Varsity football: Women’s past is the future

This Sunday’s football varsity against Cambridge will be the 138thth played by the gentlemen and the 37th by the women since the club’s founding in 1872. The Dark Blues will be aiming for a repeat of last year’s double, a success that saw Oxford lift both trophies.

For many, however, 2022 will go down in football history for another (and perhaps more important) reason: the sensational performance of the England Lionesses at the Euros. Their historic win brought a trophy back to England for the first time since the men’s much-vaunted World Cup victory in 1966. Looking back on the various footballing achievements of the past year and looking ahead to this weekend’s varsity, I have reflected on both my own experiences of playing football and the (often unknown and untold) history of women’s football in the UK.

From a young age I always had a ball at my feet no matter where I was. Finally, after a few smashed plates, lamps, and other household items, my parents decided it was time to find a place where my sister and I could get some real training—and maybe improve our accuracy. Excited at the prospect of playing real football, we took our mum to the local park to find the team my dad had been training for us with for the past week. On arrival we were promptly scolded by the coach for not having shin guards and sent off without playing. The dream of becoming a professional soccer player was shattered, and my seven-year-old self burst into tears. A few weeks later, our parents found another team with a supportive coach. We were the only girls there, but that didn’t bother us at all: we finally played football.

However, when I joined a local Sunday league girls team, the differences between my own experiences and those of my male peers began to emerge. I’ve played in places with no restrooms, in leagues canceled due to mid-season team failures, and on grassy, ​​sloping pitches with bowling lines. These were right next to the well-groomed playing fields, which were always reserved for the boys. These imbalances especially began to frustrate me as I got more serious about the sport. I played for the first team at my regional talent center while my friend played for the men’s reserve team. Unlike me and my teammates, he had access to ice baths and specialized physical therapists. This inequality particularly annoyed me because I knew that such institutions would greatly enhance my development. When this happened, many of the girls I had played with quit soccer altogether. In retrospect, that’s hardly surprising when you consider that 64% of girls will drop out of sport by the age of 17. It was clear to me at that point that women’s football could only progress significantly with more money being distributed from the grassroots to the professional level and with a changed public attitude.

At the same time, teams in the WSL, the top division of English women’s football, were fortunate to have 1,000 fans a week, while the men’s top division teams would easily top 50,000. Women’s football seemed far from popular and the prospect of even winning half the men’s game seemed remote to me. As it turned out, the last place I had to look was the future: women’s football was already garnering the same attendances as men’s football – and almost a full century earlier! As someone who has been heavily involved with the sport since a young age, I was surprised to discover its hidden history. Just 25 years after the first women’s football game in 1895, a Boxing Day game at Goodison Park attracted 53,000 fans, an international record only broken a decade ago. Why didn’t I know that before? How did this decline in popularity come about? What happened to women’s football?

The answer is simple and shocking – in 1921 the Football Association banned women’s football from affiliated stadiums. Her accompanying statement that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for women and should not be encouraged” reflected the social policies of the time and the broader attempts to return women to pre-war conditions. Many women were unhappy about this as they saw much of their newfound independence taken away from them during the First World War. Women wanted to be able to determine their own future and have key rights – political, social and reproductive. Therefore, although the FA’s decision was undoubtedly a setback, the 1920s was also a time when women fought hard for their rights and achieved a number of successes. The Matrimonial Causes Act (1923) made adultery by husband or wife the sole ground for divorce. The Summary Jurisdiction Act (1925) expanded the criteria by which a husband or wife can achieve separation. The Legitimacy Act (1926) allows children born out of wedlock to be legitimized by their parents’ later marriage. The Adoption Act (1926) introduced adoption procedures. While women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918, women did not receive the right to vote until 1928. The following year, the Ages at Marriage Act raised the minimum age to 16 and the so-called “Flapper” elections of 1929 were held.

Until 1969, women’s soccer was only played in amateur leagues, with small attendances and limited funds. During this period, women gained further rights through the campaigns of the second wave of feminists. Married Women’s Property Act (1964) entitled a woman to keep half of any savings she had made from her husband’s allowance, Barbara Castle became the first woman Secretary of State (1965), Labor MP David Steel promoted an abortion law reform bill, which becomes the Abortion Act (1967), and women went on strike at the Ford car plant over equal pay – a protest that led directly to the passage of the Equal Pay Act. But in between all that, it wasn’t until 1969 that the Women’s Football Association (WFA) was formed. In addition, it would be another two years before the FA lifted the ban preventing women from playing on affiliated club grounds.

Despite this huge 50-year setback, women’s football continued to grow from that point until the beginning of the new century. When I was born in 2002, football was the most popular sport for girls and women in England. In the same year Gurinder Chadha’s Do it like Beckham was published. Starring Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley, the film follows two 18-year-old girls who love soccer and are determined to play at any cost. It was an instant hit and cemented itself and women’s football firmly in popular culture. When I first saw it, I identified particularly with the Indian character Jesminder. When the film was over, I turned to my mother and said, “This girl is just like me.”

Now in 2023, there are hundreds of role models (real!) for young girls entering the sport to look up to, from England captain Leah Williamson to Alex Scott, the former footballer and TV presenter. The strides the sport has made in just the last few years are incredible to behold and women’s football is played and followed by more than ever. When I drive home to Leeds for a weekend and stroll through my local park, the pitches are still as full as they were when I started over a decade ago. This time, however, men, girls, women and boys play side by side.

While women’s football still has a long way to go, particularly in terms of increasing funding and continuing to change public opinion, its recent advances are something that deserves to be celebrated. As we look forward to the future of the sport, we must also look back at the often forgotten women who paved our way and simply had to fight to play a game they loved.

So as I reflect on all of this in the run-up to varsity this Sunday, I would urge you to reverse the deliberate setback imposed on women’s football just over a hundred years ago and go to London on Sunday for Oxford to support. The women play Leyton Orient FC at 12pm and the men at 3pm. The women’s game has come a long way and while we won’t be able to match the huge crowds that watched all those years ago, it would be fantastic if there were good numbers to cheer for the Dark Blues. Let’s reverse the FA’s 1921 statement and show that in 2023 we know that ‘women’s football is perfectly suitable and should be encouraged’.

Photo credit: Iona Bennett


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