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Womenís involvement with soccer was part of the emancipation process.

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Op-Ed \ Shawn Ladda, Ph.d.

Womenís involvement with soccer was part of the emancipation process.

Special to SoccerTimes

(Tuesday, July 20, 1999) -- The numbers involved in womenís soccer have increased tremendously in the last 20 years. Today. over 20 million females play soccer representing more than 100 nations. In the United States, there are over six million females who play soccer. On the college level there are over 600 teams and 12,000 participants.

Recent international events have helped popularize soccer for women all over the world -- the first two FIFA-sponsored World Championships held in China in 1991 and Sweden in 1995 and the inaugural womenís Olympic soccer competition staged in Atlanta in 1996. Then this summer, came the triumphant third Womenís World Cup in the U.S.

These successful events were the culmination of over a century of development in the sport. Because most of the historical information about the origins of soccer relates to menís involvement, it is difficult to ascertain exactly when women first began playing. There are a few early accounts which mention womenís involvement. It is thought that women played in 12th century France in the folk games of the time. In the mid-1700s women also played in Scotland. Soccer competition between the married women and the single women was included as part of local tradition.

In 1863, women gained wider access to the sport because the international governing organizations standardized their rules with an emphasis on eliminating violence. A non-violent sport was therefore deemed safe for women to play. Nettie Honeyball formed the first womenís team in England in 1894. She established the British Ladies Football Club. Honeyball explained: "I founded the association late last year [1894], with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the Ďornamental and uselessí creatures men have pictured. I must confess, my convictions on all matters where the sexes are so widely divided are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them most."

The first account of women playing soccer in the United States is at womenís colleges in the 1920s. Women participated first in physical education classes and later in intramural contests. Women were encouraged to participate in physical activity to overcome poor health. Arguments against educating women centered around the assumption that higher education would be too physically strenuous for women and that they were too weak to manage the strain. By including physical activity in a womanís education, colleges could combat and disprove the accusations and myths surrounding ill effects for women who participated in higher education. So, womenís colleges at the time made sure to include physical activities which would prove that women were not only strong enough to learn at a higher level than high school, but could compete in skilled sporting contests and maintain stamina. Soccer participation was one example of the way sports helped expand the avenues open to women.

(As an aside, prior to the 1991 Womenís World Championship, there was discussion about how long the halves should be for the tournament. Evidently there were some who wanted 40-minute halves because there was a belief that women would not be able to play at such a high level for 90 minutes.)

A catalyst for change occurred with industrialization and the World Wars. Women were needed in the work force to replace men who had gone off to fight. Through this work experience womenís roles in society broadened. While men were away at war and women were working in the factories, female athletic teams were organized.

The best known team in the 1920s was the Dick Kerr Ladies Team organized by an engineering factory in Preston, England. Alice Woods-Stanley, a member of the team, stated, "I was asked to get this team up, but I wasnít interested then because I thought mother wouldnít approve of it. Well, of course being Victorian she didnít like the idea of ladies playing football but I played without her knowing it."

The team played a series of games for charities in the 1920s. The games became so popular that in 1920, at Goodison Park, Everton, England, 53,000 spectators watched a game while 10,000 people were locked outside unable to get a ticket. Shortly after this game, the English Football Association banned women from playing on the grounds of football clubs. Alice Woods-Stanley explained it this way: "I think we were getting better crowds than the men and making more money and they didnít like it."

By banning women from the clubs, women did not have facilities to play so playing soccer was extremely limited for women. Other football federations followed Englandís lead and thus play was restricted in many other countries. Women continued to play but more or less "underground," staging matches at local festivals and for fund-raising and charity events.

The Dick Kerr Ladies Team flourished until the banning of the use of facilities greatly limited its activity. Play stagnated during the depression of the 1930s and during World War II. During the postwar era, womenís soccer gradually emerged, mainly in Europe.

With the modern womenís movement gaining strength in the 1960s, women expanded their life choices. In 1957, an unofficial European championship occurred in West Berlin. The countries included Austria, England, West Germany and the Netherlands. England defeated Germany 4-0 in the final. This was an anomaly. It would not be until the 1970s that more substantial womenís soccer growth would be realized. In 1971 an unofficial World Cup was held in Mexico. On the surface this appeared to be a significant advance for competition. But this is the way the tournament was described in Can Play, Will Play, Women and Football in Britain by J. Williams and J. Woodhouse:

"The tournament, backed by South American business interests, was run on crassly sexist, show business and commercial lines. The women involved played into pink goal frames, beauty parlors were installed in dressing rooms, and some teams were encouraged to wear hot pants and blouses in place of the normal football stripes. As a prelude to matches there were rodeos, baseball games and displays by semi-clad majorettes."

Denmark beat Mexico in front of 100,000 spectators. Ironically, this appears to be the largest crowd ever to watch a womenís soccer game. Womenís international soccer began to get more fully organized in the 1960s and 1970s. Referring to the growth in the 1970s of English womenís soccer, it was noted by J. Hargreaves, "These developments illustrate womenís infiltration into the most popular menís sport in the world, one that has historically unified men and marginalized and trivialized women."

On the international front, one cannot assume that just because a nation fields a strong menís team that it will have a strong womenís team. In fact, sometimes countries that have excellent menís teams have weak womenís teams. For example, the English womenís team has struggled for years to be a competitive force and it was not until 1995 that the team qualified for the 1995 World Cup. One explanation for this phenomenon is that soccer in most of the rest of the world is considered the number one sport for men and thus women have been excluded from participation. In contrast, in the United States football is considered one of the top sports for men and thus it has been more acceptable for women to play soccer. Hence, the United States team has excelled in the international arena.

Other explanations as to why some countries have a strong menís team and a weaker womenís team include the gender role expectations in a country and the financial backing of the sport. The reality for women in soccer worldwide is that countries which have more developed national womenís team programs tend to be ones that have a broader definition of female gender roles in the society at large. For, example, Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Sweden have fielded potent national womenís soccer teams. Likewise, girls and women in the United States have more opportunities in soccer compared with South American and African countries.

Without resources to develop players including funding for coaching and travel for competition, it is difficult for a national team to develop. In some cases the sport can be improved when a country hosts a major tournament as more funding may be made available in order for the home side to make a respectable showing. With the United States hosting the 1999 womenís World Championship, the United States Soccer Federation provided more resources for the womenís national team. The Australian womenís national team is hopeful that it will receive more financial support when that country hosts the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

As the status of women advances and their opportunities grow in certain cultures, their participation in sports tends to increase. Soccer is one sport that has seen a great rise in female participation. More attention and formal organization have meant exponential growth in the sport at all levels.

With the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) backing a first world championship for women in 1991, more countries have organized national team programs. In comparing the teams participating in the 1991 world championship with the teams participating in the 1995 world championship and the 1996 Olympic Games, it is interesting to note which teams have made significant progress. For example, the English team made tremendous competitive strides in a four-year span. The team lost in the 1991 qualifying tournament and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 1995 world championship in Sweden.

The Atlanta Olympics in 1996 marked the first time womenís soccer was a medal sport. Twelve teams qualified for the Olympic Games and teams were ranked based on their finish in the 1995 World Championship held in Sweden. FIFA is soccerís world governing body with six confederations under its direction. Some weak national team programs relate to a lack of support financially as well as political unrest. Nine countries have participated in all three championships. It should be noted that while 20 new countries participated in the 1995 qualifying rounds, eight countrie s dropped out of qualifying between the staging of the 1991 world championship and the 1995 competition. The numbers indicate a remarkable growth in womenís soccer national team organization.

At a FIFA press conference at the World Championships in Sweden in 1995, the tremendous improvements in the play of the national teams of Japan, Nigeria, Brazil, and Australia were noted. With the tremendous growth of womenís soccer internationally, it was pointed out at one time Europe was the part of the world in which womenís teams excelled and which had the largest number of teams. Now Eastern Asian and North American teams compete successfully with those in Europe. Womenís participation in soccer has a long history, but its most recent growth is remarkable both for the numbers of women involved and the pace at which it has grown. From the charity matches of the Dick Kerr Ladies Team to the 76,000 spectators who watched the finals of womenís soccer at the Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 91,000 for this months World Cup final at the Rose Bowl, soccer has gained in popularity and has established itself as a high level competitive sport with strong international teams, players and contests. The world championships have seen an increase in the number of countries participating in the tournaments.

Womenís participation in sport mirrors the larger role in society. Thus, as womenís roles expand so will their participation in sport. This is an exciting time for womenís soccer. The 1999 Womenís World Cup was the finest display of womenís soccer. As history shows, womenís struggles in a given culture for access and opportunity in all spheres of life will determine how rapidly they progress in the sport.

Shawn Ladda, Ph.d teaches at Manhattan College in New York. She earned a doctorate at Columbia University and a masterís at Springfield College. Her undergraduate work was done at Penn State. Her soccer coaching background includes stints at MIT (1985-1988) and Columbia University (1988-1993). This article originally appeared in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Soccer Journal. For Soccer Journal subscription information, contact the NSCAA at (800) 458-0678 or by visiting

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