The Forgotten Golden Generation of Women's Football
The first World War changed the face of the planet forever. It introduced an entirely new concept of modern warfare and resulted in mind blowing losses on all sides. What also happened as a result of the first global conflict was the emergence of a generation of footballers which to this day have yet to be surpassed.
Gavrilo Princip's bullet took the life of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and so began an irreversible chain of events which would lead to a full scale global conflict. This resulted in compulsory drafts the likes of which the world had never seen before. Every able bodied man was being readied to be shipped out to the front-lines in Europe. This was happening in every nation involved in WWI but I will focus on England for this article.
The absence of a lot of the men resulted in women being brought in to cover the duties left vacant by the departed soldiers. Women suddenly found themselves in the then "non-traditional" roles of employment such as factories and manual labour jobs where, unexpectedly they flourished. A huge chunk of male dominated society were now either at, or being sent to the trenches and women flooded in to fill the void. Apart from the jobs and tasks they had to undertake there was also the notable absence of any real sport being played.
While women's football was already established, it didn't really flourish until the men's league was suspended at the end of the 1914-1915 season which created a space needing to be filled. Initially women had informal games during break time at work but this quickly became common place as management saw it as being good for morale and for the health of the women playing.
The war progressed and so did the football. Initially, there was a sort of novelty over the games. Often they were seen as charity or fundraising events for the war effort but soon the quality began to show and proper formalised teams started to spring up. The thing that most springs to mind when you think of WWI for men is the images of trench warfare. For women its the image of a female munition factory worker or Mutionette, replacing her male counterpart and helping the war effort. It was this image and idea which lead to the formation of the Mutionette's Cup, the first female football cup competition in 1917 which saw Blyth Spartans win 5-0.
Women's football was reaching incredible levels of popularity. Crowds of thousands were commonplace at matches and everyone enjoyed the free scoring and skillful abilities of the players. Gone was the novelty of seeing women play - now people were coming to see a game of football, not just football played by women. It's an incredible achievement especially when you consider the attendances of women's games today. The most well know team of that era were Dick, Kerr ladies from Preston. They played to a crowd of over 50,000 on boxing day in 1920 which is something women's teams today can only dream about.
Sadly, this was all to be short lived. As the curtains closed on the frontlines, millions of troops returned home. Women were displaced from their new roles and moved back to the "traditional" setting. Men took back their jobs and their sport as well. Very quickly women playing football was deemed to be "unsuitable" and a clampdown was initiated resulting in a ban which shockingly lasted over 50 years - only being lifted in 1971.
UEFA recommended that womens football be run under the wing of national associations in each country and this signaled a revival for the womens game. Unfortunately, the revival is in its 4th decade and still hasn't reached the popularity of the WWI era players. Things are improving but one hopes we don't need another major conflict in order to see real interest in the women's game come back into the public consciousness.