Long before Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy put women’s soccer on the map, the first female stars could be seen in Britain. While the Women’s United Soccer Association may be the first women’s professional league in the world, female soccer flourished in England almost eighty years ago. In northern England in the1920s, players like Lilly Parr and Lillian Ritchie competed in front of crowds that often exceeded fifty thousand.
Free from certain social restraints while their fathers, husbands, and brothers were away fighting in World War I, many women in England’s northern factory and mining towns began playing football, as soccer is known there. (The sport had long been reserved for men.) Now women players were training during their lunch breaks and forming clubs. Suddenly, women had a game of their own. Fans began to flock to matches organized to raise funds for war charities.
Many of the teams were formed in factories making guns and war munitions, among them the Carlisle Munitionettes and Darlington North Road Shell Shop. But the most famous club of all was the Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club. Started at an engineering company in Preston in 1917, the club starred Lilly Parr, the greatest player of her time.
Parr was a six-foot tall left-winger. She scored forty-three goals in her first season in 1919 when she was only fourteen years old. It was said that Parr was so good that if she had been a man she could have played for the national team. The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club drew enormous crowds and competed in the giant soccerstadiums where the men’s professional teams Everton and Newcastle played. One game, at Everton’s Goodison Park stadium on December 26, 1920–a 4–0 win over the St. Helens Ladies–drew 53,000 fans, with 10,000 more turned away.
In 1921, 900,000 fans passed through the turnstiles to watch the club. Players were paid for their efforts in pennies, after a collection bucket was passed around at halftime. The club even toured America, where they went 3–3–3 against men’s teams. Then, women’s participation in the sport was banned by male chauvinists, who claimed it was not a ladylike activity. In fact, although the Dick, Kerr club continued to play for a while, most female soccer clubs folded soon after December 5, 1921, the day that the Football Association (FA), the governing soccer body in England, banned women’s teams from playing at its facilities.
The ban, which remained in place for fifty years, meant that women players were virtually excluded from all professional stadiums and decent venues in England. At the same time, “medical experts” warned that female players risked sterility if they continued to play soccer. Detractors abounded. In 1953 the psychologist F.J. Buytendijk wrote the disgraceful comment: “The game of soccer is essentially a demonstration of masculinity. … Women have never been allowed to play soccer. … Kicking is specifically masculine; whether being kicked is feminine, I prefer not to say.”
Some clubs tried to survive by using rugby stadiums, but the FA’s ban killed off the women’s game in England–the birthplace of soccer. The feminization of the sport thus died in its infancy. Soccer steadfastly remained a man’s sport until the women’s game began to grow in Scandinavia and the United States during the 1970s.
Inspired by the growth of the sport in America and the stunning success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the women’s game has been revived in England. Women’s soccer is now England’s fastest growing sport, and the number of women’s teams has jumped from 500 in 1993 to 4,500. The FA, which once stood in the way of women, announced last year that a fully funded professional women’s league, the first in Europe, will be established in 2003.