In the decade preceding the first world war, physical exercise for women was discouraged as bad for their physical and emotional health. However, attitudes changed rapidly once women entered the workplace, replacing men drafted to fight. War work, particularly in the munitions factories, was dangerous and extremely unhealthy. Women began to be encouraged to take up regular physical exercise as a result, and influenced by the suffragette movement, began to play sports, such as cycling and tennis. And amongst working class women, football was popular.
One of the earliest organised all-women’s football teams was the Dick Kerr Ladies side, founded in Preston, Lancashire in 1914, at the Dick Kerr’s Company and managed by Albert Frankland, who had watched the women shell-assemblers kick a ball around in the factory yard against young male apprentices.
At first they played in local charity matches, raising money to help wounded servicemen. They were paid 10 shillings a week to cover expenses. Local papers in the north of England commented on their confidence, speed and understanding of the game. The team remained active for over 50 years, from 1914 to 1965.
From the start, mixed attendance at the matches was high, drawing between 4 and 5,000 spectators per game. In 1920, the Kerr Ladies defeated a French side 2-0 before a crowd of 25,000 at the first International Women’s Associations match, but were then beaten themselves in a return game at Stamford Bridge. On Boxing Day, 1920, they drew a crowd of 53,000 to a match in Liverpool against St Helens Ladies. They soon became a regular feature on Pathe News, the main film media of the day.
Despite their success, in 1921 the F.A. banned all women’s football matches played on its controlled grounds. They argued that women were physically unfit to indulge in contact sport. The real reason, of course, being that the popularity of the women’s game was threatening to undermine that of the men’s.
In 1922 the club began a tour of America and Canada. Pressurised by the English F.A., though, the Dominion F.A. similarly banned them from playing at official grounds in Canada. America raised no objections, fortunately. Playing there, the Ladies won 3, lost 3 and drew 3. The American press had cause to comment: “they showed stamina, clever play and speed.”
In 1937, having changed their name to The Preston Ladies FC, they beat the Scottish Women’s champions 5-1. They were thus pronounced “unofficial” world champions for the first time.
In July 1971, the F.A. finally recognised Women’s Football, 6 years after the Preston team had been disbanded. The Women’s game has developed hugely since then, though, particularly recently, and in America. In a few days time, Canada, who banned the Dick Kerr Ladies back in 1922, hosts the seventh Women’s World Cup, with 24 teams competing and every game available for watching on the BBC.
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.