Untold lives blog

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20 July 2023

Women’s football in the 1880s

As the Women’s World Cup opens in Australia, here are two newspaper items about women’s football from the 1880s which show the kinds of prejudice that the sport has had to overcome.

In June 1881, the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle reported that an evening match had taken place at the ground of Cheetham Football Club between two teams of eleven women from England and Scotland.  The players, dressed in a costume 'neither graceful nor very becoming', were driven to the ground in a waggonette, and were followed by a crowd composed  mainly of youths eager for 'boisterous amusement'.  Very few people paid for admission but many gathered outside and tried to see what was going on.  Police constables were there to maintain order whilst 'the so-called match' was being played, but after about an hour they lost control and the ground was overtaken by a mob.  The women, fearing that there would be a repetition of the rough treatment they had met with in other parts of the country, ran back to the waggonette.  They were immediately driven away amidst jeers and disorder.

'The lady footballers at play’ at the north versus south match at Crouch End in 1895'The lady footballers at play’ at the north versus south match at Crouch End - Daily Graphic 25 March 1895

In April 1887 a letter was sent to the editor of the Wakefield and West Riding Herald about 'the exhibition in the Thornes Football Club field'.  The correspondent stated: 'The sight of women so far unsexing themselves as publicly to wear the dress of men, and play a game we are accustomed to regard as a purely masculine sport, is not easily reconcilable with our ideas of the fitness of things'.  The 'athletic and inspiriting game of football' played by men was a pleasurable amusement for spectators of both sexes.  'Delicate susceptibilities' were seldom wounded by unseemly remarks made by bystanders when watching young men play football.  But at the women's match the 'few respectable persons whom the novelty of the thing induced to see and judge for themselves the propriety or impropriety of the proceedings, were speedily driven from the ground by the disgusting remarks they could not avoid hearing, as well as by their individual reprehension of the whole affair'.

The correspondent believed that 'this unpleasant exhibit' was one of the last ways in which 'womanly women' would want to earn money.  His disgust was mingled with pity 'as the unavoidable feeling arises that the barriers of modesty and self-respect must have been largely broken down before such a way of life could have been decided upon’.  The letter ends with the call to oppose anything 'that has a tendency to lessen or destroy the innate delicacy of the female character'.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Newspaper Archive (also available via Findmypast)  - Huddersfield Daily Chronicle 23 June 1881; Wakefield and West Riding Herald 23 April 1887.


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