Illustration of the "First Match of the British Ladies' Football Club" (H.M. Paget), March 1895 (Source: The Graphic, 1895-03-30, p. 3).
Illustration of the "First Match of the British Ladies' Football Club" (H.M. Paget), March 1895 (Source: The Graphic, 1895-03-30, p. 3).

A game for equality

Already a century ago, women were advocating for change, using football

The surge of interest in the women’s game was about the place of women in late 19th century society, about social emancipation and the desire for equality. “Mrs Graham”, whose real name was Helen Matthews, was a prominent Scottish suffragist, campaigning for Votes for Women. She was also a member of the Rational Dress Society, campaigning for “liberation” from the stifling effect of cumbersome, restrictive female fashion and social convention. Playing football was part of an onward march for the rights of women and girls.

Helen Matthews was also the driving force behind the first-ever women’s football match under FA Laws, which took place in Edinburgh in 1881. She had been inspired by watching the men’s international between England and Scotland in 1880. The Edinburgh game was followed by another game. This time at Shawfields in Glasgow. However that second game revealed the extent of the barriers women footballers had to overcome. After 55 minutes the game had to be called to a stop because from the crowd men invaded the football pitch. It also helps to explain why so many pioneer female footballers, like Mrs Graham, felt it necessary to hide their real identity behind false names. Despite the ugly scenes that had forced the 1881 match in Glasgow to be abandoned, the development of women’s football remained ongoing during the 1880s and the 1890s. Teams such as ‘The Angels’ and ‘The Daisies’ were formed in North East England.

Playing for Equality

Then in 1895 the British Ladies Football Club, one the participants in the game, was founded by a group of female players and influential people, including “Nettie Honeyball” and Lady Florence Dixie. They used organisational and logistical skills to set up a national programme with games and advertising. Although this led to further interest in women’s football, it was also fuel for debate. Frowned upon by the masochists, the women who wanted to play had to do so in secret, often using false names to hide their identities. “Mrs Graham” and “Nettie Honeyball“, were among the key personalities organising and playing in the match. “Nettie’’, whose real is not known for sure, talked about her involvement and intentions openly. In February of 1895 she stated that that:

I founded British Ladies Football Club late last year, with the fixed resolve to prove to the world that women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured.

Lady Florence Dixie, was another sponsor of the British lady project, also speaking openly to the newspaper Pall Mall Gazette in February 1895 she spoke the inspiring words:

Looking ahead to the future I see arising on the golden hilltops of progress, above the mists of prejudice, football will be seen as a natural game for girls as for boys.

Lady Florence Dixie and Mrs Graham were well-to-do, well educated women of some social standing. They had to be, in order to have access to sufficient funds, to promote their cause in the newspapers to have the time and leisure they needed. However many of the women and girls on the pitch were from a working-class background. For example Emma Clarke, the flying right-winger for the South team, she had learned the game playing street football in Bootle near Liverpool.

The North-South match at Crouch End was the start of a nationwide tour by the British Ladies in 1895. The first ended in 7-1, in favour of the British Ladies North. Over Easter, the two teams played ten games, from Brighton on the South Coast to Darlington and Jesmond in the North East. There were often big crowds, 8000 spectators at St James’s Park in Newcastle. The 1895 match left a legacy, something to build upon. The British Ladies went on to play another 23 games before the end of the year, not only that but there were ambitious plans for the next year, 1896. The women’s game had proved itself capable of mass appeal.

The Barriers: sexist comments, historic inequality

Before the game Lady Florence Dixie and Mrs Graham talked about what they hoped would be the outcome of these matches, they wanted to overcome the prejudice and inequalities that existed in society towards women playing football. On March 27 1895 a report in the Daily Sketch stated that:

All afternoon trainloads of excited people arrived from all parts, and the number of carriages, cabs, and other vehicles marked a record in the history of Football. Yet all that this huge throng of ten thousand had gathered to see was the opening match of the British Ladies’ Football Club.

Showing that the support and interest in the women’s game was real and growing. However two days later on March 29 a report came out with a whole different tone, stating that: “The British Ladies Football Club have played their first match in public. We hope it will be their last”. They continued by saying that there is alway interest in women doing “unwomanly things”. The explanation of the size of the crowds is sought in a misogynistic frame of mind, not looking beyond what these women were really doing but clinging to prejudice based on historic gendered stereotypes. Maybe best explained by a report that come in The Sporting Man, April 4 1895: 

I don’t think the lady footballer should be snuffed out by articles written by old men who have no feeling for football as a game, or for the aspirations of the young new women.

After the match

However after 1896, the women’s game did not continue its upward trajectory. There were many reasons for this, hostility from a majority of men was the main reason why so many female players used false names, the ‘novelty factor’ wearing off but also splits between the organisers and above all, financial instability. For twenty years, women’s football virtually disappeared, until it revived during the First World War. From 1915, the war solved the crucial problems of acceptance and stable finances. ‘Munitionettes’ in war factories provided lots of young working-class women who really wanted to play. The factory owners provided the necessary organisation and financial support. There was an explosion of women’s teams in places like Preston and Coventry.

The new surge of interest in the women’s game carried on after the war. Just like in 1896 there was hope that the corner was well and truly turned but late in 1921 came  the deliberate decision of the Football Association to outlaw the women’s game. Meaning that the women’s game could capitalize on her new found popularity and could not develop into something professional and coherent. The ban lasted fifty years, since the 1970s, the women’s game has slowly revived, gaining a new mass audience through television. Just like in 1896 and 1921 it still has to fight hard for acceptance.

How is the match remembered?

The memory of the British Ladies game in 1895 was revived as part of the heightened awareness of women’s football history in the 21st century. Tim Tate’s 2013 book, Girls with Balls, used contemporary sources to tell the history of the women’s game in fascinating detail. The National Football Museum in Manchester devoted space to the women’s game. There was a special interest in Emma Clarke, thought to be the first female black player, who was in the South team in 1895. The Futures Theatre Company produced a play about her, OFFSIDE, that was taken on a national tour. In December 2019, the year the Women’s World Cup in France raised awareness of the women’s game to new heights, a Black History Walks plaque in memory of Emma was unveiled at the school close to Nightingale Lane, where the North-South game took place in 1895. A girls football tournament, the Emma Clarke Gold Cup, was inaugurated the same day as the plaque. 

Whatever its merits on the field, women’s football was now turning into a sorry farce. There would be no more matches in 1896 and just three attempts at games the following year. It was a far cry from the glory days of 1895 and the mass appeal of women’s football. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear those were glory days. Women’s determination to throw off their corsets and step out from the claustrophobic embrace of men had been demonstrated and honoured. In spite of the subterfuge of using false names, women had bravely made a public demand for something closer to equality. But after 1897 it was over; a sad and miserable end to what with a view of ‘the golden hilltops of progress above the mists of prejudice’. Women’s football had died with a whimper. It would take the blood and filth of a world war for it to be re-born.

Girls With Balls: The Secret History of Women’s Football by Tim Tate (2013), pp. 86-87 (Historian).

Today in 1895, a football game was played as women were claiming equality in a patriarchal society.

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Illustration of the "First Match of the British Ladies' Football Club" (H.M. Paget), March 1895 (Source: The Graphic, 1895-03-30, p. 3).
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