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The History of Women’s Football

Although women’s football may seem like a modern sport (the Women's Football Association formed as late as the 1960s), it has actually been around since the 19th century. However, in the early years, female players struggled against prejudice and the widespread view that women should not be playing football.

In fact, in 1921, despite the fact women's football matches had been taking place for around 40 years, the FA decided to ban them from being played at Football League grounds. A statement was issued by FA chiefs claiming the game of football was "quite unsuitable" for ladies and that it "ought not to be encouraged."


First match

The first recorded women's football match took place on 9th May 1881, when two teams competed at Easter Road Stadium in Edinburgh. It was advertised as a Scotland v England international match, although there is no record of the score.

Back in 1881, female players had to wear corsets, everyday heeled boots and even bonnets, so they weren't considered to be breaking the Victorian standards of decency. This made it very difficult to move freely!

The Scottish team was called Mrs Graham's XI. The goalkeeper, Helen Graham Matthews (a suffragette), had formed the Scottish team but preferred to be known by her pseudonym, Mrs Graham, because of the prejudice against female players in Victorian times. The players were often harassed on and off the pitch and many tried to keep their identity secret for their own safety.

On 20th May 1881, the teams met again in Glasgow, but it was reported the match was abandoned due to a pitch invasion, when the players were treated "roughly" and chased by an angry mob, causing them to flee the ground.

The newspapers echoed the public's derision aimed at women's football, and every aspect of the sport was criticised including the players' appearance, clothing and the standard of play. It concluded that football was a "man's game."

Further attempts to stage women's matches in Scotland also spurred pitch invasions, leading to a subsequent ban on the sport in Scotland for many years. It wasn't until 1971 that it was officially recognised, when the Scottish Women’s Football Association was launched.


London derby

The first match in England was a London derby that took place on 23rd March 1895, between two teams called simply "The North" and "The South". The players were all members of the British Ladies' Football Club, formed earlier that year by Dumfries aristocrat, Lady Florence Dixie.

They split into two teams representing the north and south of London and played the first ever ladies' local derby exhibition match in front of around 10,000 spectators at Crouch End.

By 1895, the dress standards had been relaxed slightly. Players no longer had to wear corsets and they were permitted to wear purpose-made football boots, rather than ordinary heeled shoes. However, they still had to wear bonnets, making heading the ball difficult. If their bonnet became dislodged, play had to be stopped so they could put it in place again.

Despite being heckled by the crowd, the match continued, although the score isn't recorded. Over the next two years, Lady Dixie's team played around 100 exhibition matches across the UK, attracting much media publicity - not much of it positive. They finally disbanded, reportedly due to them running out of money for transport costs and hotel bills.


Social reform

The British Ladies' Football Club had been a valuable tool in social reform, as Lady Dixie was a supporter of women's rights and the growing suffragette movement that sought to free women from the shackles of Victorian society.

She publicly stated football was good for women's physiques and was a supporter of the "rational dress" movement, seeking to liberate players and women in general from having to wear corsets because society dictated this was "respectable."

Lady Dixie recognised football as a weapon to push the boundaries and she encouraged her players to play in blouses and long knickers resembling shorts. Some newspapers described women's football as "farcical" and the players "ornamental and useless."

Lady Dixie always stood firm and promoted her vision of a day when more girls would play football and could do so in a league, in the same way that men's football was structured.


Dick, Kerr's Ladies F.C.

Following the early pioneers, such as Mrs Graham's XI in Scotland and Lady Dixie's British Ladies' Football Club in England, a third pioneer of women's football was the famous Dick, Kerr's Ladies F.C..

The club was formed in 1917 at Preston munitions factory, Dick, Kerr & Co Ltd, during the First World War, initially to raise money for the war effort. All the proceeds were donated to local hospitals that were treating soldiers wounded on the Western Front.

Their players and matches were treated with more respect than their predecessors. On Christmas Day 1917, they played in front of 10,000 spectators at Deepdale, raising a massive £600 to care for the wounded soldiers - this would equate to around £50,000 in today's terms.

The team continued to play long after the war ended, finally disbanding in 1965 - sadly just four years before the Women's FA was formed and women's football became a more structured and respected sport.


Modern day

Following the formation of the WFA, 88 years after the first women's football match, the sport gained a new respectability. The 1921 ban on women playing at Football League grounds was finally lifted. Within three years, the first England Women's International and the Women's FA Cup Final had been played at Wembley Stadium.

In 1983, the WFA was permitted to affiliate as a County Association and in 1993, the Women's Football Committee was set up to run the English game. Football had suddenly become the top sport for women and girls, its profile further boosted when England hosted the UEFA Women's Championship in 2005.

In 2012, the Team GB Women gained further respect by reaching the quarterfinals of the London Olympics. In 2014, England Women played for the first time at the new Wembley Stadium, when a record crowd for a women's game of 45,619 spectators watched the match against Germany. England, known as the Lionesses, won bronze in 2015 at the FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada.


Inspirational players

A number of inspirational female players have worked hard to give the sport the recognition it deserves. Michelle Akers (FIFA Female Player of the Century) is a former USA international who gained 155 caps for her nation and scored 107 goals between 1985 and 2000. She was a member of the squad that won the FIFA World Cup in 1991 and 1999.

German international goalkeeper Nadine Angerer has 136 caps to her name and two World Cup winners' medals. In 2007, she didn't concede a single goal when Germany won the trophy. In 2013, she was the first keeper to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award.

Kelly Smith is England's all-time top international scorer, with 46 goals and 115 caps - a tally that would be higher, had her career not been beset by injuries. Playing in various attacking roles, she was second runner-up in the 2009 World Player of the Year awards.

Today, the celebration of female talent is increasing and the gender imbalance in football is slowly beginning to level out. It has been a long, hard slog that has taken almost 140 years to date.

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