By Megan Cleary
Hearing the same words repeatedly without a change produces a monotony that feels like screaming into the wind.
The more I read, the more I listen, the more I see that it is all the same. We’ve done this before and I’m tired of hitting repeat.
I scrolled through another headline citing inequality in sport. At the moment the headlines are focused on women’s football, but the theme has been the same for decades: women in sports are not treated the same as men.
This is not new to anyone who has ever followed any sport.
I scrolled further to read several articles and Twitter reactions on why people should be done defending the right of women’s sports to exist. Another repeated sentiment which isn’t new. Focusing solely on football, pick up the book In a League Of Their Own on the “Dick, Kerr Ladies FC” or watch the film Offside made about female soccer fans in Iran.
As far as soccer is concerned, the mere fact women’s leagues are in existence does not mean all clubs are looking to increase wages for female athletes or that upgrades on training facilities are in the works. The world continues to be stuck in an antagonistic in-between of countries openly supporting women’s leagues and societies around the world that are not ready to support women in this role.
It’s the same story, just a different century.
Indulged Then Discouraged
Over a century ago, women played football. In a league. On professional teams. In the early 19th century football had gained popularity in Great Britain with both men and women taking to the field. By the 1880s men’s and women’s teams were both being formed. With a well-documented history, the first women’s league in England was formed in 1894 through the dedicated efforts of Nettie Honeyball (most likely a pen name for Mary Hutson).
In Honeyball’s own words, in an 1895 interview with the Daily Sketch, she said: “I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured.” While most papers covering the women’s leagues admitted the attendance was high, they also implied that once the novelty of seeing women in short skirts wore off so too would attendance. However, the record attendance set at Goodison Park on Boxing Day in 1920 held until the very end of the 20th century. There were 53,000 spectators that day with thousands more locked out of the overfull park.
The tragedy of the First World War opened a door for many women when they were asked to do their part in the war effort. This included providing the much needed distraction that sport can provide. Women’s leagues were popular enough to raise money for charity and it wasn’t unusual for the women’s teams to draw crowds over 20,000. By 1921 there were over 150 women’s leagues across England. Then, suddenly, it was discouraged.
Team mismanagement and societal misgivings about female athletes led to Football Associations (FAs) backpedaling to ban women’s soccer leagues, fining clubs that allowed women to play on their grounds. While some teams persisted, it essentially cut women out of the sport. When the persistent women’s team, Dick, Kerr Ladies FC, came to North America to play a charity tour in 1922, Canada (a dominion of the UK) refused to allow them to play and they were forced to play against men’s teams in the United States instead.
Side Note: Dick, Kerr Ladies played nine games against the best men’s teams America had to offer and ended with a 3-3-3 record. At that time, US soccer was being developed and 1921 marked the inaugural season for the American Soccer League (ASL). The US Men’s team would go on to finish 3rd in FIFA’s inaugural World Cup tournament in 1930. The Ladies were not facing back-up teams, these were some of the best teams of the time.
All Out Exclusion
In the early 1920s sports announcers and journalists of the western world repeatedly explained that women in sport were unlikely to last. Not because that had to be the reality, it was mainly because any other reality made them uncomfortable.
In other parts of the world women were outright discouraged from playing football, with many federations citing reputable physicians who claimed the movements and exertion necessary to compete in the sport were too much for the female body. Some countries cited religious leaders who feared that the spread of un-ladylike activities would be the downfall of society, a common fear throughout this era, which persists in some parts of the world today.
The teams that did continue to play past federation bans in England came under even more scrutiny as the awareness of homosexuality heightened in the 1950s. Female athletes were taunted, teased and asked about their sexuality instead of being evaluated on their talent, another practice that is disturbingly familiar these days. In 1955 the German Football Association decided that football was “more suited” to men and also decided to ban women from playing. Other countries soon followed suit.
While women were not outright banned of playing football in the United States, the fledgling women’s clubs that did exist at the time were not provided the resources necessary to stay afloat. Along with this, many talented female athletes gravitated towards more “feminine” sports, such as track, tennis and swimming. Football became unpopular mainly because it was unsupported. It would stay that way until 1972, when the US passed a law providing women with an equal opportunity to play.
The US Comeback
For the United States, the first real wide-spread change in attitude towards supporting female athletes came with the passing of Title IX in 1972. It was in large part written by Patsy Mink, a representative from Hawaii, and then sponsored by Edith Green, a representative from Oregon and Birch Bayh, a senator from Indiana. It was passed without much debate and stated “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Since athletics were considered educational programs and activities, any federally funded organization had to give equal opportunities for females to participate in sports. Well, they were at least told to give female athletes opportunities, but we’ll have to fast forward sixteen years to really get there. We need to skip past high school and collegiate organizations whining about the detriment Title IX would have on male athletes and past the Supreme Courts 1984 decision in Grove City versus Bell that stripped Title IX of its power. It wouldn’t be until the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 that Congress committed to ending gender discrimination.
While consistent funding wasn’t directed towards female athletes until 1988, TItle IX saw that collegiate programs were at least created for women wanting to participate in sports. Women’s football programmes were widely implemented and led to a comeback in the 1980s. In the middle of the funding fight, the US Women’s National Team played their first game in 1985.
Women’s Soccer Goes International
The first Women’s World Cup was held in 1991, with 12 teams participating in the experiment. At that time FIFA was only allowing 40 minute halves for fear the women couldn’t handle the full 45. The idea that the female body could not handle the stress of physical activity was still an accepted misconception. Women’s teams were also underfunded, with an attitude of “You should be grateful you get to play at all” ever present just below the surface. The US Women’s National team wore hand-me-down shirts from the men’s side that year.
However, progress had been made. It took over a century, but by 1991, society’s perception of women’s capabilities was expanding. While it still had not quite gone beyond blanket misconceptions and stereotypes, the next round of rebuilding had begun. Although, the reach would be limited.
Most people are willing to admit that societies of the 19th and 20th century were not ready to accept that talented women had a place in sport. It was a different time. However the dawn of the 21st century still sees women openly held back.
While several countries have actively funded women’s leagues for over three decades (including Sweden, Norway, France and the US), the teams in these leagues are still often underfunded and mistreated. The conditions of the women who play for Sky Blue FC in the NWSL are still questionable and serve as a perfect example of the mistreatment. Professional athletes were (maybe still are) crammed into housing where it was reported they had plastic instead of proper windows. Also well documented, an RV set up on their practice field; placed there in order to provide running water and a bathroom/shower facility, which was not previously available to them.
In parts of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East female athletes are allowed to practice, but denied access to adequate facilities, funds or training. Starting in January of 2019, the US had played in 10 international friendlies before they stepped onto the fields in France. In that same time frame, Brazil played five, Germany had played four while Cameroon had just played two. These teams were still considered competitive at the World Cup, so it’s appropriate to wonder how much more successful they could have been had their federations invested in giving them more consistent opportunities to match up against international competitors.
In some cases, countries have even actively embraced policies that work against supporting women in sport or actively deny them basic respect. In Iran, women are still banned from watching non-FIFA matches, with the likelihood of getting into FIFA matches still being a rarity. Three years ago in Nigeria the Women’s National Team staged a protest outside their own parliament until they were paid after their federation claimed they did not have the money.
Allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct towards female athletes is sadly still not a rarity and is not confined to any one area of the world. Besides the revelations only recently published about the Women’s National Team in Afghanistan, a similar situation has arisen in Canada where claims of abuse by the head coach of the now defunct Vancouver Whitecaps Women’s team caused supporters to walk out during the MLS Whitecap matches, to protest how the allegations were handled. While the reality that these are not rare examples is disheartening, the fact that any of it has come to light is a step forward.
Beyond facilities and funds, in-between World Cups, the Olympics or other major tournaments, there is a pervasive silence directed towards women’s sports that actively works against its growth.
After conducting interviews in February and March of this year, in a failed attempt to write an article on the growth of women’s soccer in South America, I came to better understand the impact of that silence. Beyond managers and athletes, it takes the people of any nation to support or suppress progress. My ignorance over the disparity of progress within each country also became a barrier to the article. While Chile seems to be bounding ahead of all other South American countries in pushing their women to the forefront, Brazil remains inconsistent and the people of Argentina had hardly anything to say.
Professional football in South America has traditionally been reserved for men. A fact that is perfectly clear to Estefenia Banini, number 10 on the Argentinian Women’s National Team. “Well the opinion of the people of Argentina about women’s football, the truth is, it’s not very positive.” Banini stated before leaving for France on a historic World Cup run for her country. “However, this is changing a lot. I think it’s good that society is accepting this sport and understanding that men and women can both play. It is a sport that has to keep growing and getting better in this area since we’re still being discriminated against.”
In Argentina, it was only a year ago that the women’s team was allowed to practice in the same facilities as the men’s team. The women’s side still has to deal with travel expenses, getting a stipend to cover partial costs which often does not include covering food.
This has been a troublesome reality for female athletes that want to dedicate themselves to playing the game. As Banini pointed out, “I think that being a professional is being able to dedicate 100% to what you do, in this case to play football. I think that in Argentina there is a lot of lack of economic support, which needs to change so that all the girls who are be able to do this sport can dedicate themselves to doing that.”
Laurina Oliveros, another Argentinian Women’s National Team member, also talked about the difficulties of being a female athlete in Argentina. “Football in Argentina, because we are not professionals, we do not have the opportunity or the possibility to live from [playing] sports. Therefore we have to work, study and train all at the same time, which is a huge task.”
The players are open and willing to talk about the issues, but the people were far less responsive. In fact after reaching out to half a dozen Argentinians, from reporters and photographers to friends, they all came back with a similar response: I don’t watch women’s soccer. Let me ask my friend and see if they can help.
Then I heard nothing.
It’s not a malicious silence, it’s a silence that comes from a lack of knowledge. They simply had nothing to say. It’s hard to talk about growth when the people of a country have no idea what you’re talking about.
However, since the interviews, the first professional soccer contract for a female athlete in Argentina was signed in April of this year. Along with this, the recent feminist movement within the country has been pushing for more support of female athletes. These type of changes are a positive sign for current athletes like Banini who spoke months ago about the possible change that could come to her country. “I think that in Argentina in particular we love futbol, so I think it’s something that’s possible to happen. But we know we have to keep fighting for that change.”
While Argentina continues their fight for support, cities in Brazil gave workers time off to watch their women play in the World Cup. Their national team still struggles with adequate funding and federation support, especially when it comes to creating opportunities for the team to practice and play international matches. However, Brazil remains ahead of other Latin countries in national support. Although Chile is coming up quickly.
Only in the last four years did Chile begin breaking through the silence. Antonio Loma-Osorio, who has worked with the Chilean federation on the women’s side for over six years, spoke of the growth of the people of Chile and the support the country is showing them.
“The federation did gigantic work to bring the Copa America to Chile,” he said. It would be the 2015 Copa America that proved to be a huge turning point for the people of Chile. After Brazil passed, the Chilean federation worked over a year to bring the Copa to them. In a lead up to the tournament their men’s team made a point to come out to events to show their support for the women’s team.
Antonio continued: “The people realized that women can play. In a country that is so macho driven, like Chile and all these Latin American countries, there was this kind of cartoon about women’s soccer that women were just a bunch of girls running around a field with a soccer ball and doing nothing. But then they realized that women could really play the game. They had the skills, they had the power… So from that point of view of course the Copa America changed the way people looked at the women’s team and realizing that they could really play the game.”
With crowds of over 20,000 for the home team, Antonia called it the most successful women’s tournament in Chile. Even when the home team was not playing, fans came to the stadiums in large numbers. Local reporter and enthusiastic supporter Francisco Trampe noted that before that tournament only Chrstiane Endler, Chilean keeper and arguably one of the best keepers in the world, was known by the average Chilean soccer fan. After the tournament other athletes became known.
Chilean society in general has been changing. As Trampe notes, “Women have increasingly been gaining opportunities to participate in all kinds of activities in our society. Until a while ago, for certain by men, it was not well seen that women played soccer competitively. Fortunately, this situation is no longer an obstacle for women, since society has evolved in that sense and all people recognize the great effort that women make to combine their studies or their jobs with sports.”
Their recent performance in the World Cup has brought the team more international coverage, but it’s obvious that the real difference between the South American teams are their federations. Change is being pushed by Chile’s FA through public relations and economic support. While not all countries are ready to show this kind of support, Chile is showing that societies traditionally thought of as male dominated can still support female athletes. Now would be a good time to take advantage of the momentum.
The Revolution Should Now Be Televised
At this point a lot of fans have become good at pointing out inequalities, but are still pretty crap at doing anything about it. After over a century of women playing through the noise, the struggle of female athletes continues.
Now, it does need to be said that not everyone has to like every sport. We all get to have our preferences, which includes preferring women’s sports to men’s or visa versa. However, preferences should not prevent opportunities for one side or the other.
While lawsuits over equal pay continue, there is no need to wait for the outcome of the suit before we begin to address how non-athletes can play a part in evening out the inequalities. This is where television can come into play.
If air time is based on money, there’s no way to be certain about how much revenue can be generated by women’s sports until it’s given equal viewership. This should mean women’s sports would be consistently aired on television. After all, creating that space for audiences to watch women’s sports reinforces its value in the sports world. Football is a safe place to start.
Fans have already made it clear they will watch. With the 2019 Women’s World Cup breaking viewership records in the US it is clear that television audiences for women’s football has grown faster than broadcasters have accounted for and this proves the limitations placed on their air time need to be reevaluated. Women’s football is popular worldwide, and one of the most popular sports in the United States. This should mean increased coverage for a sport proven to be appealing to audiences.
While this isn’t happening yet, ESPN has signed an agreement to show at least 14 matches of the current NWSL season in the United States. This gives at least limited hope that next season broadcasters will acknowledge their role in supporting gender equality and air all women’s matches in 2020.
Then we can move on to advertising.
*Interviews with Estefania Banini, Laurina Oliveros and Francisco Trampe were conducted in Spanish and translated to English.
Follow Megan on Twitter at @mcmbegs