From a 50-year ban to sold-out stadiums: here’s how far women’s football has come

As England's Lionesses get ready for the semi-final of the Euros 2022, Features Editor Jenny Proudfoot looks back at the long history of adversity in "the Women's Game" and how far we have come...
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  • The 2022 Women’s Euros are in full swing, with England’s Lionesses now the favourites to win the tournament.

    7.6 million people tuned in across the UK to watch last week’s 2-1 quarter final victory against Spain on BBC One, a huge increase from the audience of 4 million at the Lionesses’ group stage match against Norway. And with momentum building, tonight’s semi-final is expected to set a UK record in women’s football.

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    This is an important step forward, with women’s football still fighting back from a long and troubling history of marginalisation and downright misogyny.

    During a past trip to Paris, I was recommended a visit to “The Women’s Game”, an exhibition on the history of women’s football at the FIFA World Football Museum. What I learnt about the sexism in the sport shook me to my core and changed my perception of the game forever.

    Understanding the adversity behind women’s football and its struggle for acceptance and survival only makes it clearer that this Women’s Euros 2022 has the potential to be a real watershed moment.

    Kerr Ladies football team, founded in Preston, Lancashire, during World War One, who were undefeated British champions during the 1920-1921 season. Getty Images.

    Women’s football was established at the same time as men’s football, but it wasn’t until World War One that it really took off – people wanted to watch the sport and the men were away fighting. So while women were taking to factories, they were also taking to the pitches, reportedly bringing in crowds of 53,000.

    Dick Kerr Ladies F.C., one of England’s earliest women’s association football teams, even surpassed the men’s league records, with their 1920 Boxing Day match believed to have made the most money of any English football game since records began.

    When the World War ended however, football was once more deemed unsuitable for women, and while “health concerns” were cited as the reasons, it seems it was actually more to do with a successful women’s league threatening the men’s. Essentially, society wanted to put women “back in their place”.

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    According to the BBC, Dr Mary Scharlieb of Harley Street described women’s football as the “most unsuitable game” and “too much for a woman’s physical frame”. In December 1921, the Football Association backed the decision that the sport was unsuitable for women, instructing its clubs “to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches”.

    In short, women’s football was banned. And while the restriction was lifted 50 years later in 1971, it had already set the game back and changed it forever.

    Now, a further 50 years after the lifting of the ban, we are still far from being on equal footing. But with over 250 million viewers from 195 territories, this Women’s Euros is proof that we are on our way.

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    “The women’s game has grown,” former England Captain Steph Houghton told me. “When I was playing at Arsenal, I don’t think people realised how good we actually were. I think there’s just a perception that we just play football but we’re not very good, and it was a challenge for us to try and prove those type of people wrong.”

    “We’ve really proved how far the women’s game has come,” she continued. “Not just in terms of being on TV but in terms of actual technical ability, fitness levels and the fact that we give up a lot to be the athletes that we are.”

    “It is our duty to inspire young girls to play a sport,” she concluded. “Whether it’s just for enjoyment and keeping fit, or to actually go on and try and make a career out of it. Women should inspire.”

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    “It’s just getting better and better over time,” explained retired US football legend, Mia Hamm, whose painting by blind artist, Rachel Gadsden, is a focal part of the exhibition. “The more more visibility we have, the more people can comprehend and see that these women are not only amazing athletes and amazing footballers but amazing role models – not just for young girls but for society as a whole.”

    Going on to champion the exhibition, she continued: “You walk in here and you see the history of women’s football, that this game and the women playing it have been around for a lot longer than these cups and competitions. It is rooted in history, it is rooted in everyone’s communities and to acknowledge that and to celebrate that motivates us to continue to do even more.”

    Women’s football isn’t just about the game – it’s about rejection, resilience and revival. It has taken a long history of struggle to get to where it is now, and knowing that history only makes it all the more inspiring.

    We’ll be tuning in for the semi-finals tonight, but whether or not the Lionesses emerge victorious, this Women’s Euros and the rightful buzz around it has undoubtedly been a huge step forward.

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