All Quiet On The Wench Front

Herstory at its fucking finest.

The Beautiful Game

girlswithballs

“Football is a simple game; 22 women chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the men always win.” – That bloke from the crisps advert, Nineteen-Ninety-Who-Cares?

It’s been…. too long. I can only apologise to the half a dozen (what can I say, I’m an optimist) folk who avidly follow our ventures into women’s history – life got in the way. Our wonderful illustrator is busy becoming a doctor and writing plays; I’ve moved, got a new job – hateful, got another new job – as-close-to-fabulous-as-minimum-wage-deals-get, and yeah. We’re SORRY.

One of the not so fabulous things about my fabulous-unfabulous job is it’s footie season and I’m being subjected to a lot of it. While my Pa remained true to his father-son itinerary, despite my vagina, football was not on it. He hates football. They earn too much money. He doesn’t trust men with highlights (should any of us?) and you can’t drink cheap red plonk at football stadiums. But one of the best things, the only things worth celebrating, about a game that I have been bred to mock, is that women created football. You heard me. Women made football popular. Women played the first major matches. Women were responsible for all of it, and then they had it taken away.

Months ago, I read Girls With Balls by Tim Tate. You definitely don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy it, in fact you’d probably be better off if you aren’t, the book is, while interesting, rage inducing and may make you angrier than your average hooligan.

I’ll start with the FA. On 5 December 1921 the Football Association called an urgent, secret meeting in London. Something awful had happened. They needed to take swift action. After a brief pants-shitting, they unanimously passed a motion with immediate effect; Women’s football would banned from all professional grounds of FA affiliated teams (which was all of them). The terrifying event that led to this decision? Popular women’s football team, The Dick, Kerr Ladies, had a 53,000 strong turn out to their Boxing Day match the year prior. I KNOW. I’m surprised they didn’t lock them up and kick away the key.

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies Football Club was one of the first women’s football teams in Britain, and the most successful in the game’s history. The team existed from 1917 to 1965, and in those 48 years played 828 games, winning 758. When the team first began playing, they averaged 4,000 spectators per match, which rose to over 50,000 in the short period between their formation and the FA’s decision to ban them from all of their grounds. In 1920, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies defeated a French team, 2-0 in front of 25,000 – the first international women’s football match.

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies were all employees at Dick, Kerr & Co., a Lancashire locomotive company that converted into a munitions factory at the start of the war. The ladies were recruited around 1915 when the conversion took place, and although traditionally women were discouraged from competitive sport, many factory owners felt that games between staff would encourage morale.

In October 1917, women workers played the male apprentices during their lunch break. After winning, the women of Dick, Kerr’s formed a team, under the management of office worker, Alfred Frankland. The team drew strong crowds from the beginning; Dick, Kerr’s beat rival factory Arundel Coulthard 4-0 in front of a crowd of 10,000 on Christmas Day 1917. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played in charity matches against other teams around the country to raise money for injured servicemen during and after the war.

Initially, reactions from the media were positive, supportive and surprisingly modern. News that a woman had applied for a place on a referee’s course was met with real consideration, charity matches were championed and the Kerr Ladies’ success was celebrated. At this point, men’s football wasn’t particularly revered, the FA had been caught match-fixing and bribing, men’s matches had suffered since the war and so their reaction to the Boxing Day match at Goodison Park was as much due to frustration with their own mistakes as it was about the women themselves. But they were relentless. When the Kerr Ladies continued to play in spite of the FA’s ban, doctors suddenly became very concerned with how football was impacting these poor little dears’ health. When yet another medical professional publicly warned women footballers that they could be damaging their health, and worse, their chances of reproducing, popular player Barbara Jacobs rebuffed with:

“The FA brought out its tame doctors to verify that, in fact, football did terrible things to women’s bodies. Mr Eustice Miles {1908 Olympian, author and part time busy-body} had a scientific reason for believing this, or so he said – “The kicking is too jerky a movement for women and the strain is likely to be severe.” So are we to assume that women’s bodies are unsuited to jerky movements? That’s put paid to sex, hasn’t it?”

Unfortunately once the FA realised their ban hadn’t eradicated the sport, women’s football, and particularly the Kerr Ladies, became objects of damnation and ridicule. And it it didn’t take long for the papers to turn on their heroines either.

It wasn’t just public opinion that was causing the Kerr Ladies problems. Home life wasn’t always easy. Many of the player’s families urged them to stop playing. Molly Walker was condemned by her boyfriend’s family because they didn’t approve of her wearing shorts. Football changed these women’s lives, for the better, and worse.

When asked about his motivations to write the book, Tim Tate said:

“As I said in the book, I have no particular interest in football per se. What really fascinates me is social history and particularly the way women have often been airbrushed out of the picture by male dominated organisations.

The determination of the earliest women footballers to play a sport they loved came at a time when the tectonic plates of British society were begin to shift; these women were fighting for equality of opportunity as well as the right to play their sport of choice.”

And this is exactly why the Dick, Kerr Ladies are crucial to the history of gender equality. Like the women who founded Girton College before them, and the female strikers of the Dagenham Ford Plant after them, they exist as a tapestry of women who, by fighting for a specific cause, have enabled change beyond their intentions.

“Additionally, it was fascinating to see how early they appear in the story of football itself. When Helen Matthews first took to the field football, it was both far from formed as the sport we would recognise today and was consumed by all-too-typical male in-fighting. I saw the women’s apparent decision to sidestep this patriarchal fight for the soul of the game as an indication of a purer, less politicised vision.”

I really like this. The idea that these women took the moral high ground. It may have been easier to kiss arse with the FA and get them in on the action, after all, some male teams were struggling to get dozens of fans to their games, the Kerr Ladies were nabbing thousands. Had they attempted to make a deal with the FA, they may have been allowed to continue playing on professional pitches. But it would have come at a cost. Their success. And their integrity.

Tate comments on the relationship between traditional female clothing and women’s increasing participation in sport. The Rational Dress movement isn’t something we’ve touched on at Wench HQ, but advocates ranged from members of The Lady Cyclists’ Association to Constance Wilde:

“Once again sport in general, and football in particular, was both a symbol of the pernicious attitude to women and their attire AND one of the more important drivers of change. The Rational Dress movement had enjoyed a little success in easing the corsets which – physically and metaphorically – bound women. But it was the enormous success of cycling as a national pastime which began to shake them loose.

For me it was interesting that there was such a close connection between the Rational Dress movement and the first generation of women footballers (Lady Florence Dixie was patron of the British Ladies Football Club in the 1890s and a leading figure in the Rational Dress movement). But it was even more revealing to see how the women footballers themselves moved the debate forward by increasingly adopting appropriate kit.”

Dick Kerr Ladies kept playing charity games but refused access by the FA to the professional grounds, the money raised was disappointing compared to previous years. Dick, Kerr Co. was eventually taken over by English Electric. Although they allowed the team to play, it wouldn’t subsidise them. Alfred Frankland was told he’d no longer be given time off to run the team, and so he left the company. The Kerr Ladies fought hard to keep playing and the team remained together until 1965. But the FA had damaged their reputation beyond repair and the ban on women’s football wasn’t lifted until 1971, by which point men’s football was a British phenomenon and women’s football was all but gone.

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Wench

/wenCH/ noun Origin Middle English: abbreviation of obsolete wenchel, meaning child, servant, prostitute; perhaps related to Old English wancol, meaning unsteady, inconstant. Definition Girl, woman, probably a right stand-up bird.

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Herstory

her·sto·ry /ˈhərstərē/ noun Shit hot history from a female or feminist perspective.
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