Women’s football has come a long way. Investments in the sport are growing, public support is stronger than ever, match attendance has gone through the roof, mainstream media is paying attention, and most importantly, more and more girls at the grassroots level are participating. Yes, there’s plenty of reason to feel hopeful about the future of women’s football.
Looking back, records are suggesting that women were playing football hundreds of years ago. A notable match was the one in Scotland in 1628. Unsurprisingly, the account of the match came from an outraged Scottish church minister denouncing those who participated in the game.
However, despite the minister’s protestations, women playing football at the time was apparently a tradition. There are even records of annual football matches among women from a few Scottish villages.
Learn more about the history of women’s football below:
The Victorian Era
The growth of women’s football should’ve been smooth and consistent since there wasn’t a shortage of women who wanted to play the sport. But many were opposed to women playing football during the Victorian Era. Of course, times have changed since then. For instance, in contrast to the opposition in the past, Sport England is now promoting Euro 2022 to get more women playing football. However, even back then, there were notable developments in women’s football.
Mrs. Graham’s XI
Helen Matthews, a noted suffragette, established Mrs. Graham’s XI—the first British women’s football team in 1881 in Scotland. These Scottish ladies, however, faced harassment every time they played. They had to use pseudonyms to protect their identities.
For example, Helen Mattews played goalkeeper using the name ‘Mrs. Graham.’ They faced a team from England on 9 May 1881, in a game that was promoted as Scotland vs. England. The match was held in Edinburgh, resulting in a 3-0 win for Scotland.
Then, on 20 May 1881, Mrs. Graham’s XI and the English ladies played in front of a crowd of 5,000 in Glasgow. Unfortunately, the match had to be abandoned after a mob surged onto the field where the players were ‘roughly jostled’ and had to leave the grounds. Other women’s football matches had similar results, and the matches were stopped. But the seed had already been planted.
The British Ladies Football Club
In 1884, Alfred Hewitt Smith formed the British Ladies Football Club, together with Nettie Honeyball (another pseudonym) as captain and the Scottish writer and feminist Lady Florence Dixie. Helen Matthews of Mrs. Graham’s XI fame also joined them. Their matches were well-attended—one match was said to have been attended by as many as 12,000. But the support was mixed at best, especially from the media.
Many wrote that football was suited only for men, while others were more outraged that women had the gall to charge for tickets and earn money from the sport. Others were more tolerant of women in football, but added that women shouldn’t forget to ‘modestly keep themselves in the background.’
There were many exhibition matches played throughout Britain, but women’s football failed to establish a league with official sanction. There were efforts to stamp out women’s football, and the games fizzled out.
The First World War and The Revival of Women’s Football
The war opened up opportunities for women to take up jobs that the conscripted men had left behind. The women also got involved in sports and, for a brief moment, women’s football flourished. Teams and leagues were formed, including the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club. Organized matches began to attract huge crowds. The ladies raised large sums as a result, which were donated to charity.
This popularity culminated on Boxing Day in 1920 when the Dick, Kerr team played with the St. Helen’s Ladies. Present were 53,000 supporters, and as many as 15,000 people had to be turned away. The Dick, Kerr team had previously played against a French women’s team from Paris in what was the very first international women’s football match. The Dick, Kerr ladies won that game, 2-0.
By 1921, several major towns in England had a women’s football team. There were concerns that women’s football was beginning to overshadow men’s. A clamor for a governing body and a professional women’s league began. However, hopes for a pro league were dashed when the Football Association (FA) banned women’s football on FA grounds. Despite the ban, teams continued to play, albeit on non-FA grounds.
The 60s to The Present
In 1969, the Women’s FA was formed. The ban was rescinded in 1971 and, by that time, football associations for women in different countries had also been founded. In Italy, the very first women’s professional football league was organized.
Legislations were passed, most notably in the US, to enforce gender equality not only in academics but in sports as well. This was widely credited as the reason for the start of the US’s dominance of women’s football and the sport’s association with social reforms in the country.
This idea spread in other countries, and women in sports, including football, continued to develop public favor and support. The following decades saw women’s football leagues all over the world flourish, and international competitions gained worldwide popularity. In Europe, the very first UEFA Women’s Championship was held in 1984, which was won by Sweden. The next one will be held in 2022 in England.
Women had always played football throughout history but were largely suppressed by the belief that the sport isn’t suitable for them. However, that did not stop women from playing the game. Now, women’s football is one of the most popular spectator sports in the world, with women players achieving superstar status.