Though 40,000 plus fans will celebrate Women’s sport at today’s FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea, there’s a darker occasion being marked at the weekend – the 100-year anniversary of women’s football being banned in England.
“Essentially, the Football Association (FA) said that the game of football was ‘quite unsuitable for women’,” said Charlotte Thomson, head of women’s football at COPA90, on the 1921 ban. “At the time football clubs like the Dick Kerr Ladies were bringing in crowds of 30 or 40,000. If you look at the wider context of society at the time, during that 50 years [of football being banned]: women could get fired for being pregnant, you couldn’t have a credit card under your own name, and sexual abuse in the workplace wasn’t illegal. You’ve got to look at where women as a whole were in society when looking at the ban.”
The restriction was lifted in 1971, in the same year as England took part in an unofficial World Cup in Mexico. The squad included players as young as 13 and at one point the side played in front of a 90,000-strong crowd at the Azteca Stadium in the capital, Mexico City.
Fast-forward and modern day football is a different place. While league games aren’t selling out 30,000 seat stadiums, 77,000 watched England at Wembley in 2019 and there has been a huge interest in tickets for next year’s Euros.
“I mean, even when it went professional, they [the League] moved the women’s game to be in line with the men’s calendar,” continued Thomson, formerly of the FA. “Before, you had no hope in hell of trying to figure out when your team was playing. But even then, if you wanted to be a women’s football fan, you had to work for it. You really had to earn your fandom. I think it’s really interesting how now you’ve got this broadcast deal, and now you can really get to know the players individually. Think of male football, the relationship that you have with your club is very different to the relationship you have with your country. And it’s a lot more personal, you feel it a lot more, even in the England team you’ll have affiliation to the players who play for your club.”
The Women’s Super League, England’s top-flight women’s offering, has a record breaking-rights deal, plus sponsorship with Barclays – Vitality are the Women’s FA Cup title sponsor.
Elsewhere, too, the professionalisation of women’s football is taking place. Italy are due to professionalise for next season, Saudi Arabia have a women’s league up and running, and the likes of Brazil and Wales have announced their intention to pay men and women the same for international appearances.
“I think there’s a really thin line between women’s football and women in football. One feeds the other,” Thomson continued. “I think it’s going into that ‘seeing is believing’ and actually having those voices, those role models. Also, not every girl or woman will want to grow up to be a footballer, but they may want to have a role in football. To see people like them on TV being taken seriously, has a huge impact.”
This afternoon sees Arsenal take on Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and as a Tottenham fan, Thomson’s pick for a winner was difficult.
“Arsenal,” she said. “But it’s really interesting how people choose their women’s football team differently from the men’s. I’ve spoken to a few people who haven’t decided who their women’s football team is. There’s a chance for a do over. Maybe clubs should be going out to their men’s season ticket holders saying ‘we’ve got a derby on Saturday, who’s there?’ It’s pulling on that tribal mentality because if there’s one thing that an Arsenal fan, for example, hates more than women’s football, it’s Tottenham.”
This article first appeared here.