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Dick, Kerr Ladies 1921

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


When Englishmen went off to fight World War I in 1914, women were thrown into traditional male roles at home, at work and on the sports field. Nowhere was this gender shift more apparent than at a Preston factory owned by two Scots, WB Dick and John Kerr, where tramway and railway equipment was made, as Ben Lyttleton discovered.
By 1917, women had taken over the once male-dominated factory and were routinely hauling heavy loads and operating dangerous machinery: so it was no surprise when they challenged the men to an inter-factory football match.
The women loved the game and decided to set up Dick, Kerr Ladies - the team played matches to raise money for war charities devoted to ex-servicemen and made £600 in their first game on Christmas Day, 1917.
Within three years, over 53,000 fans were watching them play St Helen's Ladies at Goodison Park. The company realised how popular the women's game was and ploughed money into the team in return for generating publicity.
Dick, Kerr Ladies played abroad as well, and enjoyed successful trips to France and Holland, where they were greeted like superstars. Leicester University-based academic Alethea Melling, whose work includes theses on women's football in 1921, the Dick, Kerr Ladies tour of North America in 1922, and international women's football from 1920-1945, explained: "The team were the first blend of marketing and football.
"The company owners Dick and Kerr paid for the team to play foreign teams in return for publicising the business. So every time they played abroad, a new audience would become familiar with the company. They took the women's game forward as the first team to go on international tours."
Dick, Kerr Ladies played 67 matches and turned down another 121 invitations in 1921. But the FA were becoming concerned at their increasing popularity and before the team went to the USA (where they played nine games against male teams, winning three, drawing three and losing three), the FA banned the women's game from their pitches. "The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged," a spokesman said.
Melling claims the FA had different reasons for ending the Dick, Kerr Ladies success story. "The men's game had taken a knock during the war. They had played but it was considered unpatriotic, and I think there were concerns that the women's game was threatening the men's version."
Their popularity dwindled following the ban and crowds dropped to below 5,000. By 1926, the team disbanded and changed their name to Preston Ladies. But their legacy lives on, says Melling: "They took women's football forward and let it be known that the game could translate to the international stage. It was a unique team."


Ben Lyttleton, July 2003

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