How ‘Honeyballers’ beat bid to stamp out women’s game

The support women footballers receive today is a far cry from their treatment in the 1920s. Picture: SNS

The support women footballers receive today is a far cry from their treatment in the 1920s. Picture: SNS

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THE Scotland women’s team who play against Bosnia in a World Cup qualifier tonight are an integral part of the SFA.

They receive financial and many other forms of support from the governing body, and many of our leading clubs now also have women’s teams.

But, as a documentary on BBC Alba tonight shows, the male ­authorities have often taken a very different attitude to the women’s game. Far from being just indifferent or dismissive, men in positions of power ­actively suppressed women’s ­attempts to play the game and to make it more popular.

Honeyballers – named after Nettie Honeyball, one of the pioneers of women’s football – documents the journey of the sport from those early days to its present, thriving state. Combining interviews with the current team and national coach Anna Signeul with historical research, it unearths a story about which we still know very little, according to director Margot McCuaig.

“The history of women’s football is remarkable,” she says. “It’s not even been forgotten – it’s never been remembered. It’s been a constant fight against 
discrimination and inequality, and there has been a succession of strong, pioneering women who led the way and enabled change to happen.

“Football in Scotland has been played by women for at least as long as men, and there is documentation of women playing it as far back as 1628. Lanarkshire was a hotbed of women’s football, and it was very much seen as a game that didn’t have any gender discrimination associated with it.

“But then, in comes Victorian ideology, and it all changes. The whole notion of a woman’s place being in the home led to a breakdown of the game in the late 19th century.”

That old order was swept away by the First World War, and the aftermath of that ­conflict saw a resurgence of women’s football.

But then, as had happened some 30 years earlier, men in ­positions of power stamped it out. Several Scottish clubs which had happily staged women’s games were told in no uncertain terms to desist.

“In the First World War women had a greater role in the workplace, and there was a massive growth of the game in terms of attendances at women’s games,” McCuaig says. “But, in the 1920s, there was effectively a ban, when the authorities said, ‘Hang on, far too many women are ­involved in this’.

“Basically women were seen as a threat to the male preserve. Football was a bastion of maleness and the women’s game was pushed underground.

“In Scotland there’s a very male-dominated press, but there has been this constant resurgence. Every time there has been an attempt to put women down they have managed to fight back and you can see that in the ­success of the game today.

“We’re now in a position where women are working closely with the SFA, so it’s beginning to take a turn for the better. Obviously, the sponsorship is not at the same level, but I think that will change as more and more people understand the sport’s past.”

Living in an era with a ­ballooning obesity problem, we may think it absurd that not so long ago women and girls had to fight so hard merely to be able to take part in sport. But prejudice has by no means been abolished, and McCuaig believes that many men, while accepting women’s right to participate in other sports, are still irrationally protective when it comes to football.

“Football seems to be the key sport where people discriminate. You don’t hear people saying ‘Women can’t play tennis – that’s a man’s game’.”

“The story of women’s football is amazing and really inspiring. It’s about time it was told.”

• Honeyballers is on BBC Alba tonight at 9.30pm.

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