The year is 1920, and 50,000 fans are at a women's football game

Elana Shapiro delves into the fascinating history of women's football and its rise and fall.

Elana Shapiro
30th November 2020
The year is 1920. Goodison Park, the home of Everton, is packed out with 53,000 fans inside. 14,000 more disappointed fans are standing outside the ground.

And who is playing? Dick Kerr Ladies v St Helens Ladies.  

There is little more forgotten in the history of football than those successes achieved by women. Dick Kerr Ladies are only one example amongst a multitude of other teams made up of women who accomplished extraordinary things that have since been ignored or forgotten.

It is difficult to believe that the Dick Kerr Ladies played in front of a sell-out crowd of 50,000 at Goodison Park but it is even more mystifying to comprehend that less than 12 months after this fixture, the FA deemed women’s football as “unsuitable”. Nevertheless, these two events constitute only a small part of the exciting and inspiring biography of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies.

The arrival of women’s football in England was exacerbated by the changing nature of the role (and power) of women in society due to the First World War. With the men away fighting on the front line, 700,000 women were running the munitions factories at home. And why shouldn’t these women play football at lunchtime as their male counterparts had done?

Gradually games began to be arranged with other factories in the surrounding areas. These games were watched by crowds of tens of thousands and raised, the equivalent of, hundreds of thousands of pounds for hospitals and charities for servicemen.

Dick Kerr Ladies were the best it would seem, and that was in no small part due to their 14-year-old superstar, Lilly Parr, who scored 43 goals in her first season at the club. A local newspaper reported in 1920,

“There is probably no greater football prodigy in the whole country. Not only has she speed and excellent ball control, but her admirable physique enables her to brush off challenges from defenders who tackle her. She amazes the crowd wherever she goes by the way she swings the ball clean across the goalmouth to the opposite wing.”

Source: Twitter @NIWNTfanszone

Dick Kerr Ladies also had the advantage of training at Ashton Park, where several members of the Preston North End squad would assist with their coaching. Alfred Frankland, manager of the team and the manager of the munitions factory, decided his team were good enough to represent England and so he arranged a series of international friendlies against a France national team. 47,000 people watched 4 games played around the country and Frankland took his team to France on October 26th 1920 for more international friendlies that attracted 52,000 spectators.

A memorial to the Dick, Kerr Ladies at Preston North End
Source: Twitter @jazz_beat

The Dick Kerr Ladies went on to play at Old Trafford in front of thousands of people, play Scotland and Wales, and also beat a ‘Best of Britain’ team 9-1. They also became synonymous with charity and their games raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for those who needed it most, following the war. In fact, it was their altruism that may actually have led to the downfall of women’s football.

In addition to their funding of ex-servicemen, the ladies also used the money they raised to help unemployed workers. A recession in the mining industry, a consequence of the aftermath of war, led to pay cuts and then further pay cuts for miners. A strike was called, and the government drafted in soldiers to work in the mines whilst they attempted to starve the miners into submission.

As women from working-class backgrounds and often mining backgrounds, the Dick Kerr Ladies spoke out on the matter and supported the miners. This was unacceptable to the FA who believed that women’s football should have no involvement in politics and so they began a campaign that disallowed women from using an FA club’s ground, ruled that football was a danger to women’s health, stopped any referees or linesmen from officiating women’s games and finally judged women’s football to be “unsuitable”.

In the years following, women’s football struggled. It wasn’t until England won the World Cup in 1966 that more women seemed to regain interest in football and the Women’s Football Association was established in 1969. Even now though, following decades of lack of funding, support and even FA rules to prevent women from playing, the crowds and support don’t rival those of Dick Kerr Ladies.

Featured Image: Twitter @NIWNTfanszone
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