Suzanne Wrack argues that for women the mere act of playing football is a feminist one, a form of activism. Her book begins as a historical survey, but ends as a manifesto.
Wrack is women’s football correspondent for the Guardian and Observer. She tracks the rise of the game through the suffrage movement and the first world war, when the flow of women into workplaces carried them on to football pitches – at their peak, the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies FC attracted a crowd of 53,000. It was partly this success, and the phenomenal gate receipts passed to charities, Wrack thinks, that attracted the Football Association’s ire. In 1921, it declared football “unsuitable for females”, and banned the sport from the grounds of all affiliated clubs. “Fifty years in the wilderness” followed, in which the sport went underground. The ban was finally lifted only in 1971, which still sounds far too recent.
Fascinating connections emerge from this history. Wrack draws a line between Nettie Honeyball, the self-claimed founder of the British Ladies’ Football Club in 1894, who argued for gender-neutral clothing, and US star Megan Rapinoe, who was named the best Fifa women’s player in 2019, and described herself as “a walking protest”. (She refused to go to the White House during Donald Trump’s presidency.) Both footballers have viewed the pitch as an opportunity to enact social change, and Wrack diligently weaves together social and historical strands to show how the women’s game far outstrips the men’s in inclusivity and activism. Witness Jake Daniels, who last month became the UK’s first male professional footballer in more than 30 years to come out as gay.
However, women’s football occupies a difficult position in relation to men’s, and this unease is at the heart of the sport’s faltering move towards professionalisation. Wrack puts it at the heart of her book too: how far should the sport advance its independence from the men’s game and celebrate its differences? And how far does it depend on the men’s game to achieve lasting professionalism? Wrack’s own language is entangled in this conundrum: the women’s game is “catching up”, and Wrack says they are not yet “a sustainable, indispensable arm of [men’s] clubs”, which does make them sound like a limb that belongs to a more powerful body. Wrack argues for more independence, but also for women’s teams to “piggyback a men’s fixture now and again”.
Interestingly, Wrack says that women’s football is where she too “found a home”, and this book carries a faint shadow of memoir. She alludes to her own exile from sport as a child, the discomfort she felt at her body, which seemed to disinvite her from school football – ideas that could have borne development. But this is a comprehensive and detailed historical survey of women’s football at a crucial point in its growth, which asks probing questions about what the game should do next.