Dick, Kerr Ladies: Mapping out the unfulfilled potential of women’s football (part two)

dick kerr ladies part two

Ah, the 20s. Nearly none of us were alive for that period. Though WWI was at full tilt, the timeframe can be remembered for one positive. The women’s game. No, not the testosterone-induced version we watch today. The better edition, one could argue. The sport where 22 women ran relentlessly up and down the pitch to an attendance of 50,000 people in a collective appeal to raise money for the men on the frontline.

This was something we explored in part one. Now, unfortunately, we must look at the deterioration of a sport that was suddenly dominated by what the FA felt, at the time, was the ‘wrong gender’. Women’s football still suffers from the setbacks they endured at the end of worldwide conflict.

Last week, we looked into the highs; this week, it’s about the lows.

FA Ban (1921)

The Goodison Park main event, the money raised, and the enjoyment that engulfed women’s football. These were just three factors that vindicated the future of women in sports. However, while neutrals saw it as a success, the FA had other ideas.

On December 5th 1921, the FA banned women’s football at its member’s grounds. The reasoning they gave was that football was unsuitable for females and the money raised for charitable causes was being misappropriated. However, the real reason was out of fear.

The FA feared that women would be better than men at something. It was a notion that encapsulated a sexist society. Outdated views meant women were treated as lesser.

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The resolution passed by the FA’s Consultative Committee read:

5. Women’s Football Matches. The following Resolution was adopted:

Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.

Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of the matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects. The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage is devoted to charitable objects.

For these reasons, the Council requests the Clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.

— FA Consultative Committee

The ban stayed in place for fifty years upon the return of men from the war. It crippled the success of the women’s game and ensured that men’s football could thrive above all.

The grounds that were under the FA’s governance were the only ones that held enough capacity to meet the demand of the women’s games in the early 1920s. Because of the ban, women’s games were relegated to smaller capacity fields with fewer resources and exposure.

In July 1971, 50 years after the ban, it was rescinded. But the damage had been done, the women’s game, arguably the better, was left in the dark to rot, and nowadays, attendances still struggle to climb above 10,000 people.

American Tour (1922)

“The team will continue to play if the organisers of charity matches will provide grounds, even if we have to play on ploughed fields.”

This statement was made by Alfred Frankland, Dick, Kerr Ladies manager, who stood as the spokesperson of hope. In the face of adversity, women believed there was a way around things.

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Strangely, in 1928, women earned the right to vote. We say ‘earned’ – really, they shouldn’t have to earn it. But that’s beside the point. They could now have a say in their country’s future but couldn’t kick a ball on an FA-licensed patch of grass.

However, just six years before, they still had the belief they could make the women’s game a worthwhile adventure. In late 1922, Dick, Kerr Ladies travelled across the pond to take part in a tour of Canada and the USA. But upon their arrival, Canada’s Dominion Football Association prohibited them from playing anywhere.

The Washington Post reported on 23 September 1922, “The Dick, Kerr’s team of English women soccer football players arrived today on the steamship Montclare en route to the United States where they will play a series of games. The girls will not be allowed to play Canadian soccer teams under an order from the Dominion Football Association which objects to women football players. The team’s first game will be at Patterson, N.J., on September 24th.”

Setbacks continued to pile up but they always found a way around it. Instead, they played nine US men’s teams, winning three, drawing three, and losing three. On top of this, they impressed. Playing before attendances of up to 10,000 spectators, one newspaper described the team as “one of the biggest things in soccer ever to have visited the United States.”

Meanwhile, the team was also praised often for “showing great stamina, clever combination of play, and considerable speed.”

From being banned to becoming World Champions

In September 1923, upon their return from across the Atlantic, the FA Ban seemed to have hardly scathed women’s football. This was even more evident after Dick, Kerr Ladies played a match against the leading Scottish team Rutherglen Ladies, who were based at Shawfield Park near Glasgow.

With the top English team facing the top Scottish team, the match was dubbed a contest to become ‘World Champion’. Although it would have been better to call it something along the lines of Battle of Britain, the women’s game loved to exude confidence in themselves.

Usually, Dick, Kerr Ladies translated that confidence into performances. However, against Rutherglen, they had a rare taste of defeat. James Kelly, the manager of the Scottish side, declared his team as “World Champions” after winning 2-0 and a rematch was off the cards for the losers were expected to win every game.

It didn’t stop them from continuing their legacy, though. The title of “World Champions” was still used in Dick Kerr’s advertising and in 1925 Kerr’s team was claiming to be World Champions from 1917 to 1925.

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Sadly though, by 1925, the existence of Dick, Kerr Ladies was coming to an end. They ran their course, they faced upheaval and came out the other side just as strong.

The end and legacy of Dick, Kerr Ladies

In 1926, Alfred Frankland had a falling out with the Dick, Kerr Ladies ownership. The team’s name changed to “Preston Ladies F.C.” and carried on playing until 1965 but it just wasn’t ever the same.

Dick, Kerr Ladies weren’t just a team, they were a tour de force of strong women that wanted to change the world. In defiance of a male hierarchy, they continued to play football and prove they were just as good as the men.

Even in their darkest days, they attracted supporters, raised money, and most importantly, worked towards a brighter future for the women’s game.

I learnt about Dick, Kerr Ladies in my first year of university. I was fascinated. And since then, I have grown to love the modern version of the Women’s game. It was as recently as last week when I heard Leah Williamson talking about the lasting impact the 1920s version of the Lionesses had.

To a great degree, these current Lionesses, the European Champions of last year, share a lot of similarities with Dick, Kerr Ladies. Both these great women’s teams have strived to improve the women’s game. Because of Sarina Wiegman and the England team, attendance, excitement and money have all returned to the game like they once had 100 years ago.

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If it wasn’t for Dick, Kerr Ladies’ triumphs at the start of the 1900s, women’s football may not be as successful as it is today. So for that, the sport can forever feel grateful for the women who did it first.