The Evolution of Women’s Football

The Evolution of Women’s Football

The following two tabs change content below.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

│By Rachel Holt, Acquisitions Editor │

As the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup drew to a close and tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of New York to greet the United States’ World Cup-winning team, we decided to look at the history of women’s football. Using Gale Primary Sources we tracked the evolution of women’s involvement in the beautiful game up to this year’s Women’s World Cup which, capturing the public’s imagination, saw an all-time high in viewing figures.

“A Ladies Football Match” (1895)

Women’s football has a longer history than most people would expect, and some games attracted more spectators than men’s games. The first women’s football match in Britain referred to in Gale Primary Sources is recorded as having taken place in 1895, where “North” beat “South” 7-1. Despite apparently drawing large crowds, there is little coverage of the game in Gale Primary Sources. Sometimes gaps in the archives can be telling in themselves. Not only was this first game not deemed worthy of significant newspaper coverage, it was treated as an oddity. A short article found in Nineteenth Century Collections Online, entitled A Ladies’ Football Match (1895) offers a generally positive response to the game, however it attributes more words to describing the players’ attire (“full black knickerbockers fastened below the knee…”) than the game itself.

"A Ladies' Football Match." Eastern Weekly Leader, 30 Mar. 1895, p. 2. Nineteenth Century Collections Online
“A Ladies’ Football Match.” Eastern Weekly Leader, 30 Mar. 1895, p. 2. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/LONLFT977390668/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=2286c597

When the author, a “lady correspondent,” does get around to describing the match, only one player is ever named: Miss Honeyball. This name, the article reports, gave rise to derogatory cries of “Come on, my Honey”. The top player who “was readier and more active than any of the rest” not only remains anonymous in the article but “The crowd decided that she was a boy, and dubbed her (or him) “Tommy”. Although not completely damning, the match is considered a curiosity by the author, who says “When the novelty has worn off, I do not think that ladies’ football will attract crowds”. How wrong this statement would eventually turn out to be!

Meanwhile an article in the journal Hearth and Home found in 19th Century UK Periodicals is shockingly critical of the match, leading with the title “A Pitiful Exhibition” and ending by cautioning that “apart from the effect of the game on [a] woman’s body, there is also an undesirable effect upon her mind”.

"A PITIFUL EXHIBITION." Hearth and Home [UKP], 4 Apr. 1895, p. 738. 19th Century UK
“A PITIFUL EXHIBITION.” Hearth and Home [UKP], 4 Apr. 1895, p. 738. 19th Century UK Periodicals, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/DX1901333759/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=f8a7e484

The impact of WWI

The turning point for women’s football came in World War I. Although was well established by this time, it hadn’t been well received. When war broke out, all men fit enough to play football were sent to fight on the front line, and women stepped into their jobs. As female workers entered the factories in large numbers, kickabouts became a popular pastime – a fact that did not go unnoticed by factory management – and the first female football teams emerged from the munitions factories, who often used them to raise money for charities.

Fast forward to the interwar period, and the sport was flourishing, with approximately 150 women’s teams in England in the early 1920s. Attitudes also become more positive, with coverage in the Daily Mail calling it a “A nice, lady-like game” about which “There was nothing they need be ashamed of.”

"Women's Football." Daily Mail, 8 Dec. 1921, p. 5. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004
“Women’s Football.” Daily Mail, 8 Dec. 1921, p. 5. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EE1862771979/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=a0c2e150

The first women’s international game was played in 1920, with Preston-based Dick Kerr’s Ladies beating a French side 2-0. Dick Kerr’s Ladies became one of the most famous teams with their games attracting over 50,000 spectators.

"British and French Girls to Play Football in Paris." New York Herald [European Edition], 24 Oct. 1920, p. 6. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013
“British and French Girls to Play Football in Paris.” New York Herald [European Edition], 24 Oct. 1920, p. 6. International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/HNGIML675987288/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=646a2dbd
Rowbottom, Mike. “When Ladies of Preston ruled the world.” Independent, 27 Feb. 1997, p. 26. The Independent Digital Archive
Rowbottom, Mike. “When Ladies of Preston ruled the world.” Independent, 27 Feb. 1997, p. 26. The Independent Digital Archive, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/FQ4201125822/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=640f3c33

Female players even enjoyed their own celebratory with some of the first professional players such as Lily Parr hailed as “Famous Lady Footballers”. Parr was also praised for being able to “boot a ball further than any lady in the country.”

"Famous Lady Footballers." Evening Telegraph, 6 Sept. 1921, p. 11. British Library Newspapers
“Famous Lady Footballers.” Evening Telegraph, 6 Sept. 1921, p. 11. British Library Newspapers, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/JE3237085477/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=37a9562b

Women banned from playing on Football League grounds

Despite this, soon after this article, on 5th December 1921 the Football Association banned women from playing on Football League grounds. The ban put an end to what had been becoming a golden era for women’s football. Newspaper reporting ranged from dismissive, with titles such as “By the Way” in the Evening Telegraph

"By the Way." Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 Jan. 1922, p. 2. British Library Newspapers
“By the Way.” Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 Jan. 1922, p. 2. British Library Newspapers, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/JF3233020984/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=a04023b2

…to insulting, with female soccer players being deemed “Football Freaks” in the Aberdeen Journal

"Football Freaks." Aberdeen Journal, 8 Dec. 1921, p. 4. British Library Newspapers
“Football Freaks.” Aberdeen Journal, 8 Dec. 1921, p. 4. British Library Newspapers, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/JA3234080645/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=da39a919

Regardless, some female teams continued, and Lily Parr became one of the greatest scorers in English history, netting more than 1,000 goals during a 31-year career. Many teams fought the ban, but it would be a long road ahead.

"Women Soccer Players Protest." Evening Telegraph, 30 Aug. 1947, p. 8. British Library Newspapers
“Women Soccer Players Protest.” Evening Telegraph, 30 Aug. 1947, p. 8. British Library Newspapers, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/JF3237987420/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=cf4ae968

The lifting of the ban saw a revival in women’s football

Fifty years later, in 1971, the Football Association finally lifted the ban on women’s football following the formation of the Women’s Football Association in 1969. This instigated a female football revival across Europe, and the rest of the world. As the Daily Mail reported (below), women’s soccer was “no longer” considered “a joke”.

Marlowe, David, Chairman. "Why women's Soccer is no longer a joke." Daily Mail, 11 Sept. 1973, p. 13. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004,
Marlowe, David, Chairman. “Why women’s Soccer is no longer a joke.” Daily Mail, 11 Sept. 1973, p. 13. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EE1862328252/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=4a7a7621

Women could treat football as a career and because of the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, women could also train to become professional referees.

Oxby, Robert. "FA will discuss women referees." Daily Telegraph, 16 Mar. 1976, p. 26. The Telegraph Historical Archive
Oxby, Robert. “FA will discuss women referees.” Daily Telegraph, 16 Mar. 1976, p. 26. The Telegraph Historical Archive, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/IO0703542619/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=bdcf407d

Over the years, coverage of women’s soccer would gradually increase in both mainstream newspapers and women’s and feminist magazines (many of which can be found in the Women’s Studies Archive) such as Sportswoman, The Other Woman and Everywoman.

"The Sports Woman." Sportswoman, vol. 1, no. 4, November-December 1973. Women's Studies Archive,
“The Sports Woman.” Sportswoman, vol. 1, no. 4, November-December 1973. Women’s Studies Archive, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/XSNCRQ863612688/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=c26900b0
"The Other Woman." Other Woman, July-Aug 1973. Women's Studies Archive,
“The Other Woman.” Other Woman, July-Aug 1973. Women’s Studies Archive, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/YKGNEK748392389/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=6d12ba3f
"Every Woman." Everywoman, Feb. 1971, p. [1]. Women's Studies Archive,
“Every Woman.” Everywoman, Feb. 1971, p. [1]. Women’s Studies Archive, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/YJZCQV825599207/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=205336a8

The FIFA Women’s World Cup

In 1991 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) founded the first Women’s World Cup. The 2019 tournament achieved record-breaking viewing figures; with over 200 broadcasters giving games prime-time slots, it’s estimated that this year’s tournament drew one billion viewers. This has, in turn, highlighted the issue of redressing the balance between female and male players in areas such as pay, prize money and advertising. Hopefully, gender inequality will soon be confined to the history of football.

​ About the Author



Rachel has worked in a variety of roles across the publishing industry and joined the Gale Primary Sources acquisition team in 2017, taking on responsibility for the Women’s Studies Archive programme.  Although women’s history is a personal passion, her other area of focus is fringe politics and Rachel is also in charge of Gale’s Political Extremism & Radicalism series. 


Show Buttons
Hide Buttons