After an explosion in popularity during World War One which saw crowds of over 50,000, women’s football was banned in 1921, seen by people at the time as an unsuitable past time for females to engage in. Almost a century later, with the women’s game still struggling to get back to its former status, have our attitudes really changed that much?
In what is now considered the sport’s Golden Age, women’s football became so popular during World War One that crowds of up to 50,000 filled out stadiums to watch games. Compared to the England Women’s team of today who, during their eight games in 2018, only attracted a crowd of more than 15,000 once (with just 340 spectators turning up to watch their 2-0 World Cup Qualifying game away at Bosnia and Hergzegovina in April of last year. Whilst some of this early success can be explained by the absence of large numbers of Britain’s male population who found themselves otherwise engaged in the battlefields of France and Belgium, it was an opportunity that was seized by women and exploited to its full potential, firmly establishing them as a force to be reckoned with in the beautiful game. But just three years after the war’s conclusion, women found themselves banned from playing football, with clubs called upon to refuse them access to facilities, kit and pitches.
Were men worried that women were going to beat them at their own game? Were women expected to hang up their boots for good in order to stay at home and raise children once the war was over? Whilst a positive answer to either of those questions would be less than surprising in post-WWI Britain, how much of a representation of the modern attitude to the women’s game is it? Are women able to make it to the pinnacle of football??
Lyndsey Harkin, a former Nottingham Forest player and mother of two, claims that she was given substantial help throughout her career, particularly when it came to caring for her two sons. “The managers and staff I played under have always been supportive, understanding and accommodating regarding my childcare issues,” the defender said, “the women’s game is going in the right direction, more fans are watching and there is now a genuine oath to have a career at the top level in England.”
“We have a lady who’s pregnant at the moment and she’s just kind of written off”
Echoing her sentiments, Newton Ladies Football Club manager Lucy Johnson, feels that women’s football is becoming both more appreciated and accepted, “It’s getting a lot of press; I think it ten years time we will be up there, equal to men’s football. I really do”
However, despite being in an upward swing, there are doubtlessly still inequalities within the women’s game, as Johnson says when speaking about childcare support, “We are not given the equality that we should be given, and I think that in relation to having children… it’s tricky because we have a lady who’s pregnant at the moment and she’s just kind of written off – not from our point of view, but from the men’s team.”
It’s self-evident that there is a disparity in the level of support offered to men and women within the game, to varying degrees across the globe. For example, countries like Saudi Arabia – where women are banned from even entering football stadiums. Whilst not to these extreme lengths, Johnson feels that gender discrimination is still present in British football. “Our club over at Newton is very old-fashioned, we’ve struggled with discrimination,” she said, “sometimes you just don’t feel very equal.”
Lyndsey Harkin says that a lot of this is due to the perceptions of football, “Traditionally, it’s a men’s game, and that’s what it is seen as,” she said, “I believe there are still people that disregard women’s football because they think it is just a male orientated sport. Women don’t seem to have the same opportunities as males, but i hope that the more popular women’s football gets, the better that will become.” Traditionally, football might have been a man’s sport, but it also used to be a man’s world. But this is 2019, and women are finding their voice, their freedom and a sport that really speaks to them.
Perhaps the clearest example of the gap between men and women’s football can be seen with the gender pay gap. In 2018, the highest paid player in the men’s game was Barcelona and Argentina striker Lionel Messi, who racked up an impressive £84 million (not including endorsements, which reportedly add about another 50% on to that total). This is in stark contrast to, Marta da Silva, the highest paid female player in the world who earnt a comparatively paltry £400,000 in 2018. Harkin agrees that the gap is unfair, saying “the pay will never compared to the men’s game. As far as I know, players are still working second jobs alongside playing football; even at the highest level.”
Fara Williams was ranked as the 14th highest paid female footballer in the world in 2018; she earns £325,000 per year and began playing for the England team at the age of 17 in 2001. Now £325,000 may seem like a lot of money, and perhaps you wouldn’t expect someone to complain whilst earning that wage. However, in comparison to Karim Benzema, who is the 14th highest paid male footballer in the world, her wage is tiny. Real Madrid and France striker Benzema earns £20.5m per year: over seven times as much as Williams?.
But Reading midfielder Williams hasn’t let this discrimination bring her down, even during her toughest times. Despite being homeless for seven years as a teenager, she still played football professionally. She didn’t let her hardship take control of her, and today is an ambassador for Street Football Team England, a charity which helps young people who have experienced or are homeless pursue a career in football. She also matched David Beckham’s record of being the only England player to score in three World Cups when she was 32, making her the first female to do so.
Pay gaps should not still be a thing, females who decide to grow their family and lead a life worth living should be supported in the industry and welcomed back with open arms to play again. Women in football should be given more support, and should be able to have both a career in football and children. We live in the 21st century now, it’s time to start treating each other equally, whether that’s in sport, work, or society as whole. Change needs to happen today.