Brief History of Women’s Football

The first recorded women’s football match in Great Britain, billed as a Scotland–England international and organised by two theatre entrepreneurs, took place on 7 May 1881, at Edinburgh’s Hibernian Park. Scotland beat England 3-0. Eleven days later the same teams played in Glasgow to a crowd of more than 5,000. The match was abandoned after a violent pitch invasion during which the women were “roughly jostled”, and chased by a mob as they left the grounds.  Further games resulted in similar pitch invasions. It is uncertain what the pitch invasions were in protest against. However, the press tone, which would dominate coverage of women’s football for the next century, was clearly established in 1881: barely disguised contempt regarding player appearance, including costume, and the standard of play, overlaid with a certainty that football was a rough man’s game unsuitable for women.

A new club was founded by Alfred Hewitt Smith and Nettie Honeyball, the British Ladies’ Football Club, founded in late 1894. Lady Florence Dixie, the youngest daughter of the Marquess of Queensbury, acted as chairman and sponsor. In 1894, an advertisement was placed in the Daily Graphic seeking those interested in forming a football club for women which attracted around 30 women, who trained twice weekly under the tutelage of Tottenham Hotspur wing-half Bill Julian.

The club divided into a north and south team and on 23 March 1895, 10,000 spectators watched the inaugural game at Crouch End  London. Unlike in the matches of 1881, players no longer had to wear corsets and high-heeled boots, but acquired standard man’s boots in suitable sizes. They still had to wear bonnets, with the game being stopped if any woman headed the ball and it dislodged either bonnet or hairpin which had to be replaced before the game could resume. The reaction was generally one of being heckled by the crowd, and press censure, bordering on derision. Despite this, the club went on tour, and in the following two years played some 100 exhibition matches. The British Ladies’ played their second match at Preston Park on 6 April 1895. The following game at Bury was attended by 5,000. Further exhibition matches were played in New Brompton, Walsall and Newcastle – where the North beat South 4–3 at St James’ Park watched by more than 8,000 spectators -South Shields, Darlington and at the Athletic Grounds in Loughborough in October – the first recorded ladies football game played in Leicestershire!

The strain of playing took its toll, and by September 1896 the ladies could only field a few players. They were also broke, and arriving in Exeter found they had insufficient funds to either leave or pay their hotel bill. Appeals to the mayor of Exeter fell on deaf ears and he refused to pay. The ladies had to be rescued by friends, and the activities of the club came to an end.

During World War I more than 900,000 women joined the two million Brits already working in munitions factories making bombs, shells, bullets and cartridges imperative to the British war effort. Before the war, these jobs were considered ill-suited for women, but with the sheer number of men at the front, factories had no choice but to open their doors to female workers. For many of these women it was the first job they had ever had and they relished the camaraderie, teamwork and occasionally a change in wardrobe. Factory owners were concerned about the impact of such intense manual labour on their female employees. The women factory workers, so called ‘Munitionettes‘ began playing football in their spare time and eventually formed football teams. Although women’s football was not unheard of before the World War I it did not gain anywhere near the same popularity that the women’s football teams developed during the War. The Government encouraged women to play football as the games boosted morale and reinforced the image that women were capable of jobs deemed only appropriate for men. All of the matches women played in also raised money for War charities. The football that the munitionettes played was as full of gusto and rough and tumble as the men’s games, a sign of how prescriptive gender roles were slowly changing in the early 1900s. Kicking and hacking ones opponent was quite common amongst the girls. Although there were some critics who believed that a woman’s place wasn’t on the football field, more frequently, communities rallied behind their all-female football teams.

On Christmas Day, 1916, the first match between factory organised women’s teams, occurred in Ulverston, Cumbria. The best known factory team was the legendary Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC founded in Preston, Lancashire, England as a World War I-era works team for the company Dick, Kerr & Co. They played a total of 828 games between 1917 and 1965 and raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity in its first few years, a huge sum of money! One of these matches, played at Goodison Park, Liverpool on Boxing Day 1920, attracted a crowd of 53,000, with another 10,000–15,000 reportedly turned away because the ground was full.

Several munition girls match reports have been found for Leicestershire-based teams. Perhaps best known are the Coalville Munition Girls (right photo), who won the coveted Bass Charity Vase during the First World War in 1918. They beat Shobnall girls 3-1 in the final after overcoming Messrs. Green & Co [Woodville] in the semi-final. All Vase games were played at Peel Croft in Burton. It was the first time in two years that the Cup had been played and the only time a women’s team had been in the tournament.

Even though the end of WWI in 1918 saw many men return to work and women return to the home, the immense popularity of women’s football continued, with the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies playing more games in 1920 than any professional men’s team in the same period. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played in Leicester twice – the first against St Helen’s Ladies in 1920 attracted more 13,000 spectators and in the second 7 years later they played Blackpool Ladies. Both games attracted considerable press attention, raising important issues – dress reform, the feminine ideal, women’s sexuality, and the rigid British class structure.

In 1921, the Football Association banned all women’s teams from playing on Association-affiliated grounds, arguing that the game is “not fitted for females”, citing the high costs of player expenses, and alleging financial corruption. While a handful of teams, like Dick, Kerr’s, found alternative venues, the FA’s decision saw most women’s teams disband and reduced spectator numbers for the few who remained. Around 30 teams from across England met in Liverpool on 10 December 1921 to formalise the English Ladies Football Association (ELFA). This aimed “to popularise the game among girls and to assist charity”. The following year saw the first and only ELFA Challenge Cup competition. Stoke Ladies lifted the trophy, beating Doncaster and Bentley Ladies 3-1 in the June 1922 final.

Though stymied by a lack of decent-sized facilities, women’s football carried on throughout the ‘30s and there was a mini-revival during World War II when again teams based at factories played matches to both boost morale and to raise money for charities. Little changed throughout the 50s and early 60s.

Interest in football for women in England surged again after the men’s success in the 1966 World Cup, resulting in the formation of ladies football clubs as well as local/regional league and cup competitions. Leicestershire clubs – British Rail (Wigston), Emgals (East Midlands Gas Board team), Leicester City Supporters LFC (later to become Leicester Ladies) and Rainbow Dazzlers (Moira) – were members of the Midland Ladies League.

Women’s Football Association was established in 1969. The Women’s FA Challenge Cup, the top annual cup tournament for women’s clubs in English football, designed as an equivalent to the FA Cup in men’s football, began in 1970–71 as the Mitre Challenge Trophy. There were 71 entrants, including teams from Scotland and Wales. Leicester’s Emgals finished in third place in both 1971 and 1972,

The FA ban was finally overturned in 1971 meaning women’s teams could play at grounds around the country again. 

England’s first international match was against Scotland in 1972, and they came back from 2-0 down for a 3-2 win against their northern rivals. England reached the final of the inaugural European Competition for Women’s Football in 1984, losing to Sweden on penalties.

The FA took over from the WFA in 1993, though by this time, the WFA had already created the Women’s National League, becoming the Women’s Premier League in 1992, to parallel the renaming of the top level of men’s competition. Most professional men’s clubs creates, or became affiliated to, a women’s team and the sport gradually grew. In 2008, the women’s league system was transformed following the announcement of a new top-level competition – the Women’s Super League. Taking the best eight teams following sixteen applications and placing them into a no-relegation single division, the Women’s Super League sought to draw greater exposure and funding into the game. The WSL faced several problems in its early stages, with the league having to be delayed a year until March 2011 due to the lingering financial instability in the aftermath of the 2007 global recession. Launching in 2011, the WSL proved successful enough to expand to a two-division, 20-team set-up in 2014. It wasn’t until 2018 that the Women’s Super League become fully professional with all 11 top flight teams strictly full-time. Leicester City WFC, founded in 2004 won the Women’s Championship after a 2–0 victory over London City and were promoted to the FA Women’s Super League.

Popularity of the women’s game has rocketed following the success of Lionesses. Euro 2017 saw the national side win their group before being knocked out in the semi-finals by the Dutch. Similarly the 2019 World Cup they reached the last four. Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman led England to a 2-1 win over Germany in the final of Euro 2022,and in 2023 England were narrowly beaten by Spain in the World Cup Final.