Fortunately, in this day and age, here in North America, women playing soccer is taken for granted. But how many girls or women, were playing, or even thinking of playing, 80 years ago?>
Back in those days, of the early 1920s, women were supposed to know their place, and that was in the home, not out playing soccer or any other sport. It took a brave woman to buck the trend, but thankfully there were such women.
<0> No doubt the first World War played a part, particularly in Britain where women were required to work in the factories, while the men went off to war. It broke the pattern, a chance for women to enter a man’s world in many ways.
One of the factories employing women to do war work was in Preston, in Lancashire, in the north of England. There in a factory owned and operated by two Scots, W.B. Dick and John Kerr, makers of tramway and light railway equipment, women were employed producing ammunition when the war started in 1914.
As is the custom in Europe, and was in the United States in the 1920s, the factory ran a soccer team and in October of 1917 it wasn’t doing very well. During their tea breaks and at lunch times, the girls would often join in with the apprentices having a kick about in the factory yard, and it wasn’t long before the girls were needling the guys saying that they could do better.
Naturally, as boys will be boys, this didn’t go over too well and soon they were challenging the girls to a game. So the girls got together and formed a team, and while history records that they played against the men, it does not record the result.
However, the die was cast, and Dick, Kerr Ladies soccer team was formed. It was a team that was to remain in existence for over 48 years and send shock waves through the male dominated world of British soccer. Obviously at a time in history when women wore skirts down to the ground, the sight of women playing soccer was a novelty and it attracted a lot of attention. Soon other women’s teams followed the example of Dick, Kerr’s and the teams played one another, often in front of large crowds. The money raised from these games went to charity, in particular to the families of men killed during the war.
One of the most famous of these games was played on Boxing Day in 1920, at Goodison Park in Liverpool. There, on the hallowed turf of one of England’s greatest soccer grounds, Dick, Kerr Ladies, played another Lancashire team, St. Helen’s Ladies, before a crowd of 53,000 with another 10 to 15,000 fans locked out when the ground was full.
This game, and in particular the size of the crowd, set alarm bells ringing in the headquarters of the austere Football Association in London. Women’s soccer was now seen as a threat to the professional men’s game and something had to be done. So in 1921, under pressure, the all powerful governing body of the game in England barred women from playing soccer for an incredible 50 years.
Part of the resolution of the council “Complaints having 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.”
However, as you might expect, women ignored the ban and went on playing, for while the Football Association could bar women from playing within the orbit of its jurisdiction, there was no law against women playing soccer. But the Football Association was successful in stopping women’s teams from playing on the grounds of the country’s top teams.
But before that time Dick, Kerr’s had extended an invitation to a French Ladies team to play four games in England. The French ladies accepted and arrived in England on April 28, 1920. The tour opened in Preston and a crowd of 25,000 looked on as Dick, Kerr’s won 2-0. In the second game played in Stockport Dick, Kerr’s won 5-2, the third game played in Manchester ended in a 1-1 tie before in the final game played in London, the French Ladies won 2-1.
Later that same year Dick, Kerr’s returned the favour and played in France. The team played in Paris, Roubaix, Havre and finally Rouen. One game ended in a tie and Dick, Kerr’s won the other three.
Next came an invitation for the team to travel to North America to play in Canada and the United States. The women set sail from Liverpool in September of 1922, aboard the S.S. Montclare and arrived in Quebec City on Friday September 22.
But at the annual general meeting of the Dominion of Canada Football Association, held in Winnipeg, in early September of 1922 the coming arrival of Dick, Kerr Ladies was debated and a motion was passed to the effect that “We do not approve of the proposal of Ladies Football”. The minutes of the meeting reflect the same bias against the women’s game as shown in England and consequently the team was not allowed to play in Canada. So the women crossed to border into the United States fully expecting to play against women’s teams, but it would seem that there were no women’s teams for them to play, and they ended up playing against men’s teams, not just ordinary mens teams but some of the top professional teams in the American Soccer League.
The tour opened in Paterson, New Jersey on September 24 and Dick, Kerr’s were beaten by 6 goals to 3. There followed games against J&P; Coats of Pawtucket, New York Centro-Hispano, Washington Stars, New Bedford Whalers, New York Football Club, Fall River Marksmen, and Baltimore Soccer Club. Eight games in all of which the Ladies won three, against New Bedford, New York and Baltimore, tried three against Coats, Washington and Fall River, and were only defeated by Paterson and Centro-Hispano. Quite a record. As you might expect the games in each city were looked upon as something of a curiosity. According to the Fall River Herald News, for the game there, a half section of the grand stand was reserved for ladies, and ladies accompanied by gentlemen, with the ladies being charged a special price of 25 cents to attend.
Newspaper coverage of the games also make interesting reading. The account of the game in the Fall River Globe begins as follows. “An argument between men and women took place at Mark’s Stadium in Tiverton yesterday afternoon. The women did not win, neither did the men.” The report contains the following interesting paragraphs. “The score in no way explains how well these English lassies can play the national game of their homeland. Nor could the fans at the game tell just exactly how expert are the women tourists for the opposition was from a team of the best men kickers in the country.”
It continues: “The bobbed headed and pretty Miss Redford, center forward, scored the first goal at an early stage of the game. Mr. Duncan, the Fall River goalie, deliberately let it go by him, and when Miss Redford turned for the line up for another kick off she seemed to show that she was aware of Duncan’s kindness.”
In fact Miss Redford seemed to get a lot of attention for the story goes on to say that “During the second half Jock Lindsay twice gave Miss Redford a chance to score. The young lady passed it up however. She indicated that what she wanted to get must be earned and not received gratis.”
One of the women, Alice Mills, married and settled in Seekonk, Massachusetts. She returned to Preston in 1992 for the teams reunion.
Unfortunately we will never know how good this team was in comparison to today’s women’s teams but we do know that Dick, Kerr Ladies were not a flash in the pan for this team stayed in existence for 48 years and played 828 games of which they won 758, tied 46 and lost just 24. In the process they scored 3,500 goals.
A book “In a League of Their Own” has been written about Dick, Kerr’s and this summer a film is being made about the teams first five years and will be titled “Victory Girls”.
Unfortunately Dick, Kerr Ladies had virtually been forgotten about until Gail Newsham’s book was published in 1994. But this was a team and a story that belongs in every book that is written about the history of soccer. It is a story about a remarkable group of women who defied all the odds and kept on playing the game that they loved.