THE record-breaking crowds and the entertaining, skilful football played by women in Euro 2022 have made many people sit up.

The success of England has also inspired many young girls to want to play the game. It is, therefore, worth recalling the criticism levelled at women’s football 100 years ago.

During World War 1 women took part in a number of charity matches, and this continued into the early 1920s.

There was a Bradford Ladies League, and Heys Brewery Ladies in Bradford, and Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, from an engineering company in Preston, which had switched to munitions, became household names.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Hey's Brewery ladies team, 1922. Pic: Kathryn HeyHey's Brewery ladies team, 1922. Pic: Kathryn Hey

Women’s football matches attracted large crowds. In April 1921 a Yorkshire and Lancashire ladies team played Dick, Kerrs in Leeds, in front of 26,000 spectators. In fact, in 1921, women were playing in front of bigger crowds than many male professional teams.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The famous Dick, Kerrs ladies team from Preston The famous Dick, Kerrs ladies team from Preston

But at the heart of its popularity, questions were being asked whether it was a suitable game for females to play.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Whitsuntide match between Bradford’s Queen Tigers and WMC in May, 1956Whitsuntide match between Bradford’s Queen Tigers and WMC in May, 1956

Some argued that it could seriously damage women’s health. Dr Arabella Kenealy in ‘Feminism and Sex Extinction’ (1920) warned that football would affect the muscles in the shoulders and chest, and the mammary glands. It would, claimed Dr Kenealy, produce diseased and degenerate offspring, and “a race of palid and enfeebled babies and children” and would eventually lead to a fall in the birth rate.

However, Dr Mary Lowry argued that it was no more harmful to women than a heavy day’s washing.

Mrs Barraclough, captain of the Huddersfield Atalanta believed: “If football was dangerous some ill effect would have been seen by now. I know that all our girls are healthier, and I feel worlds better because there is always Saturday’s game and the weeknight training.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: England fans during the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022. Gareth Fuller/PA WireEngland fans during the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

For those who claimed a woman’s place was in the home, many more accidents occurred there than on the football pitch.

It was the Football Association’s stance which was to cause a major setback. Rumours were circulating that there had been a misappropriation of charity monies. An investigation found no evidence of this. Heys Ladies only charged for expenses for long journeys but were paid if they suffered loss of wages whilst playing. Insurance was paid to cover injuries.

The team had cost the brewery only £60 since its formation eight months earlier. But a meeting of the FA on December 5th, 1921, passed the following resolution: “Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, Council feels impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females, and should not be encouraged.

“Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of the matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other charitable objects. For this reason, the Council requests that the Clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.”

The ban on women playing on Football League grounds was not lifted until May 1971. It is uncertain whoever made complaints, but it was probably a male conspiracy. Perhaps they felt threatened by a more independent post-war female generation who were reluctant to return to the traditional gender roles.

What is certain is that the FA’s ruling was to knock back progress in women’s football for a number of years. Clubs faced mass desertion from players, and many folded. Clubs such as Heys Brewery, Huddersfield Atalanta, and Dick, Kerrs could continue because they had their own pitches.

By December, 1921 there had been 150 ladies football teams in England. Most support came from the North and Midlands, but a week after the ban, a meeting in Blackburn was attended by only 25 clubs. However, the English Ladies Football Association was formed.

By 1922, women’s matches were in decline, and tended to be part of festivals. Competitions still existed for a while, particularly in the North of England. The Bradford Charity Shield was held at Greenfield Stadium. Heys beat Doncaster 4-0.

In the same year the Yorkshire Rugby Union was reluctant to give permission to stage women’s matches at Lidget Green, Bradford, between Heys and a French touring team. Mr J Miller of Leeds opposed the application as it was not “a suitable game for women”, claiming that when they played, they only made a ridiculous exhibition of themselves.

He was supported by the Rev Huggard of Barnsley who added: “They respected and loved their women and, therefore, ought not to encourage them to do anything derogatory to their position, or anything that would seem unseemly.”

This view is in contrast to Arthur Heys who described the FA’s interference as “amounting to impertinence”.

He strongly defended women’s football, emphasising that “the girls enjoy playing football - and worked all the better for it, and were much better in health.”

Peter O’Rourke, who was the manager of Bradford City’s FA Cup winning team in 1911, was also a great supporter of women’s football.

So here we are, 100 years later, in 2022, and women’s football in England is the fastest growing sport.

Players taking part in Euro 2022 have eagerly expressed their joy and pride at playing the game. Media coverage has attracted millions of viewers, young girls have been inspired and are flocking to join local clubs, and now the world can see for themselves that it is definitely “a suitable game for women”.