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The Plot Against Women’s Football

After the First World War, women’s football swelled in popularity and rallied behind the rising workers’ movement – until the establishment decided it was too radical, and took the legs from under it.

Dick, Kerr Ladies, founded in Preston in 1917. (Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

In May 1921, the wives of miners from Platt Bridge in Wigan organised a football match against the neighbouring village of Abram. The final score was 4-1 to Platt Bridge, who ‘quickly commenced a lead which they maintained until the end’, according to the Wigan Observer’s contemporary match report. It was a kickabout between two makeshift teams in the mud and the bog of a farmer’s field, a far cry from England’s win against Germany in the Women’s European Championship final a little more than a century later. And yet a crowd of around 7,000 people was in attendance, paying half a shilling each for the privilege, raising about £500 in today’s money.

This was among the first of what would become known as ‘pea soup’ matches, played and organised by working-class women during the 1921 miners’ lock-out and often watched by a crowd of thousands. At a time of desperate hardship, when men were striking amid a pay dispute with the local mine-owners, women played football to raise money and pay for the soup kitchens that were feeding their families. Two weeks prior to Platt Bridge’s first game against Abram, some one-and-a-half million meals had to be provided to 182,000 children in mining districts across the country to ensure that they did not go hungry.

‘Pea soup’ games provided much-needed relief to those struggling in this part of Lancashire at the time, while similar matches were also organised and played by women in the northeast of England. They were inspired by the more organised element of women’s football, which had grown rapidly through works-based teams during the First World War and in its aftermath. Solidarity and compassion with those in need were fundamental principles of this new and flourishing sport, with the proceeds from matches donated towards charitable causes.

And yet in the same year as the first ‘pea soup’ games, women’s football was effectively banned. It would stay that way for the next 50 years. To understand why, it is necessary to trace the growth in popularity of the sport, to the point where it became viewed as a credible rival — and perhaps even a threat — to its male equivalent.

Factory Football

Although its history dates back to the late nineteenth century in Britain, women’s football only truly began to capture the public’s imagination during the war. At a time when traditional gender roles were rapidly (albeit temporarily) breaking down, working-class women were not only substituting for men in the workplace but in their leisure pursuits outside of it too. Many who went into the wartime munitions factories began to participate in the company-run recreational activities for workers, from which men had previously benefited and women had been de facto excluded.

Football was the most popular, for the same reasons that it was popular among men — it was cheap and simple to play with a low barrier for entry. Women’s teams were organised in all corners of the country, from Glasgow and Bath to Swansea and Blackpool, with one even cropping up at the National Projectile Factory in amateur football’s spiritual home of Hackney Marshes. Many of these teams emerged from the wartime munitions industry, but women working in retail, food manufacturing, and light engineering also came together to play. By the year of the ban, it is estimated there were 150 women’s teams.

By far the most famous was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, based in Preston. Dick, Kerr’s were formed after the women working at the factory teased apprentices about their own performances on the football pitch and challenged them to a game. Their first official match followed two months later, on Christmas Day in 1917, in front of 10,000 spectators at Deepdale. Dick, Kerr’s ran out 4-0 winners over Coulthard’s Ladies. Factory worker Grace Sibbert, whose husband was fighting in France, was instrumental in organising the match, and the proceeds of £488 — around £15,000 in today’s money — were donated to a local hospital treating wounded soldiers.

Dick, Kerr’s not only became the best and most well-known women’s team, even representing England in unofficial international games, but were also celebrated for this fundraising. The Football Association and the Football League had been widely criticised for choosing not to suspend the professional men’s game upon the outbreak of war, but a thriving women’s game which prided itself in its contribution to the war effort proved football had a positive role to play, and this continued in the years after the war. Dick, Kerr’s played 67 charitable games in 1921 alone, raising the equivalent of £2.7 million today.

The story of Dick, Kerr’s is far from typical of every works’ team. None travelled as widely; few even left their local area, and some stayed within the grounds of their own factories, only involving themselves in interdepartmental games. Yet the social conscience demonstrated by Dick, Kerr’s and other women’s teams had a wider influence on working-class communities, particularly once the miners’ lock-out began in 1921. A week after Platt Bridge and Abram’s ‘pea soup’ match, Plank Lane Ladies from Bickershaw in Leigh played a married versus single women’s game, watched by some 2,000 spectators.

With the encouragement of local labour movements, more matches followed in Pemberton, Ince, and Hindley, attracting larger crowds, and the money raised was donated to soup kitchens and relief funds. ‘Pea soup’ football was not nearly as formal or as organised as Dick, Kerr’s fixtures, with local newspaper reports suggesting there was often no single, uniform kit, women instead donning ‘jerseys of various colours and designs’. But however makeshift these matches were, thousands still gathered to watch football played by women from mining communities, who themselves had been inspired by working-class women in industrial labour.

The Gender Bar

Yet before the year was out, the FA would effectively cut women’s football off at the knees. English football’s governing body declared, after a meeting of their male-only council, that the sport was ‘quite unsuitable for females’ and should not be encouraged. ‘The council requests the clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches,’ the declaration read. This was not an outright ban – which would have been impossible to enforce – but stopped women’s matches from being played at larger, purpose-built grounds, essentially forcing the sport into public parks and indefinite amateurism.

The official reasoning was twofold: first, on medical grounds, that the game could be physically harmful to women; second, due to complaints about ‘the appropriation of the receipts’ from women’s football. Neither claim stood up to much scrutiny. The first was supported by quack science, with one doctor even claiming that kicking a ball is ‘too jerky a movement for women’. The second related particularly to Dick, Kerr’s and the fully justifiable payment of expenses to the players. Dick, Kerr’s vowed to carry on even if it meant playing on ploughed fields and did, only dissolving in 1965, but by that point women’s football as a sport had long been successfully marginalised.

What was really behind the FA’s decision? On the one hand, a desire to defend the popular image of football as a man’s game and a masculine pursuit. As British society sought to return to pre-war social forms and gender roles, women were pushed back out of male-dominated spaces. Football was no exception in that regard.

Yet many contend that there was also a class element at play. As the years passed since the end of the war, the recipients of fundraising through women’s football became, by nature, less explicitly patriotic and more political. Money was not only being donated to causes related to the war effort but for the poor and the unemployed. As Barbara Jacobs writes in her history of Dick, Kerr’s, women’s football was beginning to be viewed as a ‘politically dangerous sport to those who felt the trade unions to be their enemies’.

‘The political context of the ‘pea soup’ matches, with large groups of potentially revolutionary men and women gathering together, would have been regarded as highly dangerous given the fear of Marxism and women’s new political power,’ writes Professor Alethea Melling, whose research brought the history of ‘pea soup’ matches to light. Discouraging women’s football and nipping its popularity in the bud was a small but significant bulwark against wider working-class women’s solidarity, three years after they had gained the vote, but seven until universal female suffrage.

Managed Decline

If that was one of the aims of the ban, it has to be credited as an unfortunate success. By the time of the 1926 General Strike, five years on from the miners’ lock-out and the FA’s declaration, there is little to no evidence of working-class communities playing women’s football as a means of solidarity. Interestingly, Melling’s research suggests that police effectively replaced the role of women in similar fundraising matches, playing against striking workers in Wigan and Leigh as well as other parts of the country. And yet these games failed to attract the same large crowds as the ‘pea soup’ matches.

Jane Oakley, one of the women who played in the ‘pea soup’ matches, later expressed her regret that the momentum behind women’s football at the time of the miners’ lock-out was lost. ‘I loved it, kickin’ that ball,’ she told Melling. ‘There was somethin’ happened, we should have gone to play somewhere and they didn’t turn up and whether somethin’ happened after that I don’t know, but it finished.’

With the 1921 ban, a sport that could have prospered instead withered on the vine. It was lifted by the FA in 1971, but the attendances in the tens of thousands would not be replicated with any confidence or consistency in English football until the present day, and arguably only until this summer’s Euros. Attendances in the Women’s Super League still average around 2,200 — significantly less than the number that watched Platt Bridge vs Abram. Women’s football is only just beginning to earn a recognition that is long overdue, led by a thankfully much more proactive and progressive governing body that recognises there is plenty of work to do.

In that respect, we are only starting to catch up to where the women of Dick, Kerr’s, Platt Bridge, Plank Lane Ladies, and many others were a century ago. Their history is a reminder to us of a fact they knew well, but one that was ignored for 50 years or more: that the working man’s game is and always has been the working woman’s too.