Masculinising Yet Burlesque? The Depiction of Women’s Football in the Interwar Years

07/05/2020  -  12.30

Lisa Jenkel

During the First World War, while most men served as soldiers, women in England worked in munition factories or other jobs essential to the war effort – the ‘home front’. For recreational purposes after long shifts, these women were encouraged to participate in the sports programmes organised by their workplaces. Especially one sport became popular among the female workers: Football. And while women’s football had been played considerably prior to the war – the first known games were held in the 1880s – the sport grew significantly in these years.

This was not only regarding the players but also the numbers of spectators. Some matches reportedly attracted crowds of up to 8,000-16,000 people. Moreover, the contemporary newspapers often reported on games and teams. Besides the recreational benefits for the workers, the sport also came to serve another advantage. The gate money generated through numerous spectators was used for charity purposes, such as the support of the war effort, for veterans or other beneficiaries. Thereby, women’s football became a patriotic as well as charitable leisure activity during the time.

Nonetheless, as the war ended and soldiers returned to England, women were excluded from the workplace in order for the men to return to occupations they had worked in prior to the conflict. In what has been termed a phase of ‘normalisation’, the English Football Association (FA) simultaneously attempted to reinstate football as a male domain. While the association had already prohibited male players from competing against women’s teams in 1902, in 1921 it restricted the sport even more. In December that year, the FA released a declaration that women’s football teams were banned from playing on pitches and facilities of clubs affiliated to the association. While this ban did not prevent women from playing altogether, it had a significant influence on the sport’s further development and additionally limited the charitable efforts. These were also depicted as the alleged reasons for the ban.

The FA’s declared assumptions about “…the appropriation of the receipts to other than Charitable objects. The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to Charitable objects.” Although the female players and organisers subsequently rejected these allegations and emphasised the benevolent nature of the sport while appealing to the patriotism of fellow

Britons, the FA maintained its decision. However, it was less this accusation regarding the charitability of women’s football, but rather the motivation to return to established gender roles and football as a male domain that influenced the FA’s announcement – as indicated in the following declaration:

“Complaints have 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.”

Reinforcement of the body’s decision can be found in the contemporary press. Here, a newspaper discourse ensued that more abstractly focused around the challenge that women’s football presented to traditional gender norms and roles.

In this discourse differing thematisations of the sport are observable, yet they concentrate around several central statements. These include the mentioned disputed charitable character of the game, the authority of the FA, public perception of the ban and connect to a more general debate regarding female emancipation. Moreover, within the newspaper discourse additional statements about the sport as unsuitable for women regarding medical arguments, alleged masculinising elements as well as sexualised notions can be observed.

These discursive characterisations of the sport were represented in fairly contrary depictions of women’s football. On one hand, the sport was described as unfeminine and ungraceful. Its “masculinising” nature was voiced along with the concern that women’s reproductivity would be harmed. Connectedly, (pseudo) medical argumentations labelled the sport as being too strenuous for female players as well as the women as physically unable to play ‘real’ football. On the other hand, quite inconsistently, the sport performed by women was regarded as an “exhibition” or “spectacle”. It was further depicted as a display of the female body that inherited a distinct “element of burlesque”. This sexualised, yet, simultaneously unfeminine notion of women’s football speaks to the contemporary gender norms or more specifically those perceptions that were seen as repellent.

However, these depictions and prevalent gender ideals did not remain fully unchallenged within the newspapers of the early 1920s. The authority of the FA over women’s football was questioned, as the association had previously denied women’s teams the inclusion into the organisation. Still they interfered and hindered the sport with the declared ban. Moreover, welfare workers, who coordinated sports for women in the workplaces, stated in articles that football was beneficial for the physique and fitness of the women. Furthermore, they asserted

that the sport had proven advantageous for the work performance of the players. Additionally, some journalists outrightly defended football, and sport for women more generally, by questioning whether there would ever be any female sportive endeavour that would not be perceived repellent by male contenders or if men should be in a position to foster or impede women’s sportive leisure activity. Thereby, these authors intrinsically addressed much larger issues regarding female emancipation, in sport and beyond, as well as the beginning transformation of gender roles and ideals.

While in the decades since, the participation of all sexes has become normal in most sports, the development of women’s football in England has been significantly impacted by the FA’s ban which lasted until 1972. Internationally, too, women’s football has faced many challenges and considerably less recognition than the game played by men. While recently the interest for the sport has increased and especially the 2019 Women’s World Cup has fostered its attention, the perception of football as a masculine domain remains alas predominant.


Lisa Jenkel

Lisa Jenkel is a student at the University of Groningen, where she has recently completed her Masters in Modern History and International Relations. Her personal research focus is Sports History, more specifically Women’s and Jewish Sports History. You can follow her on Twitter @LisaJenkel for more information about current research projects. Lisa has written further on the topic of this blog in another article entitled: The FA’s ban of women’s football 1921 in the contemporary press – a historical discourse analysis, in the journal – Sport in History.