Could we ever imagine seeing women’s teams playing to crowds of 50,000+ paying fans, selling out some of the most famous grounds in the country and becoming so popular that the men’s game would begin to lose its appeal? Funnily enough that’s exactly what happened across England in the early 1900s.
As the first world war began to take hold of the nation, huge numbers of men and boys were conscripted to join the trenches across Europe to fight for the Allied forces. This left a vacuum for women to take on many of the duties associated with men that they might have otherwise been seen as unsuited to in more traditional, ‘patriarchal’ times.
Alongside taking up jobs in makeshift munitions factories, females began to play a more prominent role in other areas of society, including sport. The cancellation of football competitions (many teams were automatically signed up to local army regiments) meant local communities were starved of their weekly fix of football to watch – which by this time was a hugely popular spectator sport.
While initial matches between women’s teams were often viewed as bizarre ‘circus’ events purely designed to raise some money for the war effort, it wasn’t long before some of the more popular teams were drawing crowds of over 20,000 spectators and women’s football became widely followed.
The Dick Kerr’s Ladies football club was formed in 1915 out of a munitions factory in Preston, and for the next 7 years were the dominant force in the game. Their popularity reached a peak on Boxing day in 1920 where they played in front of 53,000 fans at Goodison Park, home of Everton FC, against local rivals St Helens Ladies.
This often forgotten history of women’s football suggests that in the right social, political and economic circumstances, there is no reason to suggest the women’s game couldn’t be as popular as men’s football. That’s not to say, of course, that it would ever be again.
The first world war certainly provided a unique set of circumstances for women’s football to establish itself.
It is often argued today that the women’s game is too slow, too dull and not tactically complex enough to attract those fans who have only ever watched men play.
It is also suggested that without a significant increase in media attention, women’s football will always remain a minority sport. While the WSL and the England women’s team has received significantly more coverage in recent years, companies such as Sky are unlikely to invest the sums of money they do in the Premier League without an obvious likelihood of financial return.
That said, for a number of years female football, particularly at youth level, has been the fastest growing sport of any – male or female – in the UK, which suggests a generation of kids who might be less confused and more open to the idea of women playing the game.
If you’re wondering what happened to the women’s game after the early 1920s, it effectively got banned by The Football Association after a decision was made in 1921 by the FA Council to compel all clubs to no longer allow women’s matches to be played at their grounds, spuriously claiming the female players had been embezzling charitable donations meant for the war effort.
A short sighted decision by The FA? Corruption in the game? Some things, it seems, never change.