It is a well told story that during the First World War, women in England flocked to the factories, farms and hospitals to help support the war effort in any way they could.
What is not so commonly known is that they also replaced the men on the football pitch, going on to attract crowds of more than 50,000 fans.
To celebrate Remembrance Sunday, the Sports Gazette takes a look back at the women who laid the foundations for the thriving women’s game today.
Ediswan Ladies Football Club, 8 January 1921
The “Munitionettes” were crucial towards keeping factories running and providing soldiers on the front line with supplies as the conflict on the Western Front dragged on.
Playing football during breaks was common and even encouraged by supervisors because it raised morale.
Teams emerged from these informal kickabouts and matches between the different factories were organised to raise money for charity. As the men’s teams grounds were not being used, the factory teams were able to play on them and attract big crowds.
One particularly special player from this era of women’s football was Lily Parr.
Lily Parr (left) leads Preston Ladies training
Standing at 5ft 10in tall, she scored almost 1,000 goals during her 31-year playing career, 34 of these coming when she was just 14.
Parr was a trailblazer. She was open about her relationship with partner Mary, at a time when members of the LGBTQ+ community were ostracised.
Starting off at the St Helens Ladies football team, she caught the eye of the manager of the Dick, Kerr Ladies team, Arnold Frankland, when the two teams played in 1919. Despite her team losing 6-1, Parr impressed and was offered a job in the Preston factory that the Dick, Kerr Ladies team represented. She was reportedly offered 10 shillings per match plus a packet of Woodbine cigarettes.
The Dick, Kerr Ladies team were the most famous of the women’s teams. They attracted a crowd of 10,000 to their first match in 1917.
The Dick, Kerr Ladies team (named after the Dick, Kerr & Co. company that the players worked for)
The pinnacle moment for this period of women’s football was when the Dick, Kerr Ladies organised a boxing day match against Parr’s former team St Helens Ladies in 1920. It was held at Everton’s Goodison Park, where 53,000 fans attended and 12,000 were stuck outside, unable to get in. The Dick, Kerr Ladies came away 4-0 winners.
This story does not have a happy ending, though, as in 1921, while women were being quietly shunted back into their pre-war domestic lives, the Football Association banned women’s football.
“The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”, said the FA.
The women could no longer play on the men’s teams’ grounds, meaning the amount they could raise for charity diminished significantly.
It was not until 1970 that the FA rescinded the 1921 ban and women were allowed to play professionally.
Southampton Women FC’s captain Lesley Lloyd collects the first ever women’s FA Cup trophy on 9 May 1971
Women’s football did carry on in the shadows; Lily Parr was only 16 when the ban was implemented, but went on to play until 1950, when she was 45.
She never had the opportunity to play professionally.
An archaic Football Association held these women back but that does not mean their achievements should not be remembered.
They are pioneers of a women’s game that continues to grow today.