Since England’s Lionesses lifted the European trophy in 2022, the buzz around women’s football has been stronger than ever. Leading male and female voices in sport have advocated for more support from grassroots to professional level.
However, the journey of women’s football hasn’t been easy. From a lack of funding to a 50-year long ban, the sport has faced a barrage of discrimination lasting centuries. To celebrate the Women’s World Cup, we’re taking a whistlestop tour through the history of women’s football in the UK.
The early years of women’s football
Records show that women were taking part in casual football matches as early as the 15th century. Just like their male counterparts, women played within their local community as a pass time. From then on, teams were formed and regular matches took place.
‘A tyme there is for all, my mother often sayes,
When she, with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes.’
– Sir Philip Sidney’s poem A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds, written in 1580
As the sport grew, so did the backlash.
The first recorded match was between England and Scotland, 7th May 1881 in Edinburgh. The teams then went on to play two other matches in Glasgow and Manchester, which were abandoned due to violent protests.
The 1921 ban on women’s football
During World War 1, women’s football became incredibly popular. Men were sent away to the continent to fight for king and country whilst women stayed at home. In this time, it was reported every town in England developed a women’s team. There was increasing demand to create leagues and governing body to allow women to play professionally.
However, when the war ended, the success of women’s football was deemed a threat to the men’s game. Women were also expected to return to their traditional, domestic lifestyle. This included the world of sport, where legal action was taken to prohibit women from taking part in organised matches.
In 1921, the FA implemented a countrywide ban on women’s football.
Women were banned from playing organised football and using professional pitches and facilities. Registered referees were no longer allowed to officiate games. Lies were spread in the media surrounding finances and women’s bodies were deemed to fragile to play a game as physical as football.
1971 – modern day
The FA didn’t lift the ban until 1971. Even though women still played within those 50 years, there are no records of anything that happened during that time. It caused severe long-term damage to the women’s game which has taken decades to build back up.
It wasn’t until 2009 that the FA introduced central contracts, meaning women were finally able to make a career out of the sport. In England, there was not a professional female football league until 2018.
The history of women’s football in England makes the Lionesses reaching the Women’s World Cup Final more special. After centuries of misogyny, violence, and legal action taken to prevent it, it’s rise in popularity happened against all odds. Go Lionesses, go!
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