The history of women’s football: How the game was reborn from the ashes

Melissa Lawley of Liverpool runs with the ball in the late winter sun in the background.
Melissa Lawley of Liverpool runs with the ball during the Vitality Women's FA Cup Third Round match against Burnley at Lancashire FA County Ground on 12 December 2021. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

With the Women’s Euros lined up for this year, the excitement builds and, as more publicity shines on the women’s game, we delve back to see where it all began. We take a look at the history of women’s football, how it grew in popularity during the war, why it was banned, and, as a result, is still finding its way back.

The humble beginnings

Some speculate that women were playing the beautiful game as early as 5000 BC. However, the earliest involvement documented is in Scotland around the 1790s.

But it wasn’t until 1863 that a governing body introduced regulations to the sport for non-violence on the pitch. This was to make football more ‘socially acceptable’ for women.

Fast forward to 1881 — when the first international match took place at Hibernian Park in the Scottish capital. The match was between two sides who were no strangers to conflict, Scotland vs England. Although some would think this match would be enough to encourage officials to get involved, it wasn’t until 1892 that the first ‘official’ Scottish Football Association match was recorded.

Hopping across the border and past Hadrian’s Wall a few years later, England’s first recorded match was in 1895. With both national teams making an official start, popularity grew with the women’s game. At the time, society shunned women for playing such a ‘rough’ game.

Because of this, many footballers would play under a different field name to hide their true identity.

Mrs. Graham — The Lady Footballer

One of the most predominant ‘alter egos’ in the history of women’s football is Mrs. Graham AKA Helen Matthews. A true pioneer for women’s sport and the game.

Matthews was not only a suffragette but also the founder of the first Scotland women’s football team and also the British team. Matthews founded Mrs. Graham’s 11, as they were named after she attended a men’s game played between England and Scotland and apparently thought: “I could do that”.

A short two weeks of training later and Mrs. Graham’s side had their first match with 1,000 spectators making their way to Easter Road to watch the game. Both Scotland and England teams at that time were made up of suffragettes and, as a known practice, hid their true names. The game ended 3-0 to Scotland.

With the buzz of playing and wanting to build, a rematch was set, this time in Glasgow. The game was well underway but unfortunately cut short when spectators became violent and invaded the pitch, forcing players off the pitch and seeking shelter in coaches nearby.

With the violent outbreak, it didn’t take long until women’s football was banned in Scotland. Not to be disheartened by the ban and staying true to her suffragette roots, Mattherws moved to England where women were still allowed to play.

Here she formed the team dubbed The Lady Footballer. No points for creativity on the name, but she would play here until 1896.

Helen Matthews, also known by her pseudonym Mrs Graham, was a Scottish footballer.

War, warehouses, and women’s football

With the First World War, a shift in what was classed as perceived roles took place. As men were sent off to fight, women took over roles and jobs which were previously deemed too masculine.

More than ever, there was an uptake in female factory workers. Taking a break for a hard day’s work, the women would often have a ‘kick about’ to escape the pressures of life at that time. This brought some fun, a chance to socialise, and general well-being for all. Factory bosses would encourage games during lunch breaks as they could see the benefit it had on their employees.

One of the earliest known factory teams is Dick, Kerr Ladies FC.

The ammunition factory in England had an influx of female employees during the first World War. When the women’s team beat their male counterparts colleagues during a friendly, they decided to form a competitive team. Other factories also saw the benefits of competitive sport and joined Dick, Kerr Ladies in encouraging play, and soon enough they formed a league.

Most games would often see two factory teams face off against each other. With the competition, popularity grew and attendance at games was recorded as being upwards of 50,000 spectators.

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The big ban

With the women’s game seeing a high average number of spectators, it was thought this could threaten the men’s game with the majority of the women’s matches having higher attendance than their male counterparts.

In 1921, the FA banned women’s football. Their reasoning was ‘protecting’ women as they were not deemed physical enough to play the sport. The ban meant that teams like Dick, Kerr Ladies would lose their official FA title. This ban would stay in place for 50 years.

By the time the 1970s came round, women’s football had to start from the very beginning. Most of the teams and leagues had to build themselves up from the ground up, as it wasn’t until 1993 that the FA would return to running the women’s teams.

The modern game

It has been a long road, steeped in a history that has been buried, but women’s football is now seeing a massive improvement on media coverage, attendance, and overall a better setup for teams.

With the momentum built from the World Cup, we see more televised games and crowd numbers grow. None more so than with a sell-out stadium for the Champion League quarter-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

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Another massive change in the sport arrived fairly recently when in November 2020, the FA announced maternity leave for female players. This was a huge step, granting players the chance to have a career and family, instead of potentially having to choose one or the other.

Historically, most club contracts have not had this included. Rather, it has been down to individual digression if time off was granted. With the change, all signed players are now entitled to 14 weeks of leave.

This step gives promise and hope for the women’s game moving forward. History has shown that women’s football has been through the mill. But now it has a bright future and 2022 will be a big year for the game.

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