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historical accounts of idiocy

Throwback Thursday: Women's Football Banned by the FA

In 1921 the FA effectively banned women's football, which had soared in popularity during World War I.

by Jim Weeks
03 December 2015, 3:45pm

Image via Wikipedia

We have gone way past the point of needing to clarify that women can play football. Anyone who saw this year's World Cup will know that there is a great deal of skill, physicality, and goal-scoring ability in the game. No, women are not as technically proficient as their male counterparts, but then nor do they enjoy nearly the same level of encouragement, facilities or financial rewards. In fact, girls are sometimes actively discouraged from playing football in a way that a young boy would almost never be. Basically, it's apples and oranges. Stop comparing.

But at least in 2015 the women of most countries are given an opportunity to play the sport. There are professional clubs and the Women's World Cup is growing in popularity, which in turn shows the next generation of girls that football is a viable career path for them, or at the very least a sport in which they belong.

That was not always the case, however. Until as recently as 1971, women in England were banned from playing football at the grounds of Football Association clubs. This was due to a ruling passed by the FA on 5 December 1921. The decision came despite – or perhaps as a result of – women's football being extremely popular at the time.

Women played the modern game of football from its early days in Victorian England, with a match in London during the 1890s reportedly attracting 10,000 spectators. The Manchester Guardian was sceptical, however, with their reporter opining, "When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women's football will attract the crowds."

The British Medical Journal was also not happy with the development, publishing an article that stated, "We can in no way sanction the reckless exposure to violence of organs which the common experience of women had led them in every way to protect."

This reasoning would resurface in later arguments.

The real catalyst for its explosion in popularity was the outbreak of the World War I in 1914 (it is worth remembering that at this point, all British women were excluded from voting).

Women's conversion to football went hand in hand with a wider societal shift brought about by the war. With swathes of young men heading off to the battlefields, many never to return, women filled their roles in factory jobs, and took up new positions in the burgeoning munitions industry. They also adopted the same choice of recreation, with football encouraged for its physical and moral benefits.

READ MORE: Sexism Still Rules in British Football

One of the most significant sides emerged from the Dick, Kerr and Co. ammunitions factory in Preston. Known as Dick, Kerr's Ladies F.C. (pictured above), they enjoyed incredible success during the war, and even after they were effectively excluded from the sport in 1921. The women began by beating their male colleagues and formed a team, with Alfred Frankland, a draughtsman at the factory, becoming their manager. On Christmas Day 1917 at Deepdale, they beat Arundel Coulthard Factory 4-0 in front of 10,000 people.

Dick, Kerr's Ladies played to collect funds for wartime charities. £600 was raised from their Christmas Day match, a considerable sum at the time. The club became so successful that they poached players from other teams and were soon playing games across England, Wales and Scotland.

They continued to do so after the war, with the money raised going to injured ex-servicemen. In March 1919, 35,000 people were in attendance for a game in Newcastle. They also played a series against a visiting French women's side – with 25,000 turning out to see them win the opening game 2-0 – and travelled across the Channel for a return tour in the autumn of 1920. By this time there were around 150 women's teams in England.

In 1921 the Dick, Kerr's squad played 67 games in front of around 900,000 people, with demand so high that they had to turn down 120 invitations for games. It was this year, however, that changed the course of women's football in Britain.

40% of women had been given the vote after the war, but their role in society remained in flux. With men back from the front taking up their old jobs, women were expected to return to domestic life. They were also no longer considered suitable to be footballers, with the sport condemned as inappropriate for their bodies. Asked by a reporter what she thought of female participation in football, Dr Mary Scharlieb called it the "most unsuitable game, too much for a woman's physical frame".

The Cambridge-educated health guru and tennis player Eustace Miles also added to the debate: "The kicking is too jerky a movement for women... and the strain is likely to be rather severe. Just as the frame of a woman is more rounded than a man's, her movements should be less rounded and more angular." (Writing a book on the Dick, Kerr club, Barbara Jacobs later joked: "So are we to assume that women's bodies are unsuited to jerky movements? That's put paid to sex, hasn't it?")

The culmination of the campaign against women's football came on 5 December 1921, when the FA called on clubs belonging to the association "to refuse the use of their grounds for [women's] matches".

The report offered three key reasons. Firstly, that football was "quite unsuitable for females." Second, it raised complaints about "the conditions under which some of these matches have been arranged and played." And finally, the council suggested that "an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to Charitable objects."

Women were now banned from playing at any major football venue. Incredibly, the FA also announced that its members were not allowed to referee or act as linesman at any women's match, adding another significant obstacle. No proof of financial impropriety was offered, nor was an investigation launched. Despite this, there was little the women's clubs could do in response.

READ MORE: What England Can Learn from the United States' World Cup Win

The ban also received backing from Football League managers of the day. Arsenal boss Leslie Knighton said, "Anyone acquainted with the nature of the injuries received by men footballers could not help but think – looking at the girls playing – that should they get similar knocks and buffetings their future duties as mothers would be seriously impaired."

In an interview, the captain of Plymouth Ladies hit back at the decision: "The controlling body of the FA are a hundred years behind the times and their action is purely sex prejudice. Not one of our girls has felt any ill effects from participating in the game."

As well as the social attitudes held by the ageing gentlemen at the FA, the ban also had political motives. The Dick, Kerr's team among others had played games that raised funds for miners in a strike earlier in 1921. The FA was unhappy about the women's involvement in a national political matter, which likely played a role in their drive to end female participation in the sport.

Women's games were also taking a great deal in gate receipts. This was viewed as perfectly acceptable while men's football was suspended for the war, but when the Football League resumed the FA may have been concerned by the loss in revenue.

Most women's football clubs were shut down overnight. The Dick, Kerr's side soldiered on, however. They toured Canada and the United States, though some games in the former were cancelled when the English FA put pressure on their Canadian counterparts. The club continued until 1965, changing its name to Preston Ladies F.C. after Frankland fell out with the Dick, Kerr's ownership.

But most clubs did not have the same finances and ceased to exist. Incredibly, it was not until after England's World Cup win in 1966 that women's football began its revival. In 1969 the Women's Football Association was formed, and in 1971 – a full half-century after the ban – the FA finally allowed its members to host women's games again.

In the modern men's game, it is difficult to say just who is to blame for England's inability to win silverware on the international stage. In the women's case, the culprits are obvious. The ludicrous FA's ruling in 1921, and their lack of action thereafter, did enormous damage to women's football across the country.