The history of women’s football

Women's football

The history of women’s football is a fascinating journey that spans centuries. Let’s explore some key moments and remarkable women who contributed to the growth of the sport

Way back in 1881, 1,000 fans paid to watch a women’s match in Sheffield, between teams comprising English and Scottish players. The game was played near Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground. 14 years later, 3,000 spectators gathered near the city’s other professional club ground, Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, to watch the British Ladies Football Club in action.

Both matches were – and are – a reflection of the steel city’s enduring love affair with football, which stakes a claim to be England’s ‘home of football’, given the first football club – Sheffield FC – was formed there in 1857.

It’s a passion that grew in World War 1, when the thousands of women were working in the city’s numerous munitions-producing factories. Several formed women’s teams, who held fund-raising matches in aid of the war effort and wounded soldiers. It led to a South Yorkshire Ladies League running in 1917/18.

More recently, the history of women’s football in the city features Sheffield Wednesday Ladies, who trace their origins back to 1971, when it started life as the women’s team of the Star Inn. They later changed their name to Sheffield Ladies before taking their current moniker. It means the club has a 50+ year history. Across the city, Sheffield United Women today grace The FA Women’s Championship, the second tier of the professional women’s game in England.

Early Years
Records show that women were participating in casual football matches as early as the 15th century. Just like their male counterparts, women played within their local communities for recreation. The first recorded international women’s association football match took place on May 9, 1881, when a team calling themselves, England played against Scotland at Easter Road in Edinburgh. Scotland emerged victorious with a 3-0 win, thanks to goals from players like Lily St Clair, Louise Cole, and the combined play of Georgina Wright and Isa Stevenson.

Backlash and the 1921 Ban
As women’s football gained popularity, so did the backlash. The first recorded match between England and Scotland in 1881 faced violent protests. During World War I, women’s football became incredibly popular. With men away at war, women took up factory jobs and started playing football in their spare time.

However, when the war ended, the success of women’s football was deemed a threat to the men’s game. The Football Association (FA) implemented a countrywide ban on women’s football in 1921.
Women were prohibited from playing organized football, using professional pitches, and even registered referees were no longer allowed to officiate games. False narratives about finances and women’s physical abilities were spread in the media.

Lily Parr and the Dick Kerr’s Ladies
Lily Parr, a winger, was one of the first female professional players. She played for the Dick Kerr’s Ladies team, named after the munitions factory in Preston, where most of the team worked during World War I.
The Dick Kerr’s Ladies were pioneers—they were the first women’s team to play wearing shorts and the first to embark on an overseas tour.

Modern Era
Despite the 50-year ban, women continued to play football during that time, but there are no official records of their achievements.
The FA finally lifted the ban in 1971, but the damage to the women’s game was severe. It took decades to rebuild. In 2009, the FA introduced central contracts, allowing women to make a career out of the sport. England didn’t have a professional female football league until 2018.

The Lionesses’ journey to the Women’s World Cup Final is a testament to the resilience of women’s football, overcoming centuries of misogyny, violence, and legal barriers.

Women’s football has come a long way, and the dedication of those early players paved the way for the thriving sport we see today. The history of women’s football is a fascinating journey that spans centuries.

Do you have more information about this that we could add? Are any of the facts wrong? Please get in touch if so.

Source: John Clarke
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