In the aftermath of the First World War, an unnamed male professional goalkeeper challenged an opponent whose shooting skills he openly doubted to a penalty competition. Such was the ferocity of the opening shot that the vainglorious goalie was not only unable to stop the ball but suffered a broken arm in the process.
It is a tale of footballing hubris made all the more delicious by the fact that the challenge, and subsequent lethal penalty, had been issued to Lily Parr, the Woodbine-smoking, hard-drinking 5ft10 superstar of what was at the time the hugely popular sport of women’s football.
Parr, who would later become an icon of the gay rights movement, was the talisman of the Dick, Kerr Ladies – a team set up in 1917 for the female workers at the Preston munitions factory of the same name to offer a sporting outlet for the stresses of working in the one of the most dangerous civilian occupations of the Great War.
The team, which raised money for charities helping wounded soldiers, rapidly drew both crowds and newly-founded women’s sides from other factories.
The result was a sudden flourishing of female football across England and beyond as supporters flocked to watch games – often played against male as well as female sides. Commentators queued up to admire the prowess of players like Parr, who at the age of 14 scored 43 goals for Dick, Kerr Ladies in her first season in 1919 and would go on to score more than 900 goals in a footballing career which lasted until 1951.
Such was the popularity of the early women’s game that when the Dick, Kerr Ladies lined up against St Helen’s at Everton’s Goodison Park ground on Boxing Day in 1920, as many as 53,000 spectators turned up to watch – a figure that matched or exceeded attendances for comparable men’s games at the time and set a record for female football that would not be surpassed for the best part of a century.
The fluidity of play, not to mention the physical prowess of players like Parr who was praised not only for her ability to “kick like a mule” but also her on-pitch strategising, won plaudits of one form or another across the board. Commenting on one Dick, Kerr Ladies performance, a begrudgingly patronising Daily Post report said: “Their forward work, indeed, was often surprisingly good, one or two of the ladies showing quite admirable ball control.”
Alas, it also takes the excitement generated by the triumphs of England’s Lionesses culminating in Sunday’s Women’s Euro 2022 final against Germany to ask just what happened to the successes of the female game a century ago.
The uncomfortable but perhaps predictable truth is that they were squandered as a result of entrenched misogyny.
In a now notorious edict issued on 5 December 1921, a meeting of the Football Association in England declared that “complaints” had been made against the women’s game and a view had been reached that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.
While it was not within the FA’s power to ban women from playing outright, they could – and did – prohibit the female game from using its stadia, banishing women to play in parks and wherever they could find a pitch.
Frank Walt, then secretary of Newcastle United, summed up the prejudice of the time, saying: “The time has come when the novelty has worn off and the charitable motives are being lost sight of, so that the use of the professionals’ ground is rightly withdrawn.”
There are considerable grounds for suspecting that also behind the male establishment’s rejection lay a political goal after Dick, Kerr Ladies and other teams in England’s working class heartlands began raising money for striking miners in 1921.
Dr Stacey Pope, an expert on women’s football at Durham University who has examined contemporary male attitudes to the female game, said: “At this time, the growth of the sport was not met with approval from those who felt this challenged traditional gender roles and women’s supposedly ‘natural’ role in the home. There were also medical claims that due to the physicality of the sport, this was not suitable for women. Fast forward to modern day society and sexism is still widespread.”
Indeed, research by Dr Pope and colleagues at Leicester University has revealed the extent of entrenched attitudes with three quarters of men questioned recently expressing mysogynistic views on the female game. They included attitudes that would not have been out place in 1921 such as women needing to stick to “feminine” sports such as athletics and eschew football.
The more reaffirming lesson of history is of course that despite the best efforts of the FA, which is now of course a leading champion of women’s football and issued an apology for its 1921 stance in 2008, and others, the female game refused to be killed off. Dick, Kerr Ladies, which later became Preston Ladies, played a number of international tours, including in America in 1922, and continued to draw large crowds.
Lily Parr continued to play competitively until at least 1951, her ferocity undiminished to the extent that alongside the fractured risk of a swaggering goalkeeper her trophies reputedly included the splintered remains of a crossbar which took the ill-advised step of getting in the way of one of her shots.
Her legacy includes an LGBT football trophy played in her name and a place as the first female player inducted into the National Football Museum hall of fame.
But it is perhaps more fitting to remember a time when what counted were the raw talents that she, and her fellow players, displayed on the pitch. One her male contemporaries, Scotland international Bobby Walker described Parr as “the best natural timer of a football” he had ever seen.
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