As we entered the 1970s, the 50-year-long ban from the Football Association (FA) which prevented women and girls from playing football was still in place, only being lifted in 1971.
English women’s football: a brief history
The last half-century has been transformative for women’s football, and the dramatic history of the sport leads us to question how it has gone from being banned to being played by hundreds of thousands across England.
The first few years of the 1970s saw the first TV reports of the Women’s FA Cup Final results. Women’s football was finally gaining some airtime on television; however, it was still extremely difficult to watch games. It wasn’t until 1989 that Channel 4 provided regular coverage of women’s football.
In 1975 the government passed the Sex Discrimination Act – this not only pre-vented discrimination against women but also led to progression in women’s sport. It became a lot easier for women to train to become professional referees, and by 1997 the FA had outlined plans to develop the women’s game.
Stars of the game, such as Alex Scott, were washing the shirts and shorts of the Arsenal’s men’s team to earn money
In 2014, just under 20 years after these plans were outlined, 2.6 million women and girls were playing football across England. By 2017, Sport England had pledged to spend £30 million on grassroots girls’ football. Clearly, in retrospect, the plans of 1997 were the beginning of significant growth for the women’s game.
While the sport was gradually becoming more popular, it was not until 2017 that the Women’s Super League (WSL) moved to a winter calendar to match the men’s game.
Then, in 2018, the league became professional. Prior to this, stars of the game, such as Alex Scott, were washing the shirts and shorts of the Arsenal’s men’s team to earn money. This was all too common, with nearly all women’s footballers having to take up jobs outside of the sport to survive.
Today this still occurs, with Leah Williamson, the player who led the Lionesses to victory at the UEFA Women’s European Championships in 2022, training to be an accountant due to the lack of money in the game. Similarly, Mary Earps (the Lionesses’ award-winning goalkeeper) attended Loughborough University, while playing in professional leagues with Birmingham City and Bristol City.
How has women’s football been professionalised?
The professionalisation of the league, which came seven years after its inaugural season in 2011, brought new licence criteria for clubs from the FA. For both of the first two seasons, clubs were given £70,000 from the FA. There were conditions to this, however, as no more than four players in each side could be paid more than £20,000. This ensured that stars were spread across the teams.
Meanwhile, recent BBC analysis suggested that the average WSL player in 2022 earns £47,000.
The growth in wages is one aspect of the transformation of the sport. Despite this, the average Premier League footballer earns more in one week – around £60,000 – than what the average WSL player earns over a full year. This is in part due to the smaller viewership of the women’s game, although it is growing rapidly.
Change in international football
Following the 2022 Women’s Euros, WSL attendances increased by 276%. Alongside the growth of the domestic league, similar trends have followed within international football. When the first Women’s European Championships were held in 2005, England did not make it out of the group stages. Fast forward 17 years, and the Lionesses took home the trophy in front of a packed Wembley Stadium.
International football has always been vital for the women’s game. It was the first element of the sport to become professional, with the first England contracts going to the likes of Jill Scott, providing players with salaries of £16,000. This meant employment outside of football was no longer as essential.
In 2011, 1.7 million people tuned in to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Germany, while in 2017, the Euros attracted four million viewers, a 68% increase on the 2015 World Cup. The spectator growth has been spectacular, highlighted by the 7.3 million who watched the Lionesses beat Australia in the 2023 Women’s World Cup semi-final.
The women’s game was growing, perhaps even at a quicker rate than the men’s
The first full-time head coach for the Lionesses came towards the end of the 20th century, with Hope Powell taking over in 1998 and leading the team for 15 years. Sarina Weigman, the iconic Manager of the Lionesses, has now led the England women to 34 victories. Under her management, the squad won the most recent European Championships, and then reached a World Cup final over the summer for the first time in history.
The triumphant European Championship final, held at Wembley Stadium, had 87,192 spectators in the stands. This number is nearly double the 45,619 spectators present in 2014 at the Lionesses’ first game held at Wembley.
The women had played a curtain-raiser, ahead of a men’s match against Chile at Wembley in 1989. However, this first stand-alone international game in 2014 was a turning point for women’s football. Thousands more tickets were sold than were sold at a previous Wembley friendly with England’s men, reflecting the fact that the women’s game was growing, perhaps even at a quicker rate than the men’s.
A whole new sport?
Women’s football today is almost unrecognisable from what it was at the beginning of the 1970s.
Girls have gone from cutting their hair short and pretending to be boys so that they could play in grassroots teams, to sporting England shirts with the names of Lionesses printed on the back, as they cheer on an international women’s team that has now reached the final of their two most recent major tournaments.
With a government pledge to provide equal access to football in schools, and £600 million in funding to PE departments, the women’s game is only going to keep on growing.
If those women and girls from the 1970s could see the position women’s football is in today, they would not believe their eyes
This summer, fans travelled to Australia to watch the Lionesses play in the World Cup. Nike produced T-shirts with the phrase ‘Like a Lioness’ which were worn by players and fans alike. The Lionesses are proving to be an inspiration to young children across the country.
While the women’s game is in a much better place than it once was, there is progress still to be made. It was only after petitions and campaigns that Nike began selling the match shirt of Mary Earps – who saved a penalty against Spain in the 2023 World Cup final. There have also been issues with injuries. Last season, five of the Arsenal Women’s squad suffered ACL injuries – including Beth Mead and Leah Williamson.
Although it is vital that we look at how much there is still to do before women’s football is equal to men’s football, it is also just as important to recognise how much has already been done.
The Lionesses squad of today recognise the shoulders they stand on: the women who fought for their right to play a game that was so easily played by men, and those that studied degrees and worked while representing their country in the world’s most popular game.
If those women and girls from the 1970s could see the position women’s football is in today, they would not believe their eyes.