The secret history of women’s football

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This year’s Women’s World Cup in France will be the highest-profile women’s football tournament yet.

It’s the latest peak in a growing interest in the women’s game, which has been building up over the last few years – after decades in the shadow of men’s football.

But it wasn’t always like that – at one time, the sport flourished in England.

Matches pulled in huge crowds – sometimes more than 50,000 people.

But then the women’s game was effectively banned, with the FA at the time saying the game of football was “quite unsuitable for females”.

It was another half century until women’s football got back on its feet – and that’s one reason it lags behind the men’s game today.

Imagine getting paid in cigarettes

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Image caption Lily Parr throwing a javelin during training

Lily Parr was a winger and one of the first female professional players.

She played for the Dick Kerr’s Ladies team which got its name from the munitions factory in Preston where most of the team worked during World War One.

They were the first women’s team to play wearing shorts, and the first to go on an overseas tour.

Lily was also a smoker and her wages were supplemented by packets of Woodbine cigarettes.

In 2002, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame.

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Image caption The Dick Kerr’s Ladies team take on the French Ladies International team at Herne Hill, London

Women’s matches pulled in enormous crowds

There was a huge growth in women’s football during the war when women were called upon to do factory jobs left by the men who had gone to fight.

On Christmas Day in 1917, 10,000 spectators watched two women’s teams playing at Preston.

And when Dick Kerr’s Ladies played St Helen’s Ladies on Boxing Day 1920 they pulled in a crowd of 53,000 at Everton’s Goodison Park ground, with thousands more fans locked outside.

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Image caption Play during the Theatrical Ladies Football match at Tottenham, north London, in 1912

But then the women’s game was effectively banned

On 5 December 1921, the Football Association banned women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches which meant stars like Lily Parr could no longer play at grounds with spectator facilities.

The FA at the time said “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.

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Image caption Preston Ladies training in 1939
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Image caption Joan Briggs, England centre forward, training in July 1959

In 1971 the ban was finally lifted following the formation of the Women’s Football Association (WFA) a couple of years earlier.

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Image caption Girls playing in 1970, a year before the effective ban on women playing in professional stadiums was lifted

Finally women could treat football as a career, 50 years later

The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made it easier for women to train to become professional referees.

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Media captionA profile of Joan Briggs, “celebrated star of the ladies’ soccer world”.

It has always been pretty tough to watch women’s football on television with the first TV reports of the Women’s FA Cup final results in the 1970s.

In 1989 Channel 4 started to provide regular coverage of women’s football.

And the FA outlined its plans to develop the women’s game from grassroots to elite level in 1997.

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Image caption The England team in 1997, when the FA set out a new mission to develop the women’s game

A big step forward came in 2011, which saw the inaugural season of the Women’s Super League.

Average attendance at WSL matches this season was 937 – up 13% on last year – but the FA wants to more than double this number next year.

According to the FA, 2.7 million women and girls played football in the 2018/19 season (up 9%).

The Women’s FA Cup final in May 2018 drew a record crowd of 45,423.

So it’s not meteoric growth – but for the FA, it’s definitely growth in the right direction.

A version of this article was first published in 2015.

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