SUZANNE WRACK was taken aback by the Channel 4 documentary which analysed the social and political context of the FA banning women’s football after the first world war
Channel4’s coverage of the women’s European Championship finals as a whole has been patchy, inconsistent and under-advertised — at best.
If you do manage to navigate All4 to a game not featuring England you’ll be lucky to find commentary and be treated to a “coverage will be back soon” message at half-time.
Imagine that in a men’s international. It’s a real shame given how competitive and exciting this tournament is as a whole and you’re left wondering why the broadcaster bid for the whole tournament if they were going to do it such an injustice?
That said, they do deserve some credit for their coverage of England in the build up to Euro 2017. Their Lionesses billboards, Little Mix partnership, powerful commercials and, loads beside, have been fantastic.
In addition, last week they aired the extremely powerful documentary When Football Banned Women.
Presented by Clare Balding, this show goes deep into the history of women’s football. But it didn’t just discuss it, it analysed the social and political context of that history.
Not many people know that women’s football was not just banned, but banned when it was attracting tens of thousands of spectators.
It is widely known however that World War I transformed the lives of women in Britain. No longer confined to the home, they joined the war effort and refused to go back to the kitchens once the guns were downed.
They had filed into the factories vacated by the men who went to fight and felt liberated by their new independence.
Just as men’s football began in the factories, so did the women’s. And with the men at war, it was women’s football that thrived and even overtook the men’s. At its phenomenal peak Dick Kerr Ladies drew almost 53,000 fans into Goodison Park in 1920, with a further 14,000 outside unable to get in. Yet in 1921 the FA banned women’s football from all FA associated clubs and grounds.
That is what this documentary is about; how and why the FA came to take this criminal decision that lasted a devastating 50 years. It also brings together the people who have fought, comprehensively salvaged and campaigned to keep the history and stories of early women’s football alive.
Gail Newsham is a key part of that preservation. She has dedicated her life to compiling the history of Preston’s Dick Kerr Ladies which she describes as “football’s best kept secret.” The team were founded in the Dick Kerr Locomotive factory, which had been re-purposed into making munitions.
At the team’s first game in 1917, 10,000 spectators showed up to watch.
Balding heads to a number of women’s and girls teams and it’s poignant that most don’t know women’s football was banned, let alone the heady heights it reached.
The girls reel off a list of male players when asked for their sporting heroes.
She also visits St Helens Town, where Dick Kerr Ladies’ prolific winger Lily Parr was plucked from. Parr scored 43 goals in her first season for the team. It’s thought that she scored 1,000 goals throughout her career and had such a powerful shot she broke the arm of a man who was convinced she couldn’t score a penalty against him.
Parr was revolutionary on and off the pitch. Openly gay, she lived with her partner Mary and she wasn’t alone. In 1921, at the end of a series of four unofficial internationals between France and England, (which Dick Kerr Ladies had unofficially become) captains Alice Kelly and Madeleine Bracquemond kissed.
There are no openly gay professional footballers currently playing in the men’s game in England. There are a handful in the women’s. Yet in the 1920s you had women footballers confident enough to publicly express their sexuality. They were ahead of their time, championing equality in more ways than one.
As the women’s game grew, it received mainstream press coverage and as the crowds swelled that coverage was more and more respectful of the action on the pitch.
While the war was on, the teams raised money for charities supporting the war-wounded and their families. They upped the games they played as part of the unofficial women’s football league, many still working full-time in the process. In 1920, Balding and Newsham reveal, Dick Kerr Ladies played more than 30 games, scored a staggering 133 goals and attracted 100,000 fans.
It was a growing, powerful and lucrative sport. Something you would expect the FA to want to harness. Except as they re-established the men’s teams and leagues after the war, these women raising thousands for charity (Dick Kerr Ladies raised the equivalent of £10 million for charity in today’s money) didn’t fit the mould. Not only that, they were seen as dangerous.
Discussing the effects of the post-war period on women’s football with academic Dr Ali Melling, the documentary raises a new angle to why they were seen as a threat.
As the war ended and unemployment, poverty and inflation rose, the working classes were restless. The increasingly radical working class, that had fought for a country unable to provide a decent standard of living to its returning heroes, were also watching and emboldened by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
With an industrial slump taking place, mining bosses (who had been given back control of the mines after their nationalisation during the war because the privatised industry was unable to meet the needs of the war effort) passed the crisis in the industry on to miners through huge wage cuts.
Any miner who refused to accept the draconian wage cuts was locked out. A heroic two-month strike took place, only to be sold out by union bosses fearful of a backlash in other industries — a backlash which came anyway after bosses were emboldened by the crushing of the miners.
What does this have to do with women’s football? As Melling highlights, many women’s football teams were in mining towns. Many of the players were from mining families.
With the war over, their fundraising turned to support for workers in struggle, and in particular for the striking miners. “You had women playing football and striking miners, and huge crowds watching them. The whole thing was revolutionary,” says Dr Melling.
It’s widely thought that it was outdated sexist attitudes that led to the ban. In discussing the ban the FA queried where the money was going, but rather than seek to help run the game they choose to annihilate it.
They described the game as “unsuitable” for women. Yet this documentary shows that, while this was a part of it, in fact the reasons were much deeper and more political.
As Balding points out, women were “becoming part of a political movement and football was a representation of that.” The ban destroyed women’s football. Women’s teams were forced out of FA-affiliated stadiums and into public parks.
The FA’s public discrediting of women’s football, without any real medical evidence, was parroted by the previously awed mainstream media. Without the stadiums and official backing, the crowds dwindled despite the perseverance of the players — Dick Kerr Ladies lasted until 1965 — and attitudes about women playing sport were thrown back decades.
Balding starts by saying that it may be futile to think about where the women’s game would be without the ban. But it’s impossible not to think about where women would be both on the pitch but also off it politically, sexually and physically if this massive setback hadn’t taken place.
I hoped this documentary would be good, but it was so much more. Inspiring, moving and analytical. I often wish people had a greater understanding of the history and context of women’s football, the heights it reached and what the ban did to the game before they watch a match, read the articles, or comment on quality and profitability women’s football.
This documentary, which is available on All4, does an immense and thoughtful job at aiding that education.