The original football

A league of their own: The most dominant soccer team in 1920 was full of female factory workers

FIFA has all but swept the rich history of women’s soccer, which once threatened the popularity of the men’s game, under the rug

In 1920, an English newspaper sang the praises of a 14-year-old from St. Helens, Lancashire, boldly proclaiming, “There is probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country.” Decades later, a former teammate still vividly recalled the wunderkind’s corner kicks, which “came over like a bullet” and often split foreheads open. Despite a noted predilection for chain-smoking Woodbines and an insatiable appetite, the player became England’s most prolific goal scorer, and is said to have netted over 900 career goals.

That player is the Dick, Kerr Ladies club’s Lily Parr – a woman.

According to FIFA, the governing body of world football with an executive branch that’s only slightly more inclusive of women than the College of Cardinals, the women’s game is a relatively recent historical development. A 2011 edition of the FIFA World magazine states, “The women’s game is still relatively young,” before going on to commemorate “the 40th anniversary of the first-ever official women’s international played in April 1971.” Women’s football, it concludes, “Has enjoyed impressive growth from those humble beginnings.”

In an interview with the BBC last month, embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who abruptly resigned this week, described the women’s game as his “baby” and himself as its “godfather.” Though it is still “limping a little bit behind” the men’s game, it is constantly growing and about to come of age.

Indeed, in 1995, a FIFA press release announced, “The future of football is feminine.”

But so, too, was its past.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when women began playing football. An August 1869 issue of Harper’s Bazar features an illustration of women decked out in Victorian petticoats and bonnets kicking around a ball. Its caption reads: “The Girls of the Period – Playing Ball.”

Another mention of a women’s football contest appears in an 1881 edition of the Glasgow Herald, which described an international between Scotland and England as “a rather novel football match” that attracted “a considerable amount of curiosity.”

Nearly 14 years later, in 1895, Nettie Honeyball founded the British Ladies’ Football Club, a significant cultural achievement linked closely to the flourishing of the suffragist movement. The head of the club was the wonderfully radical Lady Florence Dixie, a woman whose life impressively challenged the Separate Spheres ideology that extolled motherhood and wifehood as a woman’s natural role.

An eccentric woman who delighted in having her fingers in many pies, Lady Florence was a war correspondent, explored unchartered countries, corresponded at length with Charles Darwin about the variety of species she herself had witnessed during travels in Patagonia, and was the proud owner of a pet jaguar.

In an article for the Pall Mall Gazzette, Lady Florence envisioned a future where “above the mists of prejudice, football will be considered as natural a game for girls as for boys.”

But it was largely thanks to the outbreak of war in 1914 that women’s football really took off. As men were called upon to serve in the trenches, women were asked to mobilize, to care for troops, to fill roles vacated by the nation’s soldiers, and to work in the munitions factories. While factory girls initially divided into teams and staged games against each other to raise money for war charities, over time, competition became more structured and dozens of teams were formed.

The most dominant team was Lily Parr’s the Dick, Kerr Ladies, named after the factory in Preston where its members worked. The team not only played against domestic squads, but also hosted international teams and travelled abroad to raise money for the war effort.

The team’s popularity failed to wane after the war ended. On Boxing Day in 1920, a crowd of 53,000 filled the stands at Goodison Park to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies face St. Helens. Another 14,000 people were turned away.

Women’s teams were pulling in bigger crowds than their male counterparts and some feared they were threatening the men’s game. Despite the public’s unrelenting interest in women’s football, the English FA banned it in December 1921, declaring football “quite unsuitable for women and not to be encouraged.” Coaches and referees were threatened with losing their licenses if they allowed woman to play on grounds approved for men. The ban was responsible for inhibiting the growth of a sport that was swelling in both popularity and professionalism.

The ban lasted until 1972 in England with the game regaining its popularity in the late 1960s. In 1970, the first unofficial women’s World Cup took place in Italy, and only one year later, another non-FIFA sanctioned Mundial was hosted in Mexico. Nearly 100,000 fans took in the 1971 final at the Azteca Stadium, a feat made even more impressive because it occurred despite the Mexican Football Federation’s threats to sanction professional teams that allowed the tournament to play in their stadiums.

FIFA eventually admitted the women’s game into its governing body in the early 1970s. In her work The Beautiful Game, Jean Williams, the global expert on women’s football, postulates that it did so in order to trademark a competition and to generate revenue.

Officials at FIFA often point to the growing number of women playing football as vindication of the admittance of the women’s game into their organization, but this improvement should not mask inequities that still exist, or mean that the longer history of women’s football be forgotten.

The narrative of progress put forth by FIFA neglects nearly a century of women’s football as it developed largely outside its structures with great success and enormous popularity. The perpetuation of this narrative only ensures that the women’s game remains a separate and infantile product, a damsel in distress best administered by the knights in shining armor at a compound in Zurich.

And as 24 teams of women look to write their own histories in Canada over the next few weeks, they will do so because of the pioneers who paved the way, building munitions by day and enchanting war weary crowds by night.

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