The #HiddenHistory of Women’s Football


I’ve spent the past week in the UK (with a sidebar of Ireland) speaking on a number of issues related to global sport. From the “new” French sports diplomacy to globalizing basketball and more, it’s been phenomenal, and I can’t thank my colleagues enough for providing such wonderful opportunities, provocative questions, and rich dialogues. I’ll post later on some of those earlier points, but here I want to hone in on the utterly fascinating Upfront and Onside conference on international women’s football at the National Football Museum in Manchester.


First off, kudos to Dr. Jean Williams and her entire team for putting together such a great conference. I learned more on the topic in 48-hours than you can possibly imagine, and am struck by many similarities and differences to both the men’s game as well as other global sports like basketball. Here are a few key take-always as I continue to process the vast quantities of information and ideals downloaded:

  • Women’s football offers so many avenues and opportunities for scholarly research, as well as greater media coverage. One of the barriers to better understanding the game’s history, where it’s at, and where it’s going is languages and cultures. It’s critical for scholars and reporters who can work across languages and cultures to do more work on the game, and for funding sources and editors to put the resources into developing such knowledge.

  • Despite geographic borders, there’s many more similarities in the global women’s game than there is on the men’s side. In a multitude of ways, this is truly the global game, from developing the sport’s culture post-ban(s) to pressing for greater respect, resources, and public exposure to looking to others for inspiration and examples of leadership. I came away with the impression that the women's game is much more heavily networked globally than the men's. And that resonates to developments today and the game's future tomorrow. 

  • Many countries in Europe, as well as Brazil, banned women’s football for a chunk of the 20th century, while others contemplated bans OR heavily stigmatized the sport as 'defeminizing' women and bad for their reproductive health. This is just…mind blowing, that so many policy- and opinion-forming publics held similar attitudes. Horrible and horribly fascinating. And, as I brought up with several colleagues at the conference, perhaps there's something more than just coincidence to it; that such a wide variety of cultures in which women’s place in society and work were inherently different still banned the sport under the guise that it was bad for women’s health and reproductive organs. Based on my previous work on the history of the body and medicine, this raises the question: to what extent did the internationalization of medicalization of football and women’s bodies in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s play into these bans? More work on the intersections of medicine, globalization and international sharing of knowledge networks, and women’s football are needed. But this is a tantalizing question.

  • To what extent did these bans or discussions about banning the sport sow deeply seated attitudes towards women’s football that generations had to fight, often only doing so when winning—and at the expense of the men’s team?

I’ll post more in the next week highlighting my presentation on the changes in French women’s football since 2011 and heading into hosting the U20 World Cup this August and next year’s #WWC2019. So, stay tuned!

Here's the link to conference presenters and papers.