the old arguments were wheeled out, and the women forced to play matches on Rugby pitches.

The FA ban was not lifted until 1971. But, in the best tradition of the early pioneers of women's football, many women's clubs kept going. Including, as featured in recent issues of the Bugle, the redoubtable Handy Angle Ladies Team, from the Brierley Hill company of that name. In 1957, they were holders of seven challenge cups.

In 1969, the English Women's FA was formed, two years before the FA ban was lifted. Italy became the first country to have professional women footballers, followed by the USA and Japan.

Since the 1970s, the women's game has gone from strength to strength. And, at time of writing, – our national women's team are well on track for a place in the 2015 World Cup finals.

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