Up front and on side: women footballing heroes on film

Sport historian Jean Williams pieces together a history of the women’s game from BFI Player’s Football on Film collection.

Jean Williams

Enfield FC v Ediswan Factory

Enfield FC v Ediswan Factory

When Panini issued its first edition of stickers for the soccer Women’s World Cup in 2011 in Germany, it was hailed as evidence of progress and an important innovation. Women football stars appeared to be moving beyond sport into the cultural industries. Similarly, when defender Lucy Bronze was selected as one of 12 BBC Sports Personality of the Year nominees after the England women’s national team’s unprecedented third place at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, it supposedly highlighted wider media interest in women’s football.

BFI Player’s new Football on Film collection allows us to revisit what appear to be ‘firsts’. To what extent were the 2011 and 2015 Women’s World Cups really markers of progress? Should we consider how continuity in attitudes to women’s sport can be as important as change? And what vital role does history play in public perceptions of female sport?

When the Football Association codified the modern rules of the game in 1863, it had in mind educated young men. However, the professional game expanded rapidly and the Football League (inaugurated in 1888) defined football as a working-class public entertainment. But it was officially to be a male-only space. The world governing body FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was formed in 1904 but came to oversee women’s football only in 1969.

“The Girls of the Period - Playing Ball”, Harper’s Bazaar, 1869 (sourced from The History of Women's Football)

“The Girls of the Period - Playing Ball”, Harper’s Bazaar, 1869 (sourced from The History of Women's Football)

A century earlier, in the August 1869 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, a group of fashionably dressed young women were shown kicking a football about with great verve, and holding off their opponents in pursuit of the ball. Subtitled ‘The Girls of the Period — Playing Ball’, this illustration suggests that ‘kick-about’ games at this time could involve girls and women as well as men and boys.

A period of significant minority activity followed, and between 1881 and 1897 more than 120 organised women’s football matches were recorded, growing in popularity as a public entertainment. Largely among munitions workers, but also among the female workforce in other sectors of industry, women’s football took centre stage between 1917 and 1921 – as captured in the Topical Budget newsreel’s Lady Footballers (1918).

Newsreels show large crowds of working people, the support of local dignitaries, stars ‘kicking off’ matches and the festive atmosphere of the crowds. As such, the films provide unique evidence for historians.

By playing for local charitable causes, women’s teams became regional and national heroes, and their fame was celebrated as equivalent to stars of entertainment. For instance, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies of Preston played at major stadiums in front of crowds up to 55,000 strong. However, it’s important to emphasise that there were 150 teams from all over the country at this time. Two more of these appear in Enfield FC vs Ediswan Factory (1921).

With the end of the war and then the expansion of the Football League that followed, the Consultative Committee of the Football Association passed a ban on women’s teams, resolving:

“Complaints have been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.

“Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of these matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of the receipts to other than Charitable objects. The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of receipts are absorbed in expenses. For these reasons the Council request the clubs belonging to the Association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.” (FA Council 1921).

At least one newsreel of the time appears to suggest that the FA’s ban was less than universally popular:

Although the ban was contested, as an unregulated activity women’s football didn’t have the means to form its own League structures. Unofficial local and national competitions nevertheless took place, and the French Femina side were very popular in Britain and Europe. Carmen Pommies, the French goalkeeper, transferred to Dick, Kerr’s for a time to play at the highest level.

Importantly, most elite women players wore a recognisable football strip at this time, allowing sporting excellence rather than modesty to define their appearance. Hats were often worn at work and in public, and so frequently appear in the films.

The FA Council repeatedly reinforced the ban, most noticeably in 1946. Some years later the official historian of the FA, Geoffrey Green, felt able to dismiss women players as a blight on the game of football equivalent to gambling, commercialism and cheating.

“There now remain a few subjects upon which the FA have taken a definite stand from the beginning and remained unwavering in their attitude towards them. Amongst these may be counted Women’s Football, Greyhound Racing, Betting and Rough Play.”

In this, Green neatly overlooked the fact that women’s football had been a highly commercialised form of spectator entertainment from 1895 to 1897 and from 1917 to 1921. So the ban changed football – not just the women’s game but also the men’s game too, as the gendered labour markets of the sport came to define its public face.

By 1971 the Women’s Football Association, under regulation from the FA, had formed a national team that began to play in international competitions. But it would be 1984 before an official European women’s national team tournament was inaugurated, followed by the first FIFA-organised Women’s World Cup in 1991, held in China.

Gregory's Girl (1980)

Gregory's Girl (1980)

So women footballers remained the exception rather than the general rule, as hit 1980 film Gregory’s Girl showed. Today, the game’s governing bodies like to call football “the fastest growing team sport for girls and women”, although less than 10% of players worldwide are female.

The films collected in Football on Film help us to recover the history of women’s football and its wider mediation to spectators. They are invaluable records of supporters in the grounds and of the ways women’s football was shown to audiences in cinemas. This is crucial because, without this evidence, we might accept the chronology constructed by governing bodies who, for a long time, have considered women’s sporting interests beneath their contempt. Today, women’s football is not in its infancy as a ‘growing’ sport. It has a mature heritage dating back 150 years.

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