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20 July 2023
Author: Claire Thorogood

Women’s World Cup: the issues of representation and allyship

As the Women’s World Cup gets underway in New Zealand, Claire Thorogood considers the FA’s 50 year ban on Women’s Football that was only lifted in 1970 and the issues of representation and allyship.

This weekend the Women’s World Cup gets underway in New Zealand and Australia and the England Lionesses arrive as European Champions thanks to their unforgettable UEFA final at Wembley last summer. That match was watched by a record 87,192 fans at the stadium and by 17.4 m people at home. Much was written about their joyous victory as well as their status as powerful and positive role models for girls and young women. No one could question their skill and dedication as professional athletes.    

So, it is perhaps hard to believe that women’s football was banned by the Football Association between 1920 and 1970. This is in spite of the immense popularity of the women’s game in the post-WW1 era. Just a year before the ban, 53,000 fans had turned up to watch the famous factory team from Preston – the “Dick, Kerr Ladies” – beat arch-rivals, St. Helens Ladies. During that year, the D-K team had played four international fixtures at home and in Paris[1].  

The increasing popularity and the enormous sums raised for Charity by the women’s game (money that sat outside the control of the FA) are judged to be the primary causes of the ban. However, the justification put forward by the FA was that football was “quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged”. Despite the women’s efforts to carry on regardless, the ban preventing women from playing in FA-affiliated grounds pretty much killed off the game. England did not have a fully professional women’s football league until 2018.


Few would now dispute the benefits to girls and young women of having such role models in sport and the critical importance of representation. “You cannot be what you cannot see” is the well-known mantra coined by the American activist, Marian Wright Edelman. And in the case of women’s football, the World Cup is an occasion to celebrate progress.   

But as ever, the story of progress is not linear. In the past year, 13 US States have made abortion illegal. In the UK, the CPS prosecuted a mother of 4 for taking abortion pills and she was sentenced to 28 months in prison[2]. There are many examples of the law being used to police women’s bodies – to prescribe what women are allowed to do with their bodies but also what others can do to them. Earlier this month, an Italian judge cleared a caretaker of groping a teenager because the assault lasted less than 10 seconds.  
In discussions about this Italian case, the Times explored the representation of women in Italy and in particular across the media empire owned by Berlusconi[3]. As Prime Minister (and host of notorious sex parties) he owned at one time 90% of the country’s broadcasting output which featured “women in miniskirts and stilettos [giving] on air lap dances to chat show guests [or] others just stripped”. The Times suggests that this representation of women helped to shape a whole generation of women’s identity and explains why the MeToo movement had less impact on Italy than in other modern European states. Likewise, Donald Trump, President (and another fan of Beauty Queen contests) didn’t hide his objectification and perceived ownership of women’s bodies. It’s been argued that his administration’s policies viewed women as “objects to be controlled rather than full participants in society”[4].


When, in 1921, women were banned from playing football in FA affiliated grounds, not every man supported the decision. One dissenting voice on the FA Council was Major Cecil Kent:  

“On all hands I have heard nothing but praise for the good work the girls are doing and the high standard of their play. The only thing I hear now from the man in the street is ‘why has the FA got their knife into girls’ football?’ What have the girls done except to raise large sums for charity and to play the game? Are their feet heavier on the turf than the men’s feet?”.

Representation and allyship matter – whether that is for women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ or disabled people. Representation in the workplace, across the media, in politics and in our communities allows for imaginations and aspirations to take hold and become reality.

When, over the course of the next month, we see the ‘beautiful game’ being played by women, we can expect girls across the world to be inspired and 49.74% of the world’s population[5] will get to see themselves reflected in the sport. Inevitably, there will be those that compare it unfavourably with the men’s game – but that is to miss the point; the women’s game is different. Difference allows for new perspectives and contributions.

And as Alice Kell, Captain of the Dick, Kerr Ladies team said back in 1921 – Surely to goodness we have the right to play any game we think fit without interference…..   

[1] How the FA banned women’s football in 1921 and tried to justify it | Women's football | The Guardian

[2] A sentence overturned by the Court of Appeal on 18 July 2023

[3] How I exposed Harvey Weinstein after Berlusconi ruined my life (thetimes.co.uk)

[4] Women Have Paid the Price for Trump’s Regulatory Agenda - Center for American Progress

[5] World - Population, Female (% Of Total) - 2023 Data 2024 Forecast 1960-2022 Historical (tradingeconomics.com)

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