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The 1921 Football Association ban on women's football at its members’ grounds

Written by Tony Killilea

Published on

On Boxing Day 1920 a capacity crowd of 53,000 packed into Goodison Park in Liverpool. Such was  the demand to see the biggest football match of the year that an estimated 14,000 people were  locked out, disappointed that they couldn’t get to watch the finest players of their era. The sense of  occasion was enhanced by the fact that the match was started by Ella Retford, one of the biggest  music hall stars of the age, and the Lord Mayor of Liverpool was in attendance. But the huge crowd  hadn’t shoehorned themselves into the stadium to admire Everton or Liverpool’s men’s teams,  rather they’d come to witness St Helens Ladies take on Dick, Kerr Ladies from Preston in what was  billed as the unofficial women’s cup final. 

The two teams treated the Goodison crowd to a feast of attacking football, with Dick, Kerr running  out 4-0 winners. Two of their outstanding players, Lily Parr and Alice Woods, had recently been  transferred from St Helens. Lily, an openly gay, chain smoking left winger, was renowned for her  caustic wit as well as the accuracy of her long passing and the power of her shooting. She is reputed  to have broken the arm of a goalkeeper who was unwise enough to get in the way of one of her  shots and scored almost a thousand goals in an astonishing career. 

Dick, Kerr Ladies, was the works team of an engineering company, which had most notably  manufactured trams, before turning its factory over to producing weapons to support the war effort. Encouraged by Albert Frankland who managed the team, they sought to take their game beyond the  status of a pastime and put it on a par with the men’s game.

Albert was empowered to offer employment to any player who was deemed good enough to join  the team and Lily moved to Preston as a Dick, Kerr worker. Alice’s mother, however, insisted that her  daughter remain at home to help care for her younger siblings. Although she played for Dick, Kerr,  she returned after the matches to St Helens where all her male relatives worked in the coal mines. 

Women’s football had started in the latter part of the nineteenth century; the first recorded  women’s match took place in 1888 in Inverness, but it really established itself during the first world  war. With the men’s leagues suspended there was an opportunity for the women’s game to gain  status. In working class communities, young women and girls were employed in munitions factories  to help the war effort. Bolstered by the camaraderie of the workplace, the women sought an outlet  for pleasure after long hours of drudgery in the factories; and they found this in football. At first  seen as a novelty, the commitment and skill of the teams ensured that women’s football soon  gained credibility and enormous popularity. But when it seemed that the women’s game was  building an unstoppable momentum it was dealt a devastating blow. 

Just under a year after the Boxing Day match the Football Association took steps to ensure that such  a huge event couldn’t take place again in the women’s game. On 5th December 1921 the FA issued  an edict banning women’s football from being played at its members’ grounds. This did not end  women’s football in England, but the ban did mean that women’s football was now banished to  recreation grounds and public parks where attendances were far more limited. 

In its edict the FA gave two reasons for barring women from playing football at its grounds. Firstly,  that women were physically unsuited to such a game and, secondly, that “an inadequate percentage  (of the takings were) devoted to Charitable Objects.”

So, were women physically unsuited to playing football? There was certainly a body of opinion in the  early decades of the twentieth century that competitive sport and in particular, football, could be  damaging to women’s health. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, said, “no  matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain  shocks”. This view was echoed by an FA doctor called Eustace Miles, who said, “the kicking is too  jerky a movement for women and the strain is likely to be severe.” Of course, these were male views  and there was an overriding belief at the all-male FA that football was unfeminine and that a  woman’s place was in the home. 

Two female doctors also claimed that football was potentially damaging to women, in particular it  could cause damage to their reproductive organs, but their approach was no more scientific than  that of Dr Miles, and no actual evidence of this was ever forthcoming. Of course, those doctors  didn’t make any claims for any damaging effects form doing heavy, not to mention extremely  dangerous, work in munitions factories. 

A medic with a different perspective was Dr Mary Lowry who, after watching Dick, Kerr Ladies play a  match said, “football is no more likely to cause injuries to women than a heavy day’s washing.” At  the same time factory welfare officers were encouraging football for women as a means of  improving their physical wellbeing. As for the supposed sterilising effects of playing football on  women, these were belied by the fecundity of Dick, Kerr’s players. Alice was typical of the team in  going on to have four children. 

What of the FA’s claim that women’s football clubs were diverting too much money by way of  expenses from charity donations? Unlike the professional men’s game, women’s matches were  played for charity. During, and in the period following, the first world war, funds were raised for  wounded soldiers and their families. In part, the enthusiasm for women’s football stemmed from a  patriotic desire to help the war effort by contributing to servicemen’s charities. The Boxing Day  game raised £3,115 (well over half a million pounds in today’s money) for the Unemployed Ex  Servicemen’s Distress Fund. The Derby Daily Telegraph stated that “the strongest argument in its  (women’s football’s) favour appears to be the large amount of money that has been raised for  charity.”  

Expenses were indeed taken from match takings to pay for travel, laundry and time in lieu (players  often had to miss shifts in order to play the matches). This was done transparently, with meticulous  records being kept by Dick, Kerr’s secretary, Herbert Stanley. Figures for fixtures where his club were  responsible for the finances show that between £28 and £38 of the takings for each match were  used for expenses. 

So, indeed, not all of the match takings went directly to the charities for which the matches were  staged. But the £120,000 raised for charities by women’s football between 1918 and 1921 was  £120,000 more than the FA raised for charitable causes. A direct effect of the FA ban was to  drastically reduce the amount of money that could be raised for ‘Charitable Objects’ as now the  attendances for women’s matches could only be measured in hundreds rather than tens of  thousands. The FA’s ban was infinitely more effective at reducing the amount of money going to  charities than the expenses extracted from the takings of matches. Many ex-servicemen protested  to the FA against the ban on behalf of their injured comrades who, in the years before the welfare  state, depended hugely on these charity donations, but to no avail. 

If the two reasons that the FA gave for banning women’s football from its grounds were unfounded,  were there other, hidden, reasons for the ban? It may be that the FA saw the success of women’s 

football as a threat to the men’s game, both in terms of its reputation as a masculine activity and in  terms of the income it generated. 

Perhaps the FA’s decision related to views on changing gender roles in the social upheaval following  the first world war. While some women’s sport historians have argued that sport was opened up to  women following the war, men held the power and controlled the resources of sport. And in this  case, they used that power to the severe detriment of women. Jean Williams, in her 2003 book, “A  Game for Rough Girls,” says that the FA wanted to reclaim football as a male domain. She states that  the FA ban ‘could be interpreted as a rather clumsy attempt…to reinforce the masculine image of  football.’ There seems little doubt that the FA feared the impact that women’s football was having  on the professional men’s game. 

In terms of attendances women’s football had become more popular than the men’s game and,  consequently, could generate more money. The 67,000 who tried to get in to Goodison Park on  Boxing Day 1920 compares with an average home attendance for Everton that season of 37,215.  According to Barbara Jacobs, money was the main reason for the FA ban. In her 2004 book, “The  

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies,” she argues that women were showing up the men’s game by raising huge sums  for charity, ‘demonstrating how easy it was to make money out of the professional game.’ 

But why did a year pass between the high watermark of the Goodison Park game and the ban? There  is a school of thought that the government intervened to persuade the FA to take action against  women’s football for political reasons, and it is worth looking at what occurred in the year leading up  to the ban. 

In March 1921, mine owners reduced pay by 50% and when workers refused to accept this they  were locked out. Inspired by Dick, Kerr and St Helens many more teams were formed, in part to  provide financial support for mining communities. According to Jacobs the miners’ lockout  politicised women’s football. This was a working class game, based in industrial heartlands, and it  shifted easily from patriotic support for the war wounded to politically motivated fund raising. 

Fixtures were arranged to provide relief for the families of striking workers: in Swansea, where  25,000 people attended, Cardiff (18,000) and Kilmarnock (15,000). In St Helens and other South  Lancashire mining towns “pea soup” matches were played by women’s teams to raise money for the  soup kitchens which fed miners’ children. Alice’s own family as well as her wider community was  benefitting from the welfare generated by the sport that she had helped to popularise. 

Did these demonstrations of solidarity with their suffering neighbours persuade the coalition  government to act to end this means of supporting industrial action? Although there is no written evidence for any government intervention, it is not hard to see that the government would have  been irritated by a women’s game which was now aligning itself with the Labour movement. And  there is no doubt that the FA’s ban on women staging matches in large stadiums drastically reduced  the amount of relief that miners and their families could receive. 

The FA ban did not stop women playing football, indeed, they carried on playing with as much  enthusiasm and skill as before, but without the ability to attract large crowds and the significant  press coverage that playing at major stadiums brought, women’s football was marginalised. 

The FA ban was revoked in 1972, but it is only now that women’s football is starting to recover the  level of media coverage and status that it enjoyed a century ago. It is still not clear exactly what  motivated the FA to prevent women from enjoying their chosen sport at its grounds; but it was  hugely effective at diminishing the status of the women’s game, as well as having a severely 

detrimental effect on the welfare of ex-servicemen and striking miners. The ban was also disturbing  to others who loved the game and hated to see it belittled. Major Cecil Kent, a former football club  secretary from Liverpool, wrote to the FA in 1921, asking, “Why have the FA got their knife into girls’  football? What have the girls done except raise large sums for charity and play the game? Are their  feet heavier on the turf than men’s feet?”