Book Review: The History of Women’s Football

by Jean Williams, Pen & Sword (2021) £25.00

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Premier League there has been no shortage of books chronicling the extent of change in that period and indeed I have reviewed a number of such publications on this blog. The sport – or rather, the football industry – has been transformed across all areas but I would argue that the most revolutionary change has been that of the profile of women’s football.

My case is that whilst men’s professional football is radically different to the pre-Premier League era in terms of the supporting experience and the impact of television and commercialisation, the Premier League has essentially accelerated the rate of change of trends that were already in existence in 1992. By contrast the extent of transformation of women’s football in the past ten years alone makes it far less recognisable in its modern form compared to what preceded than is the case with the men’s game.

The level of commercial sponsorship in women’s football since the launch of the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2010 attests to its potential and the discovery by brands of its influence. The story of how women’s football has been transformed since 1992 has yet to be told and it was this that I hoped to discover from my purchase of Jean Williams’ book, The History of Women’s Football.

The author provides a fascinating account of the recorded origins of women’s participation in local ‘folk’ football and the playing of association football in the nineteenth century. In late Victorian Britain, women faced two fundamental disadvantages in relation to playing the sport. The first was that the men’s game was by this time well-established with a monopoly of resources (ie playing fields / grounds) and organisational infrastructure (ie clubs and regulatory bodies to organise competitions). The second was that women had far less time to play sport and that they were discouraged from doing so. Accordingly this gave rise to distinct characteristics for women’s football.

On the one hand there were no league or cup competitions and on the other, there was no network of nascent women’s football clubs which was something of a chicken and egg situation. Instead, women’s football became marginalised and in the late nineteenth century relied upon the staging of exhibition games as the economic model of how a women’s club could establish itself. The first example of this was a series of nine games in 1881 between teams representing England and Scotland, one of which was played at Windhill in Shipley. The media coverage of the game at Windhill in June, 1881 was harsh and guilty of both trivialising and sexualising the fixture, a theme which Jean Williams identifies as having been a regular occurrence in historic reports of women’s football.

The concept of an entrepreneurial touring side that travelled the country to play exhibition games was not unique to women’s football – the example of the Barbarians in Rugby Union or the Corinthians in men’s football being prime examples – but it dictated the operation of the leading women’s sides from the British Ladies Football Club in 1895-96 to Dick, Kerr Ladies between 1917-65, Manchester Corinthians between 1949 and the late 1980s and then Harry Bett’s touring team, 1968-72. For organised women’s football to become established required a distinct economic model to ensure financial survival given inherent disadvantages in relation to men’s football and its monopoly control.

An interesting parallel is that of the Northern Union seeking to choke interest in association football in West Yorkshire in the 1890s. That soccer eventually eclipsed rugby as the leading code was derived from the strength of leadership that women’s football has lacked until quite recently. The victory of so-called ‘associationists’ was also achieved by a number of strategic decisions that positioned football as a distinct and modern game compared to the traditional rugby establishment. Indeed, the future success of women’s football might likewise be achieved by distancing itself from the men’s game.

During World War One women’s football secured a foothold and derived considerable goodwill by becoming associated with charitable giving. As I have written in connection with the origins of football in Bradford, the motive of charitable fund raising was a critical factor in giving a degree of legitimacy and respectability to the recreational activity of adult men playing football in the late nineteenth century [1]. By 1914, men’s professional football had fostered cynicism and was considered to have been corrupted by finance. Certainly in Bradford, women’s football was thereby able to present itself as a far more noble undertaking and as elsewhere in the country women’s factory teams came to prominence by playing games to raise money for the war effort.

Although numerous sides were disbanded at the end of the war, there was a revival in interest in women’s football from the end of 1920 with the formation of numerous sides of which Huddersfield Atalanta in November, 1920 was the first in West Yorkshire. It is notable that the Huddersfield club also competed at water polo and its emergence probably reflected growing demand from women for opportunities to participate in competitive sport, of which other examples included hockey and cricket.

The immediate post-war period was associated with radical changes in social attitudes and neither was men’s sport immune from new fashions. For example there was the revival of men’s rugby union which derived momentum from the enthusiasm of spectators to watch a sport considered to be unsullied by professionalism and with amateur ideals. Whilst Rugby Union never eclipsed association football, the evidence in Bradford is that at least during the 1920s it gained considerable traction [2].

Arguably women’s football similarly benefited from changing sentiments of spectators which may account for the then record 53,000 crowd at Goodison Park that attended a women’s football match between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helens on Boxing Day, 1920. Yet despite impressive attendances at high profile fixtures, mainstream media was patronising at best and continued to foster the impression of women’s football as a source of titillation and light entertainment rather than serious competition.

The reported frequency of high scoring games would suggest that there was no shortage of entertainment. On the other hand the same results raise doubt about the standard and strength in depth of the women’s game of that era. It is not unreasonable to ask whether spectators attended out of curiosity and whether women’s football was actually taken seriously by traditional male supporters. Or was it the case that women’s football attracted a new breed of spectator? The equally fundamental question is whether that interest could have been sustained.

Could women’s football really have been a challenge to the attraction of the traditional men’s game? Inevitably it is a debate that touches upon sensitive themes but nonetheless, ones that need to be addressed in a history of women’s football. As with the study of the origins of men’s football in the nineteenth century, when examining the emergence of women’s football in the early years it requires more than taking matches at face value.

From today’s perspective, the FA ban in December, 1921 was antediluvian and in the context of women having secured new freedoms the decision seems revanchist in its nature and against the tide of history. The charge is that it represented male misogyny and reflected the same prejudice expressed in newspaper reports. However, I believe that it is simplistic to overlook other issues at stake. For example, there is an argument that the Football Association had genuine concerns about women’s football with regards what it considered the integrity of association football.

From my research of events in Bradford, in 1907 the FA was expressing concern about ‘burlesque displays masquerading as football matches’ in respect of proposed charity games staged by pantomime actors at Valley Parade and I can only assume that similar attitudes prevailed at a national level. My suspicion is that women’s football was similarly regarded as a frivolous if not burlesque activity by those in positions of power. The other concern of the FA was in respect of allegations of financial misappropriation involving Dick, Kerr Ladies (the then leading women’s side in the country) who attracted the biggest gates. Similar accusations (that were unproven) were also targeted at the Hey’s Brewery team of Bradford but in the case of Dick, Kerr there does appear to have been more substance and which eventually resulted in the subsequent dismissal of the team manager by the firm.

In the annals of history, the Football Association is recorded as having justified the decision to ban women’s football on the basis that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’ which hardly provides a defence against contemporary charges of misogyny. In practice the FA probably found it easier to communicate its decision in this way than to elaborate on other matters, including for instance financial issues or the potential commercial threat of high profile women’s matches to the viability of third division (Football League) clubs.

In the wake of the ban I am not aware of concerted criticism of the FA decision. Locally, although there were reported protestations in the press from the owner of Hey’s Brewery and from the team captain, there does not appear to have been an outcry from the likes of politicians, educationalists or women’s groups. For instance, in the Bradford press the matter was given little coverage and Sam Holdsworth, editor of the Yorkshire Sports (who wrote as Nomad) considered the decision entirely sensible. Whether for reasons of misogyny or prejudice the impression is quite unambiguous that women’s football was derided and not taken seriously.

Given the extensive detail in her book about the development of women’s football prior to the FA ban, I am surprised that Jean Williams does not offer a more extensive account of the circumstances in 1921. Likewise, by failing to offer a more critical assessment of the actual playing standards or substantiating the level of participation in the game, I believe that the author falls into the trap of mythologising women’s football of that era.

The FA ban deprived women’s football the opportunity to showcase itself but notwithstanding, there seems little evidence to suggest otherwise that beyond a handful of leading sides, women’s football in England had limited strength and depth. For reasons given in my feature about the origins and early history of women’s football in Bradford [3] I am sceptical that – in Bradford at least – women’s football would have thrived even if the FA ban had not occurred. It would have been interesting for the author to have given her assessment of how women’s football in England might otherwise have developed without the ban. For example, is it realistic to believe that a national league structure could have been established and sustained much sooner?

Ironically, Williams mistakenly refers to the existence of a women’s football league in Bradford in 1920/21 as evidence of grass roots strength and popularity. The said competition was in fact a hockey league, a sport widely reported in Bradford as commanding female attention and boasting the highest levels of female participation. Popular as a school activity, adult women’s hockey clubs were based at local cricket grounds. The same venues hosted women’s cricket and such was the popularity that in 1932 it led to the launch of a local league competition.

By contrast, to my knowledge there is no record of there ever having been a women’s football league in Bradford and given the shortage of playing fields in the city at that time I am extremely doubtful that there could have been. It was precisely this lack of strength in depth and the absence of succession of future players that surely made it impossible for women’s football to sustain the early momentum at a local or national level, irrespective of the FA ban. The absence of financial support and leadership were other factors in this (although the futility of the task might explain seemingly half-hearted attempts at launching a women’s football association). Either way there was a failure to establish a competitive infrastructure for women’s football at national level and there is no reported evidence of local leagues elsewhere in the country.

Bradford offers a good case study about the early history of women’s football, for example with the record of the Hey’s Brewery and Lister’s Mill teams both of which were formed in spring, 1921 (although unfortunately neither are given much attention in the book). The Hey’s team in particular was notable as a frequent opponent of the Dick, Kerr side and boasted representing England in games in both Scotland and France. The fact that factory based sides came to prominence is not insignificant in that the support of an employer safeguarded the viability and underpinned the economic and operational model of a women’s side. The example of Hey’s also hints at the marketing prowess of the firm which would have derived considerable publicity from the sponsorship of a football team. Furthermore whereas in the men’s game in England it was virtually unheard of for a leading side to be known by the name of a commercial backer, it was fairly commonplace in women’s football. (I suspect this was another matter of concern to the FA, wary of overt commercial interference and a precedent for the men’s game.)

The Bradford & District FA had played an evangelical role at the beginning of the twentieth century to promote the cause of associationism at the expense of rugby yet there was never any support given to the encouragement of women’s football. The example of how ‘associationists’ promoted their sport in Bradford is insightful given that the same success factors – publicity in the press, development of a local league and promotion of school sport – would have provided the necessary fillip to women’s football from a near zero base. Notable however is that the two senior men’s clubs in Bradford – at Valley Parade and Park Avenue respectively – were not overtly hostile to women’s football in so far as prior to the FA ban both grounds hosted women’s football and in August, 1939, club dignitaries attended a high profile women’s football match at Odsal stadium between teams from Preston (ex Dick, Kerr) and Belgium.

The strength of The History of Women’s Football is found in the recorded interviews with pioneering women who played football in the pre-modern era and there is no doubting the commitment and enthusiasm that they individually invested in the sport. That they were not able to realise their potential by playing in a competitive league and receive media attention for their efforts was a genuine tragedy and it is important that they are now given recognition. Yet whilst the interviews are fascinating, it feels that the author has allowed the page count to be filled with personal anecdotes to the detriment of historic critique or even the context of league tables / results. Again it makes me question whether this serves only to mythologise the story of women’s football.

My memory of university sport was of the grading of different activities to merit the award of university colours and the ranking of ‘minor’ sports based on comparative standards, degrees of competition and participation as well as national / international benchmarks. Whilst subjective and emotive, inevitably the likes of rugby, football and cricket scored higher than say archery or lacrosse. In Bradford in the 1920s, I have little doubt that women’s hockey, cricket, cycling or tennis would have ranked far higher than women’s football.

It would be interesting to chart the rise in prominence of football compared to other women’s sports in the last century and the last thirty years in particular. For example I have yet to see any estimates of participation levels that would be insightful to provide context about women’s football, to examine its changing popularity and status relative to other sports. Such an exercise might also help to better understand the standard of, and degree of competition in, women’s football of the pre-modern era. All of this points to major knowledge gaps about the early history of women’s football and the need for local based research work that is currently lacking (including incontrovertible evidence of local women’s football leagues).

The launch of a Women’s Football Association in 1969 and the story of professional pioneers since 1972 is covered in depth. Ultimately, where this book fails is by not explaining how women’s football was transformed in the last couple or so decades and the steps on that journey. Of how a league and competitive infrastructure was established and the emergence of commercial sponsorship for women’s football. Only passing mention is given about the significant financial investment in English women’s football since the launch of WSL in 2010 which hints at the emergent economic power of the sport. Coverage of the co-existence of men’s and women’s football would have been welcome, of how existing Football League clubs have promoted women’s sides and the resources provided.

The big question over women’s football comes back to the economic model of how the sport can be made to pay. This also needs recognition that the circumstances of women’s teams associated with Premier League clubs is vastly different to those linked to Division Two sides and those outside the WSL. I would have also welcomed a comparison with women’s football in the USA, the strength of which is derived from school and college competition.

The History of Women’s Football is well-written yet it feels unbalanced. In terms of explaining how women’s football got to where it is now I found it lacking as well as prone to mythologising. The rather glaring error in respect of the Bradford & District Ladies Hockey League being mistaken for a women’s football league – and the suggestion by others that there are misstatements about what happened in Manchester – unfortunately raises questions about accuracy. In terms of discovering about the WSL and subsidiary, junior or developmental league competitions I am none the wiser. Additionally, to have discovered more about the origins and impact of established and pioneering clubs such as Doncaster Belles or Arsenal Ladies would have been welcome.

A more appropriate title for the book would give emphasis to the historic personalities of women’s football, the coverage of which cannot be faulted. However, I am not convinced that this work succeeds in explaining the extent of change in the modern era. In terms of content, it can hardly be described as a landmark history as its title might imply. Instead it points to gaps in the historical record that need to be filled.

By John Dewhirst

[1] Feature on the Bradford Charity Cup and the tradition of charitable fund raising by local football clubs (published on VINCIT April, 2017)

[2] The revival of Rugby Union in Bradford in the 1920s (published on VINCIT March, 2019)

[3] The origins of Women’s Football in Bradford (published on VINCIT October, 2018)


 You can read my other book reviews from here.