REWIND: a strange centenary - of the year women’s football was banned

  Posted: 26.08.21 at 13:23 by Mark Gorton

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In 1921, a Scouse comedian called Harry Weldon laid down a challenge to one of the most popular football teams of the day - the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies from Preston.

Harry invited the Ladies to play a ‘Best of the Rest’ team made up of the other finest female players in England, Scotland and Wales.

The popular music hall comic commissioned a fine trophy bearing his name, and 25,000 people swarmed into Liverpool’s Anfield ground - to see Dick, Kerr’s Ladies batter the opposition 9-1.

Women’s football was all the rage, and the origins of its success lay in the horrors of World War One. Although the men’s Football League completed its 1914-15 season, it was obliged to suspend competition immediately afterwards as huge numbers of men enlisted in the armed forces.

Women across Britain also signed up to do their bit, and although they undertook many different roles during the war to end all wars, perhaps the lasting image from those dark days is that of the munitions girl.

Around 700,000 women took jobs as “munitionettes”, producing the bulk of the bullets and artillery shells used by the British military over four long years.

Just as the men had done before them, women now working in factories began to play knockabout games of football during their lunch breaks. After some initial anxiety, their bosses came to see these matches as a means of increasing morale and boosting productivity. Teams soon formed and friendly contests were arranged.

At Dick, Kerr & Co, a locomotive and tramcar manufacturer based in Preston that had switched to munitions production not long after war was declared, the company’s munitionettes displayed great enthusiasm for football and great skill to go with it. It’s said that, watching from an office window above the yard where they played, a man called Alfred Frankland noted their talent and set about forming them into a proper team.

Captained by founding player Grace Sibbert, and under Alfred’s management, the fledgling squad, known as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, began to attract significant crowds to their games. They beat rival factory Arundel Coulthard 4–0 on Christmas Day 1917 in front of a crowd of 10,000 gathered at Preston North End’s Deepdale ground.

The team’s following grew quickly and the sight of them playing overcame any male objections that they were nothing more than a wartime sporting curiosity. In the years that followed, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played many friendly matches to raise money for the National Association of Discharged and Disabled Soldiers and Sailors, and won most of their games in the process.

Even when war ended in 1918, the Dick, Kerr and other women’s teams continued to draw big crowds. By 1920 there were around 150 women’s sides in England, with more still in Wales and Scotland. That year Dick, Kerr’s Ladies attracted 53,000 spectators to Everton’s Goodison Park - and what’s more, 14,000 more were left outside unable to get in.

The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team had always fielded gifted players, but by 1920 they had unearthed their genius: Lily Parr.

Lily had grown up in St Helens, playing football with her brothers, and began her career with the local women’s team at the age of 14. When they played the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ side, she was scouted by Alfred Frankland and offered a job at the factory – as well as a place in the team.

Lily Parr was the exceptional player of her time and a remarkable character to boot. Openly gay, close to six-feet tall and with jet black hair, she was an enthusiastic smoker with a ferocious appetite and powerful left foot. The National Football Museum credits her with 43 goals during her first season playing for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and around 1,000 in total.

In the days well before huge football salaries plus image rights, Lily requested that her salary was enhanced by the perk of packets of Woodbine cigarettes.

By 1921 the popularity of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies was at its height. A great team, headlined by talis(wo)man Parr, regularly attracted crowds in their tens of thousands. They played more than 60 games during the year. Women’s football in general was also in great health - its blossoming had coincided with the rise of the Suffragettes and, once eight million women had won the right to vote, it must have seemed more than appropriate to them that women’s football was an increasingly popular phenomenon.

Nevertheless, 1921 ended in disaster. The Football Association, in theory the governing body for the sport as a whole, but in practice only concerned with men’s leagues and competitions, had from the off taken an unenlightened approach to female participation.

Now the F.A. decided enough was enough - it was afraid the women’s game could affect Football League attendances.

So on December 5th 1921, the Association moved to ban its members from allowing women’s football to be played at their grounds.

While they could still play the sport for fun, the ban was a death blow to the women’s game that had become such a dynamic spectator sport. For good measure, the F.A. also announced that its members must not act as referees or their assistants at women’s games. These decisions effectively outlawed women’s football in England.

Explaining their reasoning, the F.A. released a statement in which it declared that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Many doctors - male doctors - were invited to agree that the sport posed a serious physical risk to women.

Not surprisingly, women players were shocked and angry, with the captain of Plymouth Ladies saying that the FA was “a hundred years behind the times”, and calling its machinations “purely sex prejudice”.

If any club might survive the ban it was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, and in 1922 they set sail for a tour of North America. Under orders from our F.A., Canada's Football Association prevented the team from playing in the land of Mounties and maple syrup, but they were able to take to the pitch in the United States.

Here they played against teams of men - the women’s game was still to germinate in the US. When it did, in the second half of the 20th century, the American team emerged as world leaders of women’s football, going on to win four Olympic gold medals and three World Cups. England still has to win major honours.

We can see why. It wasn’t until England’s men won the 1966 World Cup that serious efforts to bring the women’s game back from the dead began. The Women’s Football Association was founded in 1969, but progress remained painfully slow as the F.A. still refused to lift its restrictions.

It took pressure from European football’s governing body, UEFA, to finally allow women to play on F.A. grounds again.

By this time, 1971, half a century of progress and potential had been lost...

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