As World War I raged and the men of England went off to the trenches, women took their place in the workforce. Factories hummed with female labor and women's soccer gained prominence in the absence of male teams. This transformative period showcased women's capabilities and helped pave the way for gender equality in professional soccer.
The Birth of the Dick, Kerr Ladies
At the Dick, Kerr and Co. factory in the northwest English city of Preston, women kept the trolley cars, locomotives and munitions rolling off the assembly lines to support the war effort. During tea times and lunch breaks, the young women played pickup soccer games in the factory yard and regularly defeated squads of male apprentices.
Recognizing the women’s talent, office administrator Alfred Frankland organized the Dick, Kerr Ladies team to play local charity games to raise money for injured servicemen.
The Dick, Kerr Ladies were not England’s first female soccer team, but they quickly proved to be the best. On Christmas Day in 1917, approximately 10,000 fans poured into Deepdale, the home field of the popular Preston North End men’s team, to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies trounce the Arundel Coulthard Factory team 4-0. Curiosity may have initially drawn fans, but the skill of the “munitionettes” soon kept them captivated and entertained.
Lily Parr: A Legend Takes the Stage
With a keen eye for talent, Frankland recruited adept players, such as 14-year-old phenom Lily Parr, who dazzled at left wing for the St. Helen’s Ladies in a game against his squad. According to teammate Joan Whalley, Parr had “a kick like a mule,” one that reportedly broke the arm of a professional male goalkeeper on a thunderous shot. She netted 43 goals in her first season, according to England’s National Football Museum, and the 6-foot-tall chain smoker quickly became the team’s biggest star.
Rise of the Dick, Kerr Ladies
Dressed in black-and-white striped jerseys, blue shorts and trademark bubble hats that concealed their bobbed hair, the Dick, Kerr Ladies dominated local teams and even defeated the French national squad several times during an international series in 1920. On Boxing Day that year, more than 50,000 fans clamored into Goodison Park, one of Liverpool’s most hallowed soccer grounds, to watch the Dick, Kerr Ladies defeat the St. Helen’s Ladies. Another 10,000 fans were turned away at the gates.
According to Gail Newsham, author of In a League of Their Own! The Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965, the women became so famous that they played more than 60 games in 1921, while still maintaining their full-time factory jobs. They drew crowds that occasionally topped 25,000 in some of Britain’s most storied venues, such as London’s Stamford Bridge, Manchester’s Old Trafford, Glasgow’s Celtic Park and Edinburgh’s Tynecastle Park.
Women’s soccer proved to be popular—perhaps too popular to the liking of the men’s soccer establishment, who might have believed their ticket sales threatened. On December 5, 1921, England’s Football Association (F.A.) prohibited its members from permitting women’s teams to use their fields.
The F.A. expressed “their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.” Although not banned outright, women’s teams were effectively precluded from playing in soccer stadiums in big cities before large crowds.
Challenging Female Stereotypes in the US
Forced to play in smaller venues and on cricket grounds, the Dick, Kerr Ladies carried on. The 16-woman squad had high hopes for a North American tour in the fall of 1922. However, when they disembarked in Canada, they learned that the sport’s governing body in that country also objected to female soccer players and barred them from playing.
The United States proved more receptive, but although a brief American soccer boom was taking hold in the 1920s, there were no established women’s teams.
“Women soccer players in this city are almost as scarce as hens’ teeth,” noted the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1922, and the same could have been said for the country as a whole.
Playing in the Shadow of Male Soccer
The Dick, Kerr Ladies were forced to take on men’s teams, including several from the top-tier American Soccer League. “What the girls lacked in fast footwork they made up in combination, and their clever passing repeatedly brought them salvos of applause,” the New York Times reported after their first game, a 6-3 loss to New Jersey’s Paterson F.C.
The Dick, Kerr Ladies played nine games against the men—winning three, losing three and tying three, according to Newsham—and drew crowds between 4,000 and 10,000 while challenging conventional societal roles for women.
“We think the Victorian girl who used to stay at home and cook and mend is a thing of the past,” one team member told the Baltimore Sun. “Modern girls want to be up and doing, and we’re in favor of them having every opportunity their brothers have.”
Newspaper coverage, however, showed that change would come slowly. The Baltimore American called them “brawny amazons,” and the San Francisco Chronicle published photographs of the team flanked by advertisements for skin cream, dishwashing soap and “Stylish Stout” corsets. Charity money raised by the British women was used to cover the expenses of the American men’s soccer team in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, a soccer competition closed to women.
The Enduring Legacy of the Preston Ladies
Although remaining snubbed by the soccer establishment, the team—renamed the Preston Ladies in 1926—endured for decades. By the time Parr retired in 1951, she had scored an estimated 900 goals in her 31-year career, tops among any English player—man or woman. She would become the only woman included in the inaugural class of the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
The F.A.’s ban on women’s soccer continued until 1971, six years after the Preston Ladies played their final game. According to the National Football Museum, the team played 828 matches—and lost only 24. The Dick, Kerr Ladies raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity while blazing a trail for today’s women’s soccer players.