From Munitionettes to Lionesses: The History of Women’s Football in Britain

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2019 has seen a massive surge in the popularity of women’s football in Britain off the back of the Lionesses fourth place finish at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. However, men’s football is still infinitely more popular and praised. 

Sexism in football stems back to gender inequality in 20th century Britain. Though women were playing football before the war, their participation was largely disregarded by the male football community. It was only during the First World War, in which there was a hiatus of male football caused by men being drafted to fight, that women’s football was first popularised.

The uncertainty of wartime Britain broke down gender barriers and crafted a new position for women in society. No longer trapped in the domestic sphere, women were recruited to fill working roles in the traditionally ‘male’ industrial sectors. An estimated 700,000 women took up work as “munitionettes”, producing the bulk of the weaponry used by the British army during the war, yet were paid on average less than half of a man’s wage for the work.

This new working environment for women created camaraderie, and the female factory workers began to play informal football games in their lunch-breaks, just as the male workers had done before them. Although at first this was met with unease from the male factory owners, it was gradually accepted as a way to boost morale and increase productivity. 

Charity-matches and ‘friendlies’ soon developed into competitive games that drew crowds of thousands, and provided a much needed escape from the horrors of war. By 1917, the Munitionettes Cup had been established and was won by Blyth Spartans. Perhaps it was the lack of men’s football that drove its burgeoning popularity, but even so, women’s football began to gain approval in its own right.

The rise of women’s football during the war should have been a pivotal moment for sexual equality and the reshaping of women’s rights. However, the return of British soldiers saw many women lose their jobs, and had a detrimental effect on the progression of women’s football. In an effort to ‘re-domesticate’ women, and in a ploy to retain money in the male sport, the Football Association imposed a ban on women’s football in 1921 that prevented women from playing on FA affiliated grounds. Perhaps women’s football would be as popular as men’s football today if it wasn’t for this sudden ban.

After the war, men deemed football to be unsuitable and unhealthy for women. With no female representation on the FA, the ban is just one example of 20th century men asserting their power over women, and male prejudice in the footballing world. The backwards decision effectively suspended the progression of women’s football overnight by reducing it to a recreational level.

The lifting of the ban in 1971 initiated the revival of women’s football. However, only now, nearly 100 years since the FA ban, is women’s football gaining the support and recognition that it deserves.

In their upcoming game against Germany at Wembley on 9 November, the Lionesses are set to break the attendance record for a women’s match in England with over 75,000 tickets sold. History is being made. 

The rise of women’s football seems a long time coming, and though there is still much progress to be made in overcoming football’s misogynistic tendencies, women’s football is now widely recognised and supported. 

The Lionesses and female British football stars of today are indebted to the munitionettes, whose own footballing careers were so unfairly cut short, that set in motion the fight for acceptance and equality in the sport. 

 

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