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A game of two sexes | HeraldScotland

A game of two sexes

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A game of two sexes

Football has been always been regarded as a man's game. The historical evidence, however, clearly indicates a quite different story. Women's involvement in the game is significant, is growing, and has a long history. According to the Scottish Women's Football Association, more than 3000 women and girls currently participate in playing organised football in Scotland, in eight leagues. Such figures fail to provide, however, any insight into the historical base of women's football and the determination displayed by women over more than a century to structure, organise, and develop within a game that was characterised by adversity and constraints.

Contrary to popular belief, women have been playing organised football in Scotland for at least as long as men. Astounding to the most ardent of believers in the strength of the ''male game'', reports exist of annual matches between women played in Midlothian in the 1790s. On Shrove Tuesday a match was played between local fishwives, with the married women challenging the unmarried. Interestingly, the older, married women won! The impact of the game is demonstrated in the fact that it secured the support of the whole village, men included. The women were recognised for their ability and achievements and for some years thereafter the game escaped the stereotypical label of a masculine activity - both sexes frequently being involved in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries.

The first match within Scottish FA guidelines was played at Shawfields Ground, Glasgow in 1892. The most frustrating aspect of this episode is that the press reported no details of either the teams or the score. The game failed to meet with universal approval. In response to the game the Scottish Sport thundered : ''It was the most degrading spectacle we have ever witnessed in connection with football, and we never want to see it even faintly repeated.'' This rhetoric represents the beginning of a long and arduous period where many in the footballing establishment and society regarded the concept of women's football with distaste. It appears that women's football would be tolerated only if restrained.

On the whole, during the Victorian period, women were regarded as neither emotionally nor physically able to participate in strenuous exercise. Alternatively, women were encouraged to participate in suitable ''female'' sports, such as badminton and croquet, that provided light rather than laboured exercise. In 1894 the British Medical Journal professed its opinion that women should not be encouraged to participate in football, the game being ''damned out of hand as dangerous to the reproductive organs and breasts because of sudden jerks, twists and blows''. Women, however, attempted to erode conservative attitudes apparent in society and the sporting world regarding their involvement in football.

This was aided by Lady Florence Dixie's travelling British Ladies Football Team who toured Scotland in the 1890s under the banner of women's rights. Games were played at the grounds of Greenock Morton and St Mirren among others, thus ensuring the presence of the press at every game. A ladies' team secured a victory against the infamous London Casuals on New Year's Day of 1895 at Cappielow. However, the concept of women playing against men, albeit on a charity and not professional level, was short-lived.

On August 25, 1902, the Council of the Football Association warned its member clubs not to allow charitable matches against ''ladies' teams''. This warning was adhered to across each of the British FAs affecting every female footballer in the country. Women's football in Scotland was thereafter forced to continue with neither encouragement nor help from the SFA. It seems that for some, women were regarded as a threat to the game's cultural, historical, and masculine values.

As a result, local meetings were neglected and with few games and no contributions, the game temporarily faltered. The First World War, however, provided women with the necessary impetus for expansion. Due to the absence of men who were fighting at the Front, women gained access to areas of employment they were previously excluded from. Thus, opportunities provided by the war effort stimulated the establishment of new factory and charity teams, and women of all classes were given the stimulus to develop skills, not only in football, but in living their own lives. The most successful team of this era was Dick Kerrs Ladies, formed in an electrical engineering works in Preston in 1917.

The game continued to expand in Scotland and successful teams such as Rutherglen Ladies and Cowdenbeath Ladies were formed. Cowdenbeath played a number of matches in the Clyde area including one game against a team of ex-servicemen which ended in an impressive five-goal draw. Expansion ensured Scotland could field a team to face Dick Kerrs in the first Scotland-England international in 1920. The English side won 22-0. In the return, played at Celtic Park in March 1921, the Scots fared slightly better, but still lost heavily in a nine- goal defeat in front of 9000 spectators. Despite these setbacks, women's football in Scotland was flourishing.

Following this second international, Dick Kerrs conducted a tour of Scotland that attracted huge support. They played five matches - in Edinburgh, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Dundee and Dumfries - and attracted a total of 70,000 spectators. The ''Ladies'' tour of 1921 illustrates the strength of women's football across the major towns and cities in Scotland.

However, this substantial support was to have an unwelcome and adverse affect on the game. Soon, the dynamism of the women's game was to be regarded as a threat to the male preserve, and in an attempt to maintain power and monopolise resources , the ruling body of the game once again acted against the interests of women's football. In December 1921, the Consultative Committee of the Football Association issued a ruling :

Complaints have been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.......The Council request the clubs belonging to the Association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.

The withdrawal of official backing, which was formalised by the FAs across Britain, denied women access to grounds and in consequence cut exposure of the game and retarded its growth. None the less, women were successful in their attempts to restructure, organise and develop a new direction despite these constraints. As a direct response the formation of the English Ladies' Football Association was secured and as an additional tactic women alleviated the pressure of the ban by shifting from the use of football pitches to racecourses and rugby and cricket grounds. Essentially the exclusion created by the ban enabled the women to develop a game that was formed and fashioned by themselves, with their own ideals and one that was independent of the FAs who distrusted them anyway.

Whilst a similar formal association was not created in Scotland, the game continued to expand. This is no more apparent than in the 1930s. Indeed, in 1936, two footballers in Scotland were to achieve special acclamation beyond the normal level. The skill of Miss McNeil and Miss McMonin secured an invitation to play for the ''Rest of the Best of Britain'' in a prestigious match against Dick Kerrs on the June 13 at Squires Gate, Blackpool. The match was to be the highlight of the carnival and included the procession of the women through the town.

In terms of teams, however, Edinburgh Ladies were un-doubtedly the best in Scotland. Formed in Edinburgh in May of 1937, the women quickly established their dominance within the game. Indeed, after only four months their match record was unprecedented - played 20, won 18, lost 1, drawn 1, one game including a recent victory over the team who had beaten them. Significantly, the team averaged a consistent gate of 5000 at a time when supporter levels were declining in general under the strain of the economic depression of the 1930s. The ''Ladies'' disputed Dick Kerrs' right to call themselves the champions of the world when they had not played the most successful team in Scotland. In light of this opinion the manager, Mrs Procter, challenged Dick Kerrs to a game. As the two teams were regarded as the most prestigious in the world, the match was billed as the ''Championship of Great Britain

and the World''. In preparation for the game, Mrs Procter employed intensive training techniques. Ironically this included challenging and defeating two male teams in Winchburgh and Ratho respectively and the organisation of two fixtures against male teams in Prestonpans and Leith to be played on the Friday and Saturday preceding the game. The Edinburgh side for the big game were: Stott, Bain and Robertson; Owenson, Saunders and Ralph; Clements, Kerr, Anderson, MacDonald and Russell. The reserves were Leslie and Dickson.

On September 8, 1937, the championship was decided and Dick Kerrs

were the victors by 5 goals to 1. The only Scottish goal was secured by Frances MacDonald. However, a return game the following year on Scottish soil included the welcome addition of Nancy ''Cannonball'' Thompson to the Edinburgh side. The ''Cannonball'' drove her side to a magnificent victory by scoring a hat trick from her position as centre forward. Ironically, Nancy's success led to her being ''poached'' by Dick Kerrs where, with the signing fee of a good job, she was to continue playing for 12 years.

In essence, women's football refused to die with the ban and the Scottish players continued to display phenomenal success. Indeed, the women had achieved a substantial victory over the world champions despite constraints imposed by the SFA.

Women remained committed to playing the game in Scotland and their determination is magnified both in the support and success the game generated, which continued throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and is evident in the expansion of international games in this period. It is evident therefore that despite the doctrine of the ruling body, Scottish women of post-1921 football survived with their style of play and determination to succeed in the face of adversity. Similarly, expansion continued in England. By the 1970s, almost 200 clubs were affiliated to the Women's Football Association (1962), despite the fact that formal sanction from the British FAs had not been granted.

In Scotland official recognition of the game was not bequeathed until September of 1974. On receiving the news the secretary Mr Robert Hall said: ''This means that women's football can no longer be treated as a joke. I now expect the game to mushroom in Scotland.'' Thus claims of maturity and a solid identity by the 1970s are further substantiated by the SFA and their eventual willingness to offer recognition. With this support the game did indeed continue to grow.

However, it is important to remember that the women's game already had a concrete base in Scotland and for further inspiration we should look to the determination of the players of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of course, Edinburgh Ladies, who undoubtedly paved the way.

Indeed, women in Scotland played football tirelessly before and after the ban of 1921, in a drama that involved many players including the media, the SFA, the medical profession, and certain chauvinist elements. As such, SFA cognisance in 1974 should perhaps be regarded as an additional rather than initial element of strength.

Crucially the women who fought against the ban undoubtedly played a part in redefining concepts of women's sports. This is no more apparent than in the wise words of a ''Lady Contributor'' to the Scottish Sport in 1895:

''Hands down, all ye crusaders against knicker attired females; and I say off-side to all those puny specimens who have nothing good to say in favour of football, either for man or woman.......Let girls go in for everything.......even if they do not at first gain the approval of the supposed superior sex, who, I feel quite sure, would be only too delighted to be the lookers-on at a properly played football match composed of New Women.''

A century later and women are as determined and confident of achievement as before. It would appear then that women can play a ''man's game'' and play it well.

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