I am never one to refuse the chance of making a gratuitous reference to my beloved Ipswich Town, but this is about the history of women’s football in England generally, so the Ipswich bit – having occurred in the 1950s – will have to wait until the end.
Like most people, I don’t know much about women’s football, although I watch some international matches and Arsenal Ladies beating whoever-it-is in the FA Cup Final every year. In 2007, however, I saw a fascinating BBC documentary about the history of women’s football. Focusing on the famous Dick Kerr’s Ladies team, it showed rare, flickering black-and-white images of women’s football in the early part of the 20th century. I had known nothing about this: proper football matches played between proper teams. Some of the matches had been watched by massive crowds. On Boxing Day 1920, Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat St. Helen’s Ladies 4-0. The attendance was 53,000.
That date, 1920, is significant. Only a year later the FA decided to ban women from playing football on Football League grounds. “The game,” they pronounced was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” The decline in the women’s game was dramatic and it never fully recovered, although it has been revived in the 21st century, thanks to interest in the United States and other parts of the world.
In Britain, people still talk of women’s football as something that is novel and a little bit odd. However, references to women playing football appear to go back a long way. Sir Philip Sidney mentions women playing footie in one of his poems, A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds (c.1580), and, yes, girls, it looks as if they tucked their skirts into their knickers back in Tudor times too:
“A tyme there is for all, my mother often sayes,
When she, with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes.”
In 1894, the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle heralded the developments in the women’s game: “Female football teams will shortly contest in public. Women played football in this country centuries ago. Mr. Pepys complains of the nuisance in the Strand, when milkmaids kicked the ball about on May-day, as was their immemorial privilege [my italics].” Sadly the newspaper ruins everything by adding the inevitable comment: “It was not an edifying practice even then.”
The 1880s and 1890s saw some interest in women’s football, but newspaper reports were generally negative describing matches between teams made up of the “softer sex” and indulging in the usual rhetoric about scratching and unnatural aggression. Even attendance at football matches played by men was under scrutiny, for example, this writer in the Derby Mercury, 15th March 1893, believed: “”Women undoubtedly lose their influence over and attraction for men when they dispossess themselves of their womanly attributes; and girls who constantly attend football matches, and think nothing of seeing their own and other people’s brothers and cousins maimed, most assuredly do so.”
Women’s football, despite being popular as a spectator sport, came in for criticism in the press right from the start. The organised women’s game began in 1895 with a North vs. South match. The North, predictably, won 7-1. The usually liberal Ipswich Journal writing about the match stated that “it seems as if we have reached the climax of fin de siècle enormities when we read of the formation of a British Ladies’ Football Club…” and it was patronisingly described in the Times (25th March 1895):
“A match, under Association rules, between teams of ladies was played at Nightingale-lane, Hornsey, on Saturday… Great curiosity was aroused and the ground was thronged by 7,000 people. The football was of a very harmless nature, and its novelty soon grew irksome to many of the spectators.”
The same newspaper continued in the same vein in May 1920 for its report on the England vs France women’s international, introducing (for the times, at least) a sexual frisson with a rather fanciful preamble about a boy (a young Sepp Blatter, perhaps) spying on some schoolgirls playing football in a cathedral close (!):
“The fortunate youth who penetrated these mysteries was all unconscious of attending the birth of the new woman – he was much too intent on the spectacle. Was he not enjoying one of the few privileges of which Woman does not apparently propose to deprive his sex – that of watching her insist on doing what a Man does better?”
The Times does go on to briefly describe the actual international match at Stamford Bridge, which France won 2-0. The writer is even good enough to admit that the players “exhibited enough skill to disappoint those who had come to laugh,” but is more enthused by the French women’s short light blue jumpers.
So why did the FA ban women in 1921? My guess it was part of a wider move to put women back in the home after the First World War. In the same year, Bath City Ladies had played in a match in Manchester to raise money for ex-servicemen, but ex-servicemen needed jobs and women were required to return to more traditional roles. It was time for society to re-invent what was considered to be appropriate behaviour for a woman. In 2008, the FA apologised for the ban and the statement that football was “unsuitable” for women.
So, to go back to the title of this piece. It’s taken from an article written by Dingle Foot, former MP for Ipswich, and published in the Times in 1978. He was writing about his memories of Sir Alf Ramsay’s great team, of course, but was also looking forward to the FA Cup Final that Ipswich Town were about to play – and win – against Arsenal. In the article, he recalled a revival of the women’s game in Suffolk when he was the local MP:
“… the rise of Ipswich did not end there. The girls began to play. They attracted immense attention. At their first match they refused to obey the referee as they played for another ladies team from rural Suffolk.” They appealed to their Member of Parliament. All he could come up with was a Kiplingesque poem:
It’s goodbye to Jacky Milburn and salute the rising sun
McGarry’s come to put the Town back in Division One
But compared with Ipswich Ladies even Portman Road must fail
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
The girls have sacked their manager for all the world to see
‘Twas he who sinned against the light: he backed the referee
No ode will now be written to Mr. Nightingale
For the female of the species is much rougher than the male.
So here by Orwell’s flowing tide Britannia’s flag unfurls
To show in Wolsey’s ancient town that girls will still be girls
Down with the ref, up with the chicks, oh great Minerva, hail
The Ipswich ladies footballers submit to no mere male.
Two days after this poem appeared in the local paper, Dingle Foot received a letter from the captain of the Ipswich ladies’ team assuring him of their full support in the election. He held his seat. “No doubt,” he wrote, “this was due to the Ipswich ladies. In the end the girls always win.”