Girls used to be so good at kicking pigskins, and audiences adored them so much, that men felt threatened. So they destroyed women’s football.
Future generations would call this tragedy World War I, but back then it was just a war. A calamitous, heinous conflict that required men and boys to put on their uniforms and heavy boots, strap on their rifles and march ahead. ‘The war to end all wars’ summoned 70 million people; five million from the United Kingdom alone, 700,000 of which were to never come back to Yorkshire, Kent, Oxford, Manchester, London, and countless other cities, towns and villages. They would never see their home towns again. Over 1.5 million did come back, wounded and traumatized.
In men’s shoes
In the early 20th century, most women were housewives. Indeed, the suffragette movement was powerful and committed, but it was met with great resistance and still remained a niche initiative. Its most radical wing was ready to fight by hook or by crook – some society members would go as far as planting bombs. The government hit back, ordering forceful feeding of the imprisoned suffragists. Eventually, the movement gained its first martyr. During the 1913 Epsom Derby, Emily Davison was trampled to death after she ran onto the track to pin the suffragette banner on the king’s horse.
However, once men had gone to the trenches, suffragists changed their tactics. In order to fight for their rights, women needed to have a country. They decided to contribute to warfare by taking on men’s roles, abandoned by their brothers and husbands marching across Europe. Emmeline Pankhurst – the leader of the suffragette movement – insisted that once women took over men’s duties, politicians would no longer have any arguments against giving them the right to vote.
Thousands of women began applying for jobs as tram drivers and welders; others wanted to shovel coal and distribute milk and mail (also by car). The only activity they were not allowed to partake in was train driving. 1.5 million women took up paid employment for the first time in their lives. Millions more chose to volunteer – they took in refugees, and ran clubs and canteens.
The government encouraged such endeavours and ordered employers to hire women (not just suffragists, obviously) as a replacement for conscripted men. This initiative helped to significantly speed up the emancipation process.
The hardest work that awaited the new female workforce was in filling factories. Each day, women had to work with dangerous explosives to make artillery shells. In these factories, especially at the beginning of the war, productivity and efficiency were most vital. 12-hour shifts were nothing out of the ordinary.
And since women were doing everything that men did before conscription, filling factory girls soon decided that they would play football too. The most accomplished and famous club in the history of female football – which should still be considered a reference point for all others – was founded in the Dick, Kerr & Co. munitions factory in Preston.
Legend has it that in October 1917, during a period of low production in the factory, women would spontaneously join teenage boys playing football in the courtyard during their lunch and tea breaks. Dressing room windows were used as a makeshift goal. It was usually women against men (or rather girls versus boys, since the diminished adult workforce led Dick, Kerr & Co. to rely heavily on underage employees). When the girls won, they got a bar of Fry’s Five Boys chocolate. The boys’ victories were rewarded with a packet of Woodbine cigarettes. That’s the foundation myth anyway. Football was widely promoted as a healthy activity not only in Dick, Kerr & Co., but also in many other factories.
Before Gavrilo Princip aimed his Browning gun at Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, women were discouraged from playing football. Some people still took umbrage at the idea of women showing their bare legs in public, not to mention rolling around in mud while wearing men’s clothes. The first ladies’ football club in England was founded by Nettie Honeyball, or at least that’s how she’s remained known. She never revealed her real name – most likely not wanting to cause any problems to her family – unlike Lady Florence Dixie, the President of the British Ladies' Football Club. Lady Dixie was a firm advocate of gender equality, was a women’s sports and martial arts enthusiast, and was a correspondent for the Morning Post during the First Boer War. Until the outbreak of World War I, however, women’s football remained little more than a series of short outbursts of rebellion.
The courtyard of the Dick, Kerr & Co. factory saw many female victories. In fact, they won many more games than the boys did. Alfred Frankland, one of the factory’s administrative staff, watched the matches from his office windows. It was Frankland who encouraged women to establish a proper football team. Instead of kicking the ball at dressing room windows, the girls could now play on a real field.
Frankland offered to become their manager and coach. In other factories, women were setting up their own teams too, so Frankland arranged a match with the workers from Arundel, Coulthard & Co. The proceeds from the event went to charity and supported a hospital for injured soldiers.
Arundel, Coulthard & Co. was also a Preston-based company. Before the war, it was a manufacturer of textile machinery; from the 1930s, it switched to the production of lawnmowers. While English men sat in muddy trenches in Belgium and France, Arundel became another filling factory. Frankland arranged the game to take place in the Deepdale stadium owned by the local football team, Preston North End – the first team to ever win the FA Cup, in both 1889 and 1890. On Christmas Day 1917, Dick, Kerr Ladies (for that was the team’s official name) beat their opponents 4-0. This was the first game held at the Deepdale stadium since the beginning of the war, and it attracted a crowd of 10,000 people. “Dick, Kerr’s were not long in showing that […] they had a better all-round understanding of the game,” wrote the Daily Post, also commenting on “one or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control.”
After covering the expenses (it cost £20 to rent the stadium for the game), Frankland could donate £200 to the military hospital aiding injured soldiers. In today’s money, the sum would amount to over £40,000.
The first stars of women’s football were factory workers. Florrie Redford, a stately blonde, scored countless goals. She started playing football with her brothers, just like her school and work friend, Alice Kell. Most women were new to football, but not to sports. Alice Woods was a keen runner – she became Britain’s first unofficial 80m sprinting champion.
The first transfers soon followed. After losing to Lancaster Ladies 0-1, Frankland convinced the rival team’s two best players to join Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. He had a good deal to offer: with well-paid jobs at the factory, including a severance money guarantee (which at the time was quite uncommon), and extra money from football games. The girls were paid 10 shillings per game and had their travel expenses reimbursed. Frankland also helped them to get flats or rooms in Preston.
Women employed in British munitions factories were known as Munitionettes. Between 1917 and 1918, women’s teams from filling factories in the Newcastle region fought for a silver trophy called the Munitionettes’ Cup. The tournament was won by Blyth Spartans after their victory over the Bolckow, Vaughan team. Football was becoming popular among women in various parts of England and Scotland. Newspaper yearbooks from Leeds mention “hundreds of pounds” collected by local football teams in aid of the wounded.
Ladies go home
When the war came to an end, the men marched back home, and finally got to take off their heavy boots and drop the rifles from their shoulders. The women’s movements in the UK turned out to be less successful than Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragists had hoped. Most girls who found employment during the war – and who were hailed as “the invisible army” by the press at the time – were now laid off. They were to go back home, back to their husbands. And nobody cared that many of them no longer had a husband to return to.
On 6th February 1918, the British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act that gave the right to vote to all men over the age of 21, regardless of their level of income. Before, only those who had turned 30 and met certain financial requirements were allowed to vote. The right was also granted to women, albeit under certain conditions: they had to be at least 30 years old and own a house or a flat worth at least £5 (the equivalent of today’s £275 – the sum was purely nominal), or have a husband who did. Women had to wait another 10 years before being granted full voting rights. However, the 1918 Act of Parliament was a watershed, and the girls from Dick, Kerr and other factories/football clubs undoubtedly played their part in it.
After the war that obviously failed to end all wars, the popularity of women’s football did not fade; quite the opposite. The crowds flooding in to see Dick, Kerr’s Ladies play kept growing (we should mention that unlike many other British factories, Dick, Kerr & Co. chose not to celebrate the newfound peace by laying off its female employees). Emancipation was soaring and rules of propriety were loosening up, so it’s possible that some spectators came mainly to look at uncovered female thighs, but it should be noted that sports journalists often commented on the players’ skills and talent.
Women’s matches remained a charitable event. Proceeds were donated to help war veterans who had sustained physical injuries, and also those who came back with psychological traumas. In September 1919, the game between Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and Newcastle United Ladies at St. James Park’ was watched by a crowd of 35,000. After the game, £1200 (worth over £60,000 today) was given to charity.
Elegance meets force
In 1920, Frankland invited France’s national women’s football team for a series of games with his team, which he renamed Dick, Kerr’s International Ladies to fit the occasion. The French federation of women’s sports had a committed leader. The federation’s General Secretary Alice Milliat was an avid rower, swimmer and hockey player. Today, she is considered the key figure who lobbied for inclusion of women’s sports in the Olympic Games. In 1921, Milliat organized the first international sporting event exclusively for female athletes, held in Monte Carlo.
Before taking French footballers across La Manche, Milliat gave a few interviews to the French correspondent for the Daily Mail, hoping for the initiative to gain some interest and intrigue the fans. Even so, when the French team arrived at the white cliffs of Dover, Mademoiselle Milliat was shocked to see a swarm of journalists waiting for them. To her further surprise, the visit became a front-page story in many major newspapers. The French team took the train to Preston where they were welcomed with splendour by the factory management, a musical band, and a crowd of onlookers that lined both sides of the street on the way from the train station to the hotel.
The first game took place at Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ home stadium Deepdale in Preston. Englishwomen, clad in traditional black-and-white striped uniforms, beat the French team 2-0. The game was watched by 25,000 people. On the next day they played in Stockport. This time, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies won 5-2. The game after that was held in Blackpool and the French managed to draw 1-1. The day after the game, newspapers gushed over the French player who celebrated her goal with a full front flip, complete with flawless landing on both feet.
All these matches were merely a warm-up before the main event: a match at the Stamford Bridge stadium in London. The game was advertised as a confrontation of two international women’s teams of two drastically different styles: elegant, petite and technical Frenchwomen against tall, large, strong Lancashire girls. According to the press, Milliat’s team entered the pitch in one neat line, holding hands on each other’s shoulders, to the sounds of La Marseillaise. Preston girls, on the other hand, spilled onto the field in one wild mass.
Just after the game started, Dick, Kerr’s player Jennie Harris fell unconscious after a shoulder to shoulder clash. Back then, nobody had heard of substitutions, so the Englishwomen had to make do with just 10 players. The French team beat them 1-2, making it DKL’s first defeat in two years.
Lily shoots and swears
The lost game didn’t affect Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ popularity. Soon after, one of the first floodlit games in the history of football was held in Deepdale stadium. Frankland asked Winston Churchill, who then served as Minister of War, to lend two military searchlights to the stadium.
A few weeks later, a new record was set: the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies match with St Helens was watched by 53,000 spectators. The game, held at Goodison Park in Liverpool, was won 4-0 by DKL. The media claimed that 14,000 more people were trying to buy tickets. Until today, it’s still the largest crowd to have ever watched a women’s football match. In the same year, the final of the men’s FA Cup between Aston Villa and Huddersfield Town (1-0) was watched by 50,000 people.
The DKL team was then invited for a rematch in Paris. This time, they didn’t play in their striped kits. Instead, they wore the colours of the English national team (white jerseys with navy shorts). The game was watched by 22,000 spectators. The referee ended the game five minutes ahead of time with a final score of 1-1 when angry fans started running onto the field. During this match a scandalous photograph was taken, depicting team captains greeting each other with a passionate kiss on the mouth.
The biggest star of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team was Lily Parr who, according to one of her teammates, “drank, smoked and cursed as easily as any man”. Parr was in a relationship with another woman named Mary and made no effort to hide it. And on top of that, she had a devilishly powerful shot. One time, a goalkeeper from a men’s team bet Lily that she wouldn’t be able to beat him from the penalty spot. Parr’s shot broke his wrist.
Frankland pinched Parr from the St Helens team in 1920 when she was just 14. He made a standard offer: ten shillings per game, travel expenses, a job in the factory. Legend has it that Parr requested the ten shilling payment to be made in Woodbine cigarettes with no filter. Even as a teenager, she already stood out at six-feet (1.83-metres) tall. Lily had learned to play football from her brothers. In 1921, she scored over 100 goals for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies. She was slowly reaching stardom and the press wrote about her more and more often. In 1951, by the end of a career spanning 31 years, Lily Parr had almost 1000 goals under her belt.
However, when the FA opened The National Football Museum in 2002, almost none of the attendees knew who Lily Parr was, even though she was the only woman included in the museum’s Hall of Fame. During the opening ceremony, Gail J. Newsham (the author of In a League of Their Own!) delivered an inspiring lecture on Lily Parr’s achievements. Only then did the guests, including the 1966 world champions, learn more about the legendary female goalscorer.
Big bellies and big money
How come almost nobody has heard of the unmatched achievements of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies’ left striker? It is probably due to the fact that in 1921, the FA banned women from playing football in stadiums that belonged to the federation. There are as many official explanations as there are theories speculating on hidden reasons behind this decision. The idea of women running after the ball (while wearing shorts, no less!) was outrageous. It is also possible that the FA were concerned about women’s teams stealing the spotlight from men – soon after the war, men’s football was rapidly gaining popularity. Conservative FA members with their big bellies and big moustaches supported their decision with the help of medical authorities, who suddenly claimed that football was “the most unsuitable game for women” and could be physically harmful. The FA’s announcement was also doubtful of how much money from the games should be passed on to charity. The FA noticed the sums women’s games were earning, and were keen to redirect the stream of money from the fans’ pockets into their own.
Ali Melling from the University of Central Lancashire sheds more light on the FA’s decision. In a documentary on women’s football during World War I, Melling explains that the same teams that not long before had collected money to help injured soldiers now started playing charity games to support the striking miners. Meanwhile, the elites of post-war Britain were frightened of the idea of Bolshevism spreading across the country. “Women’s football was therefore perceived as revolutionary and quite dangerous. There was a political reason for shutting it down. Women’s football got too big, too soon, and too class-orientated. And it was too dangerous. It scared people,” explains Melling.
Women’s football was nipped in the bud; Dick, Kerr’s Ladies had to play on rugby stadiums. For a while, they still managed to attract large crowds, but being marginalized and stripped of all support, the team soon began to falter. They still managed to play with Scotland as England’s national team, winning an unofficial title of world champion. They still went on tour in the US, but it was little more than a swan song. The factory’s ownership had changed and soon, Dick, Kerr & Co. ceased to fund the team, which had to change its name to Preston Ladies FC and was forced into the amateur sphere. Still, they kept going. Lily Parr retired only in 1951, and the club officially dissolved in 1965.
The ban on women playing on men’s football pitches was lifted only in 1971. The FA took women players back in, but still treated them like a third wheel. The first European Competition for Women’s Football took place in 1984, and we had to wait until 1991 for the first FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Today, women’s football is becoming increasingly popular again, but the gulf setting it apart from the men’s sport seems too deep to disappear anytime soon.
Translated by Aga Zano