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Women and Football

John Simkin

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Until recently I was unaware of the connections between women's football and the women suffrage movement. It might make a good case-study for school students.

In 1894 Nettie Honeyball placed an advert in the press and persuaded about 30 young women to join the British Ladies Football Club. Honeyball persuaded J. W. Julian, who played for Tottenham Hotspur, to coach the women. The training sessions took place twice a week at a park next to the Alexandra Park racecourse at Hornsey.

Honeyball gave an interview to the Daily Sketch on February, 1895, where she explained the reasons why she established the football club: "I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most."

Lady Florence Dixie, the youngest daughter of the Marquis of Queensbury and another committed feminist, agreed to become president of the British Ladies Football Club on condition that "the girls should enter into the spirit of the game with heart and soul." In 1879 Lady Dixie obtained a commission as war correspondent for The Morning Post and covered the Zulu Wars in South Africa. It is believed that she was the first British journalist to report from a war zone.

Lady Dixie also wrote novels with a political message. She proposed equality of the sexes in marriage and divorce, identical male and female clothing and reform of the royal succession to allow the oldest child of either sex to inherit the throne. A member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies she published The Revolution of 1900 in 1890. Described as a feminist fantasy, the book features an heroine whose activities lead to women winning the vote. The last chapter is set in 1999 where a peaceful and prosperous Britain is living under female rule.

The first official match played by women took place at Crouch End in London on 23rd March, 1895. The girls were organized into teams that represented North and South London. The Manchester Guardian reported: "Their costumes came in for a good deal of attention.... one or two added short skirts over their knicker-bockers.... When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women's football will attract the crowds."

The Daily Sketch reporter claimed: "The first few minutes were sufficient to show that football by women, if the British Ladies be taken as a criterion, is totally out of the question. A footballer requires speed, judgement, skill, and pluck. Not one of these four qualities was apparent on Saturday. For the most part, the ladies wandered aimlessly over the field at an ungraceful jog-trot." North London (red), beat South London (light and dark-blue) 7-1.

The Sportsman newspaper was much more supportive: "True, young men would run harder and kick more strongly, but, beyond this, I cannot believe that they would show any greater knowledge of the game or skill in its execution. I don't think the lady footballer is to be snuffed out by a number of leading articles written by old men out of sympathy both with football as a a game and the aspirations of the young new women. If the lady footballer dies, she will die hard."

The game was condemned by the male establishment. The British Medical Journal published an article condemning who played football: "We can in no way sanction the reckless exposure to violence, of organs which the common experience of women had led them in every way to protect."

On 6th April 1895 the British Ladies Football Club played at Preston Park in Brighton. The event was organised to raise funds for local medical charities. This time the North beat the South 8-3.

The next game was played in Bury. Over 5,000 people turned up to see the game and around £100 was raised for charity. This time the score was 3-3. Like in the other two games, Daisy Allen, the North's left-winger, was the outstanding player on view. The Bury Times described her as "a little sprite of four feet". According to one newspaper report, Daisy Allen was only 11 years old.

On Easter Monday 1895, Honeyball took the British Ladies Football Club to play on the ground used by Reading in the Southern League. The Berkshire Chronicle reported that a record crowd watched the game, beating the previous best, a league game between Reading and Luton Town. Rosa Thiere of the North team scored the only goal of the game.

The following day the club played at Ashton Gate in Bristol. This time the South beat the North 5-2. The Bristol Times was only impressed with the performance of one player. Daisey Allen was described as a "plucky youngster... who charged her bigger companions with great courage, and showed by her play that she had mastered the rudiments of the game, which could not be said for all."

After playing in New Brompton and Walsall, the British Ladies Football Club visited Newcastle where they played at the famous St. James's Park. Over 8,000 people saw the North win 4-3. Other games took place in South Shields and Darlington before playing at Jesmond. This time only 400 people turned up to watch and local newspapers reported that the novelty of watching women players appeared to be wearing off. Honeyball's group returned home to London and the first attempt to popularize women's football had come to an end.

Although Honneyball and Dixie pioneered women's football as part of their campaign to obtain equality, the reality was that men attended the games in order to see women running around in revealing clothes (female acrobats were also very popular during this period).

The idea of women playing football was not revived until the First World War. This also had connections to feminism and socialism and was eventually suppressed by the ruling class. I will post details of this later.



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