Fifty years ago this year, the FA allowed women to play football once again. They had banned women from participating in the sport 50 years previous in 1921.

Their reasons? Women needed to return to their “right and proper place in society” after the First World War and Doctors justified the ban by saying football was “the most unsuitable game, too much for a woman’s physical frame.” This all but drew the curtain down on the original golden age of women’s football; some teams had even played in front of crowds in their tens of thousands and were early pioneers of breaking down the barriers of women’s restrictions in society, similar to the Suffrage movement of the time.

Although some people’s views in 2021 echo those of the Football Association a century ago, arguably without those early trailblazers the women’s game wouldn’t be what it is today.

When World War One first began in the Autumn of 1914, men all over Britain were joining up to fight in Europe; their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers entered the work force. They worked long hours in harsh environments especially in munitions factories helping with the war effort; some women even adopted the name Canary Girls as the chemicals in the ammunition turned them bright yellow!

As well as working, many women in the new labour front also took up playing football to pass the time, first on their dinner breaks and then actual teams were formed. When you think of women at this time, you think of corsets and floor length dresses, but these women certainly weren’t afraid to get stuck in with their new beloved sport and smashed gender stereotypes whilst doing so.

Bella Reay in action for Blyth. Credit: Chronicle Live
Bella Reay in action for Blyth Spartans. Credit: Chronicle Live

Women’s football teams popped up all over the country, teams were growing in popularity. The most iconic side of all – Dick Kerr Ladies of Preston, drew in bumper crowds of 50,000 and won an impressive 759 games out of 833. Whilst Dick Kerr ladies boosted wartime morale across the North West, women’s football teams were also on the rise in the North East, famously in the 1917 Munitionettes Cup Final where Blyth Spartans beat Middlesbrough’s Bolckow Vaughan team 5-0 at Ayresome Park. Star striker and Blyth legend Bella Reay scored a hat trick to add to her 130 other goals that season; yes you read that right 130 goals – these women did not mess about and Reay was only 18!

Blyth’s Jennie Morgan loved playing for her side so much she went straight from her wedding to run down the wing for the Spartans, scoring 2 goals. According to legend and historian Ed Waugh, “Wor Bella” once took matters into her own hands when a man was giving her husband a hard time about “allowing” Bella to play football, she marched round his house and apparently chinned him!

Winnie McKenna. Credit: East Cleveland Image Archive
Winnie McKenna. Credit: East Cleveland Image Archive

Bolckow Vaughan’s team also had their star player in Grangetown born Winnie McKenna – she started playing football during the war whilst working at the factory and was one of the first ever women to play at international level, a huge feat especially with views at the time. In September 1918, Winnie McKenna featured in an England side who beat Ireland 5-2 at Newcastle’s St James’ Park, Mckenna was joined by West Hartlepool’s Mary Dorrian – although the FA didn’t recognise this as an official international match those involved were true history makers in the women’s game.

The revolution of women’s football raged on until 1921 when the FA banned teams from all football league ground and the end of the First World War meant women left their factory jobs and returned to their lives at home, arguably reversing all the freedom they had in the workplace and playing football, the matches raised morale as as well as fundraised for local charities. Many women’s playing careers ended abruptly when the ban was introduced, however Dick Kerr Ladies managed to play until 1965 and even toured America.

A century on from these inspirational women being banned from the game they loved, women’s football has never been bigger. There’s professional teams, bumper crowds and international success with the England women’s team – no doubt Winnie McKenna, Bella Reay and co would have been over the moon if they were able to see how far the game has progressed since the lifting of the ban in 1971.

Things have come a long way, but still has a way to go in terms of equal pay, opportunities and tackling discrimination. The story of the origins of women’s football from factory workers in Northern England to professional players such as Durham’s Steph Houghton and Whitby’s Beth Mead show undoubtedly that a woman’s place is on the pitch, in the press box and on the touchline.

 

 

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