Rutherglen Ladies FC: Scotland celebrates the women who defied the ban on women's football 100 years ago with new exhibition

In 2021, women’s football in Scotland is thriving.

The Scottish Women’s national team have played the entirety of their home World Cup qualifiers at Hampden Park, there’s now three fully professional clubs in the Scottish Women’s Premier League – with more surely to come – and a host of Scottish stars, such as Erin Cuthbert and Caroline Weir, are key components in sides competing at the elite level of the game – all live on Sky Sports.

And there’s an absolutely enormous photo of Scotland Women’s captain Rachel Corsie at the entrance to Hampden to boot.

But it wasn’t always this way, and a new exhibition at the Scottish Football Museum has now opened to celebrate Rutherglen Ladies FC – the trailblazing football team who defied the ban on women’s football 100 years ago.

L-R Rose Reilly, Vivienne McLaren SWF, Eddi Reader launch the Rutherglen Ladies F.C exhibition at the Scottish Football Museum. Photo credit: Peter Devlin

Rewind back to 1921, with women’s football gaining traction. Fans across the UK were starting to turn up in their thousands to back talented footballers and all-conquering teams such as Dick Kerr’s Ladies. Back in Scotland, teams were being formed almost monthly.

However, a crushing statement from the English FA in the winter of 1921 that cited “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged” led to a subsequent formal ban on women playing the game on Football League grounds.

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While the Scottish FA did not formally implement a ban until 20 years later, the implications of the ban in England saw a serious knock on affect north of the border. Many newly-formed women’s teams fell by the wayside, unable to find a pitch to play, a team to field and, ultimately, a competitive game to play.

The trailblazing Rutherglen Ladies FC. Photo credit: Bigger & McDonald collection courtesy of Libraries NI.

However, one Scottish women’s football side, Rutherglen Ladies FC, were determined to break down the walls that had been built around their sport, and continue to progress the game they loved in Scotland.

The team, having been formed by Wishaw born entertainer James H. Kelly only months before the ban came into place, immediately hit an unexpected stumbling block.

Despite this, Rutherglen Ladies, captained by one of Scotland’s best players of that era in Sadie Smith, would continue to play football by touring Scotland, often playing in front of thousands during their heyday and playing games in aid of charitable causes.

The team would go on to become so popular they even managed to defeat the unofficial world champions of women’s football at the time and another pioneering women’s side, Dick Kerr Ladies, 2-0 – just two years after their formation.

And on the 100-year anniversary of the formation of the James H. Kelly’s side, the Scottish Football Museum has this weekend opened a brand new exhibition at their Hampden Park base to champion and re-tell the story of the women who defied the odds in the 1920s and 1930s, and helped to form the basis of the flourishing sport we now see.

The exhibition traces the development of the team from its foundation in 1921 through to disbanding in 1939, based on research by women’s football historian Dr Fiona Skillen.

It explores the lives of the manager and the players themselves, whilst also telling the story of their ground-breaking tours in Scotland, England and Ireland. It will be on display in the Football Museum at Hampden for six months, after which it will go on tour to various venues around Scotland for a further 18 months.

Dr Skillen, senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "There's a perception that women's football didn't happen in Scotland between the Victorian period and the mid-1950s. This research shows that it did. We are rewriting the history books with our discoveries.

"Rutherglen Ladies showed incredible resolve and resilience and had to overcome significant barriers just to play the game. They deserve recognition for their unique place in history."

To book your visit to the Scottish Football Museum to see the Rutherglen Ladies F.C. exhibition, click here.

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