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In the last few decades, women’s soccer has become a hugely popular sport, both at the amateur level and on the biggest international stages. The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, in which Spain defeated England in the championship match, was watched by record numbers of viewers—over two billion people tuned in to the tournament.
Yet more than a century ago, women's soccer already had at least one wildly successful team, despite having to face obstacles at every turn. During World War I, with so many men fighting abroad, more women took jobs in British factories like Dick, Kerr & Co. in Preston, Lancashire. Starting out playing during their lunch breaks, a team of female employees who would become known as Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. soon became famous for winning against both male and female opposing teams, raising money for injured servicemen along the way.
While still working full-time factory jobs, the Dick, Kerr Ladies were successful against France's women’s national team several times in 1920. Soon, they were playing in front of massive crowds at famous stadiums such as Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Clearly, the British public enjoyed watching women's soccer. A crowd of 53,000 attended a charity match on Boxing Day 1920 that pitted Dick, Kerr Ladies against St Helens Ladies at Liverpool’s Goodison Park. Dick, Kerr won 4-0 and set an attendance record for women’s club soccer that would endure for nearly a century.
Yet this high-profile success came to an abrupt end in December 1921, when the Football Association (FA) declared that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.” The real reason for the ban was almost certainly jealousy. Women’s matches were drawing as many spectators as men’s matches but without any financial benefit for the FA. Though the FA stopped short of attempting to ban women from playing football outright, women’s teams like the Dick, Kerr Ladies could no longer use FA fields, thus excluding them from all major stadiums. The ban remained in place until 1971.
The Dick, Kerr Ladies persevered, playing at smaller venues and embarking on a U.S. tour in 1922 (they were also supposed to play in Canada but were barred by Canada's Dominion Football Association). As women’s soccer was practically nonexistent in America at the time, the Dick, Kerr Ladies played against men’s teams, acquitting themselves well by winning three and drawing three of their nine matches. Rather insultingly, earnings from their matches went towards funding the U.S. men’s soccer team at the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics, where women were not allowed to compete.
From factory workers to soccer stars:
- The Dick, Kerr Ladies were renamed the Preston Ladies in 1926. The team remained in existence until 1965, ultimately winning 759, drawing 46, and losing 28 matches out of a total of 833 played. They raised significant sums for charity along the way.
- Lily Parr, who joined the team at age 14, was arguably the most famous player for the Dick, Kerr Ladies. Parr would go on to have a 31-year career and score some 900 goals. She was the only female inductee in the English Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 2002.
- The Dick, Kerr Ladies were instantly recognizable from their black-and-white striped jerseys, blue shorts, and bubble hats.