Continuing our History Workshop World Cup series, Tim Tate explores early attempts to establish women’s football as an international sport.
On Monday, May 9, 1881 the Glasgow Herald – Scotland’s second most popular daily newspaper – carried the following report:
LADIES INTERNATIONAL MATCH
SCOTLAND V ENGLAND
A rather novel football match took place at Easter Road, Edinburgh on Saturday between teams of lady players representing England and Scotland – the former hailing from London, and the latter, it is said, from Glasgow.
A considerable amount of curiosity was evinced in the event, and upwards of a thousand persons witnessed it … The game, judged from a player’s point of view, was a failure, but some of the individual members of the teams showed that they had a fair idea of the game.
Taking place just seven years after the first men’s football international (also between Scotland and England), and in a period when the then relatively-young Football Association was still locked in bitter wars with its rivals to establish a common set of basic rules for the game, this “rather novel” game provides a fascinating perspective on the place of women’s football in late nineteenth-century Britain.
Although much of the recent interest in the history of the women’s game has focused on the remarkable exploits of World War One teams like the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, in reality the story began more than three decades earlier – and surprisingly early in the emergence of football as Britain’s national sport.
Despite the Herald’s dismissal of this inaugural “Ladies’” international as little more than a curio – an entertainment somewhere between a fashion parade and a contemporary (if mild) Victorian freak show – it is interesting to note that the report contains no accounts of hostility or condemnation, much less of demands for a ban on the spectacle.
In the run up to the game, however, that hostility plainly existed. The organiser of the fixture was a Scottish “suffragist” named Helen Matthews, yet her name was not listed on the team sheet. She, and many of her fellow players, used pseudonyms – noms de football, adopted to protect their true identities. The reason was simple: despite the apparently benign initial response of the press, in the late nineteenth century it wasn’t safe for women to play football under their own names.
A week after their debut in Edinburgh, the teams took to the field in Glasgow for a “return” match against England and, in the span of just seven days, public opinion appeared to have turned against the women footballers. On the morning of Friday May 20, 1881 provincial newspapers across Britain carried reports of the match. Under the headline “Ladies’ ‘International’ Football Match” the Nottinghamshire Guardian informed its readers:
What will probably be the first and last exhibition of a female football match in Glasgow took place on Monday evening at Shawfield Grounds …. The meagre training of the teams did not augur much for proficiency of play, and if the display of football tactics was of a sorry description, it was only what might have been expected, and not much worse than some of the efforts of our noted football clubs.
The crowd initially subjected the players to faintly bawdy banter. Then, in an unsettling precursor of modern soccer hooliganism, in the 55th minute of the match ribaldry turned to violence.
At last a few roughs broke into the enclosure, and as these were followed by hundreds soon after, the layers were roughly jostled, and had prematurely to take refuge in the omnibus which had conveyed them to the ground. Their troubles were not, however, yet ended, for the crowd tore up the stakes and threw them at the departing vehicle, and but for the presence of the police, some bodily injury to the females might have occurred.
The team of four grey horses [pulling the omnibus] was driven rapidly from the ground amid the jeers of the crowd, and the players escaped with, let us hope, nothing worse than a serious fright.
Other provincial newspapers reported that the police action which saved the players involved a full baton charge by numerous constables. But they also reflected a feeling that by simply playing football the women were somehow debasing the sport.
The Leeds Mercury summed up the emerging hostility to the “experiment”:
Ladies’ football has had an exceedingly short life, and not a very merry one. Public feeling has demonstrated against the unseemly exhibition in such a manner that the authorities are now frowning down the innovation.
And so it proved. A third match between the “Scottish” and “English” teams was cancelled, and when Helen Matthews decided to try her luck on the other side of the border, organising a series of games in Blackburn, Liverpool and Manchester, she quickly encountered familiar opposition. On Monday, June 20 the Manchester Guardian carried a report which sounded the death knell for the early women’s’ game.
DISORDERLY SCENE AT A WOMEN’S FOOTBALL MATCH
The score or so of young women who do not hesitate to gratify vulgar curiosity by taking part in what is termed a “ladies’” football match appeared last evening for the second time this week on the ground of the Cheetham Football Club, Tetlow Fold, Great Cheetham Street. The Club, however, had nothing to do with the affair …. The players, attired in a costume which is neither graceful nor very becoming, were driven to the ground in a wagonette …. Play – if kicking the ball about the field can be so described – was commenced pretty punctually ….
A number of police constables were present to maintain order and prevent anyone entering without paying, and for about an hour whilst this so-called match was being played they succeeded ….
At length a great rush was made by those occupying the higher land, and the football ground was speedily taken possession of by the mob. Apprehending a repetition of the rough treatment they have met with in other parts of the country the women no sooner heard the clamour which accompanied the rush than they also took to their heels and ran to where the wagonette was standing. This they reached before the crown could overtake them, and amid the jeers of the multitude and much disorder they were immediately driven away.
This was a second riot – or at least near-riot – at a women’s football match in a matter of just four weeks. There were few further attempts to stage women’s games and the sport would essentially disappear for another fourteen years.
When it did re-emerge in 1895 – in the form of the British Ladies’ Football Club – it once again quickly foundered on the rocks of prejudice and misogyny. Despite public interest – crowds of several thousand watched many of the games – public support was sorely lacking, and matches were once again blighted by rioting protestors. Before long this second attempt was abandoned: women’s football died, at the end of the nineteenth century, with a sad whimper. It would take the blood and filth of a World War for it to be reborn.
Even then – and despite the exploits of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and their compatriots being featured in cinema newsreels and newspapers across the world – male hostility and persecution by the Football Association would ensure that by the mid-1920s the women’s game was forced out of business. It would take many decades for it to once again find its place in the sun.