Nancy Gillen tells ‘untold story’ of sporting suffragette Alice Milliat in debut book

The book cover of La Vie Jamais Racontée: Alice Milliat, a French Heroine and Sporting Suffragette by Nancy Gillen
The book cover of 'La Vie Jamais Racontée: Alice Milliat, a French Heroine and Sporting Suffragette' by Nancy Gillen

Her Football Hub sat down with influential sports journalist Nancy Gillen to discuss the release of her debut book, La Vie Jamais Racontée: Alice Milliat, a French Heroine and Sporting Suffragette.

The book, which is now available to buy, shares the untold story of Alice Milliat, a pioneer of women’s sports born in 1884. Milliat empowered inspiring female athletes and made monumental differences to the women’s sporting world throughout her own intriguing journey.

Gillen explained the premise of the book, her motivation for writing it, and what it hopes to achieve.

A new endeavour for an established journalist

The respected sports writer explained that the prospect of her debut book was ‘something that was always there in the back of her mind’, enthusiastically telling of how ‘the subject matter came up with such fortuitous timing’, with the 2024 Olympics being held in France this summer.

“It was nice to have a project where you could do it really slowly and give it a lot of time and concentration,” Gillen said on the differences between writing the book and her usual short-form freelance writing.

Alice Milliat: The ‘original suffragette of sport’

The non-fiction text centres around the early 20th century Frenchwoman, Alice Milliat — a driving force behind the ongoing journey towards equality in sport. Asked about the book’s protagonist, Gillen explained: “She was essentially kind of the original suffragette of sport. So, she rose to prominence in French sport and then stepped up a level and went into international sport, and started organising elite competitions for female athletes. She campaigned for the inclusion of women’s athletics at the Olympics, and that was kind of rejected.”

Milliat impressively went on to organise four editions of the Women’s World Games, despite the setback.

Along with her pivotal work in relation to athletics, Milliat was also involved in women’s football. Gillen explores how the pioneer set up a French women’s football team, who toured England and played against the trailblazing Dick, Kerr Ladies.

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Documenting the impact of Milliat’s campaigning, the writer details: “She eventually did get women’s athletics on the Olympic programme. But throughout her whole career, the male authorities in sport just tried their absolute best to minimise the influence, and they were eventually successful with that. So, she was kind of sidelined.

“The book goes over her life, her achievements, but then also focuses a bit on the athletes who she gave a platform to compete, who otherwise probably would have never had the chance. It’s a history of women’s sport around that era, but also, hopefully, shines a light on Alice Milliat’s work.”

The history of women’s sport ‘isn’t very well documented’

Regarding the general public’s lack of awareness of Milliat’s story, Gillen asserted her belief that ‘it’s such a shame because of the work she did’. The author explained that the motivation behind the book was to share her story as far as possible.

“She hasn’t really got the credit that she’s deserved,” says Gillen. “The aim is to try and give her that credit and just help people learn more about women’s sport, because the history of it isn’t very well documented.”

The most recent English football season saw the Barclays Women’s Super League record its highest ever cumulative attendance. Not too long ago, ‘there were only a few hundred people’, pointed out Gillen. The author drew attention to the importance of new fans coming in, and how this is valuable to the growth of the game.

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Looking ahead to the first gender equal Olympics

Her Football Hub asked Gillen her thoughts on the importance of sharing stories like Milliat’s in the current climate. The author spoke passionately about how there remains a lack of coverage on the history and growth of women’s sport.

“It’s just really easy to forget the history of it, and the people who struggled to get women and female athletes onto the platform that they are now. I think it’s good for people to know the history of it, really. I think there are so many books about figures in men’s sport, but hardly any about women’s sport.

“It’s the first gender equal Olympics this summer in Paris and I think they’re going to do a few things for Alice Milliat, but in my eyes, not enough. We’ll be celebrating the sum of the fact we’ve got this gender equal Olympics, but it’s just really important to acknowledge the people that got us to that stage. So, I think that’s why it’s important — so we just don’t forget the hard work of people that have come before.”

La Vie Jamais Racontée translates in English to ‘The Life Never Told’. Gillen is striving to educate, engage, and give Milliat the recognition she deserves this summer.

“I was thinking about the basis of the book. And, the fact that it is about this woman who did such amazing work. But no one has necessarily heard of her. Her work hasn’t been adequately credited. ‘The Life Never Told’ sums it up quite nicely.”

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Foreword by Sue Anstiss

Sue Anstiss MBE is a prominent figure in women’s sport. She is a writer, podcaster, director and producer, and co-founded the Women’s Sport Collective. She is also the author of Game On: The Unstoppable Rise of Women’s Sport. Now, Anstiss has written the foreword to Gillen’s La Vie Jamais Racontée: Alice Milliat, a French Heroine and Sporting Suffragette.

“She’s been amazing, with support and just advice as well,” said Gillen of Anstiss’ role. She described Anstiss as a ‘legend’ who is consistently ‘supportive within women’s sport’.

“She’s very well respected. I think people in women’s sport know that if she’s involved in something, it’s probably worth reading.”

Discovering more women’s football history

Gillen revealed that her personal favourite chapters from La Vie Jamais Racontée are the two which centre around women’s football. She admitted she learned so much more about the French women’s national team during her research. At times, the book was challenging to write ‘because there aren’t many first-hand accounts, or newspaper articles’.

“A lot of it is in different languages but around these two football tours, there was so much content in newspapers at the time. There are bits from Alice Milliat, where she’s saying how the French team have performed.”

Eager to share her take on the findings, the author beamed: “It was really fun uncovering that, and putting in the story of the two tours that they did together.” The research lead Gillen to ‘discovering this whole bit of women’s history that I hadn’t known previously’. Gillen also hones in on the story of the French team and the Dick, Kerr Ladies.

“It’s incredible, because they came and played here and thousands of people watched. And, the same when they went over to France. It’s just really amazing.”

A sporting icon in Billie Jean King

Gillen spoke candidly about her own love for women’s sports, and the inspiration she finds in legends of the community like Alice Milliat and Sue Anstiss. The author also shared her admiration for former tennis champion and current women’s sports visionary, Billie Jean King.

“I think she’s I think similar to Alice Milliat really, to be honest, but obviously in her own sport and a bit later. She’s just such a pioneer, and I think it was just so brave in the era that she was in to do what she’s done. If you look at the landscape of sport and women’s sport now, tennis is head and shoulders above most other sports in terms of prize money and how it’s viewed equally. So much of that is down to Billie Jean King and all the work she’s done since then. Everything she’s involved in, it’s just amazing.”

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Read more about Alice Milliat from July 8th

Nancy Gillen’s La Vie Jamais Racontée: Alice Milliat, a French Heroine and Sporting Suffragette was officially released on July 8th, and is available to purchase online and in stores now. You can find out more about where to get your copy right here.

To celebrate the publication and hear more from the author, you can attend the book launch on July 22nd in London, where you can also hear from Sue Anstiss MBE.

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