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April 12 2011

Exhibition puts women's football on the map - in pictures

Timed to coincide with the launch of the Women's Super League, Moving the Goalposts exhibition charts the rise and fall of women's football

English women's football aims to score again

An exhibition on the history of women's football and the FA's launch of a Women's Super League should help to bring fans back to the game

View pictures of the exhibition here

Lily Parr, born in 1905, had a prodigious appetite for food and Woodbines. But calorie consumption and chain-smoking didn't prevent her from becoming the most celebrated female footballer of hers or any other age.

Parr was a star. Her appearance in the all-conquering Dick, Kerr "ladies" football team from Preston helped to draw a crowd of over 53,000 to Goodison Park, Liverpool, on Boxing Day in 1920. "Another 5,000 were locked out," says Colin Yates, artist, teacher, football coach and organiser of an exhibition in Manchester called Moving the Goalposts: A History of Women's Football in Britain (1881-2011). Yes, 1881. "When I go into schools and talk about the women's game, the boys are derisive and the girls seem to think it's a fairly recent phenomenon," he adds.

Boys and girls made similar assumptions about black players when he first took football-related anti-racist initiatives into schools. He was able to tell them about Arthur Wharton, whose mother came from Ghanaian royalty, and who was playing in goal for Preston North End around the same time that Parr's fame was spreading beyond the boundaries of that Lancashire town.

Phil Vasili co-wrote a play about Wharton with Irvine Welsh and, having three footballing daughters, he was happy to provide the words to go with the pictures and cartoons at the women's football exhibition. That 1881 game was between Scotland and England in Edinburgh, and both teams wore high-heeled boots, he tells us. "Unfortunately, the next match between the teams, in Glasgow, had to be abandoned because of attempts by some of the young men in the 5,000 crowd to get too close to the women players!"

"There was a salacious side to it," Yates confirms. But by the first world war, the women's game was being more appreciated for its skills than its sex appeal. Women were expected to vacate the football fields as well as the factories when the carnage was over as the FA was becoming increasingly uncomfortable about a popular alternative to the men's game. Spurious arguments were put forward about the dangers of competitive sport to women's health and fertility.

The final straw came in 1921 when women's teams played charity matches to raise money for the families of striking miners. FA-registered clubs were promptly banned from allowing women's football on their grounds.

Ninety years on and the FA this week launched a Women's Super League. On its website, the FA proclaims: "To be successful in England, women's football has to emerge from the shadow of the men's game and establish its own identity."

Lily Parr and her team-mates would have been astonished.

• Moving the Goalposts is at the People's History Museum in Manchester until 15 May. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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