Nettie Honeyball was a footballing pioneer. Back in 1894, Honeyball, whose real name was Mary Hutson, placed adverts in newspapers looking for other female footballers to join her. Thirty women took up that gauntlet and the British Ladies Football Club was formed with the first official women’s football match taking place in Crouch End, London on 23 March 1895. The women were organised into teams representing North and South London, with the North winning 7-1.
While some contemporary newspaper reports were discouraging, The Sportsman took a positive view of the match. “I cannot believe that [men] would show any greater knowledge of the game or skill in its execution. I don't think the lady footballer is to be snuffed out by a number of leading articles written by old men out of sympathy both with football as a game and the aspirations of the young new women.”
These “young new women” were best embodied by Hutson, who was prominent in the build-up to the match. “I founded the [British Ladies Football Club], with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured,” she said in February 1895. “I look forward to the time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs.”
She had her wish in 1918, when the British government made it legal for women to be elected into Parliament. The female game received a renaissance in the wake of the women’s rights movement in the country. Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC was founded in Preston and there was a great deal of excitement around their fixtures. They played an international match against a French XI in 1920, with Dick, Kerr’s 2-0 victors in front of 25,000 fans. More than twice that amount turned out on Boxing Day 1920, as 53,000 fans piled into Goodison Park to see Dick, Kerr’s overcome St. Helen’s Ladies. That crowd was a record for women’s football that stood until the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup™, which saw several record-breaking crowds before the Final, held at the Rose Bowl in front of 90,185 fans.
The resurgence in popularity for women’s football came to a grinding halt in 1921, when the FA banned women from playing on Football League grounds, saying “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” The ban would stay in place for half a century, with women’s football matches reduced to grounds with significantly smaller capacities.
The lifting of the ban in 1971 came after another return to popularity for the women’s game in the country, with the Women’s Football Association (WFA) having been founded two years earlier. Southampton beat Stewarton and Thistle in the first WFA Cup Final in 1971, and the first official women's international in Great Britain was played in Greenock, Scotland, with England beating their Scottish hosts 3-2. The England side were not, however, at the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which came in the same year as the WFA launched a national league, kicking off with 24 clubs.
The women’s game came under the control of the FA in 1993, with the organisation establishing a women’s football committee and taking responsibility for the organisation of the WFA National Cup, which becomes the Women’s FA Challenge Cup. The FA then took on the administration of the Women’s National League and League Cup competition, which becomes the FA Women’s Premier League.
England appeared at the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden, reaching the quarter-finals. Hope Powell was appointed three years later and she was in charge until earlier this year, leaving after UEFA Women’s EURO 2013.
“An ambition of mine as a young girl was to be part of an organisation where I could be part of something great,” Powell said in January. “The game’s come a long way – it’s grown in every department, whether that’s the number of girls playing or the opportunities for females to work in the game.”
That growth led to the incredible success seen at the 2012 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, which culminated in over 80,000 fans flocking to Wembley to watch USA take gold against Japan. In the wake of the popularity of that tournament, the FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) has continued to grow as the elite league for women’s football in the country following its formation in 2011. Liverpool Ladies FC recently became the first team for a decade other than Arsenal to win the top division in English women’s football.
“At my previous clubs, the men’s and the women’s teams have been kept apart,” Gemma Bonner, Liverpool’s captain told FIFA.com this month. “But at Liverpool they’ve really embraced us and provided the platform we’ve needed to concentrate on the football side of things.”
The growth of the women’s game in England has been a key part of the FA’s 150th anniversary celebrations, and it is fitting that the England women’s side will face their Welsh counterparts in a Women’s World Cup qualifier exactly 150 years to the day of the FA’s foundation on Saturday.
After the setbacks suffered in the early days of women’s football, the 20th anniversary of FA affiliation with the women’s game has been welcomed by footballing figures from across the country. Former England captain Faye White is an FA ambassador for the 150th anniversary celebrations
“To be involved in such a landmark is really great to help profile the women’s game,” she told FIFA.com earlier this year. “It shows the full support that they have given.”
That support is helping the women’s game in England overcome those early obstacles, with the young girls of today able to look up to players like Steph Houghton, Jordan Nobbs and Rachel Yankey. The FA will be hoping they inspire a generation of future footballers, just as Nettie Honeyball did over a century ago.