The last time England won a major trophy, women were banned from playing on FA-affiliated grounds. The success of women’s football during and after the First World War was such – thanks to Dick Kerr’s Ladies, which drew a crowd of 53,000 to a charity match at Goodison Park on Boxing Day in 1920 – that he was seen as a threat by the FA who declared football “wholly unsuitable for women and should not be encouraged”. Women were then banned from playing.
This quote is revealing. Women’s physicality is constantly monitored – gender stereotypes are encouraged and, in cases like these, structurally maintained. And who are often the women on the front line to confuse these limiting stereotypes about what it means to be a woman? Lesbians.
Banned for 50 years and confined to the margins, the history of women’s football has not always been easy. It was therefore women on the margins of society itself who became the champions of sport at this time.
Hackney Women’s Football Club was established in 1986 – the first all-female team in the UK. At the time, a lesbian soccer team was crucial to ensuring the game was inclusive. I led the team in the late 90s and that’s how I met my late wife. Football has always been a place to forge friendships and relationships for many women. “Are you Hackney players? was code for ‘Are you a lesbian and can we date you?’ Many relationships in our community are born out of football.
In the 90s we used to meet at the Bagel Shop on Ridley Road in Hackney. Our game was built from the ground up – traveling to a random location in West London, turning around in a convoy, in the days before satellite navigation, and having a beer full time. Commitment, solidarity, play — often in the face of great hostility. But we persisted and loved it. That’s what we expected.
Football can add to your life both socially and physically. There is something so special about the community, the teamwork and the camaraderie in grassroots football that is so important for girls and women to have the chance to experience. It’s something men have been doing for years and years, and it’s something I want to see women do more of.
From these marginal spaces, we have seen women’s football become more representative over the years. Social attitudes have developed; it’s okay to be ‘out’ in women’s football in 2022 because so many players haven’t been ‘in’. Despite its struggles to gain mainstream recognition, women’s soccer has almost always been a very lesbian-inclusive game. There are high profile women across the game, not just the Lionesses, who are absent.
The flip side is that over the years there have been homophobic overtones that players need to ‘feminize’ (Sepp Blatter and women wearing skirts to play anyone?). We should focus on football – not on how women look or whether they are ‘too dyke’.