Overly long writings about West Ham United FC. This is the kind of thing you might like, if you like this kind of thing.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

West Ham, Women and What We Do In The Shadows

(Longread - allow 10-12 minutes)


I often wonder what is wrong with me.

When I log on to the Internet, I have the entirety of human creative and cultural output at my fingertips, and I could look at all manner of incredible things. The writing of Shakespeare, the paintings of Constable, the "films" of Guy Ritchie. Almost all the touch points of human evolution are within my grasp and yet still I am drawn inexorably, magnetically, towards reading about and watching sport.

So rather than being elevated by the beauty of "The Hay Wain" or a bare knuckle boxing version of Sherlock Holmes, I instead find myself slowly descending into the depths of the human psyche. Because nothing seems to bring out the worst in people like the ability to write something anonymously about sport on the internet - he says, as Irony starts gasping for breath - and nothing seems to bring out worse people than the ability to comment anonymously about women's sport.

First the vote, and now this.

When I first considered writing about the West Ham women's team, it was around this time last year. I spoke to a number of female fans and started researching the history of the game on these shores. And then #MeToo broke, and I decided that the last thing anyone needed was a middle aged white guy weighing in on a topic he didn't remotely understand. 

But since then West Ham have begun to take women's football seriously, indeed one might argue it is the only progressive part of the club at all, and what I have observed is that the conversation on this point among our supporters is rather dominated by middle aged white guys who don't understand the topic. In those far corners of the internet, in the shadows underneath progressive, supportive articles there lie great swathes of people who seem to absolutely detest the idea of women playing football, representing their teams, being pundits on the TV or just playing sport at all. And so here we are, in a world where the current fad is to find short clips of women playing football, find something funny and post it on Twitter with the comment "and they want equal pay!! (emoji, emoji, megabantz)". 

Watching the evident delight with which male fans responded to Toni Duggan and Lucy Bronze (World Cup footballers from Barcelona and Lyon respectively) shanking a couple of shots on Soccer AM was depressing and predictable.

Because, of course, it's impossible to find clips of male footballers doing embarrassing things, even when they're not even wearing flip flops.

Twitter, of course, is both a cesspit and a poor indicator of how normal people act whilst also being a weirdly accurate barometer for society. It is also manna from heaven for those men who like to actively set the cause of women's sports back whilst simultaneously wanting to be able to send those same women unsolicited pictures of their genitals. Beat that Facebook.


To talk properly about women's football, I think we must first understand some very specific things, namely the long and meaningful history of women playing football in this country, and also the role of privilege in our society. The former is important because so much of the criticism of women's football can be understood by learning about the way in which the game was deliberately held back by the FA in this country in 1921, and the latter explains why they were ever able to do that at all. 

The History

As with men's football, the women's game began to slowly take root in Britain in the late 19th century. There are records of English women touring Scotland, a preeminent footballing hotspot of the time. The most noteworthy point about these games was that they had to be abandoned due to men in the crowd rioting due to the "unseemly" nature of women doing something so strange as playing football, when they could have been off bearing children or washing something.

No such restrictions existed around tennis, by the way, as this was actually seen as an allowable form of courting in the Victorian era, and history has told us that if men can get laid at the end of something then they have generally always been supportive. And lo and behold if - after a century of support, finance and growth -  tennis isn't just about the most financially rewarding sport a woman can play nowadays.

The North London Women's Team, 1895: I think they've had more than enough of your shit

While male society still refused to countenance the unfathomable idea of women playing football, this didn't stop pioneering feminists such as Nettie Honeyball, Florence Dixie and Helen Matthews from setting up their own teams and continuing to try and grow women's football. Unsurprisingly, they had to play using pseudonyms but still continued to be dogged by men who refused to allow them to play and several more games were abandoned due to crowd trouble. It's almost as though men didn't want women to get good at something. 

What was particularly ironic about all of this, was that during the 1880's some English clubs hit upon the idea of allowing women to attend matches for free as their presence was thought to curb the unruly behaviour of the men in the crowd. This was so successful, and women came in such huge numbers, that the scheme was discontinued before the turn of the century due to the money being lost in gate receipts. The idea that women have never been interested in football, so often put forward as an excuse for unequal treatment, is bullshit.

Despite the fact that women's games were attracting decent crowds, sometimes larger than the men, it took the First World War to really progress the growth of the sport. With so many men away at the front, women were pressed into service at munitions factories up and down the country, and from there came the idea of those factories having their own teams. These Munitionette teams began to participate in matches across the country, and from around 1916 there were organised competitions in place, and large amounts of sums were raised for charity through the staging of these matches. The most famous of these sides was the strangely named Dick, Kerr Ladies of Preston who famously raised huge amounts of money for injured soldiers and the various hospitals treating them. There is a movie waiting to be made about their adventures.

What was notable about these teams was that their popularity continued after the finish of the war, with the Dick, Kerr Ladies playing to huge crowds both here and in France. This reached a peak when they played St Helen's Ladies at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1920 in front of 53,000 people, while a further 14,000 were locked out. These were amateur footballers and working women who played in their spare time to raise funds, on that occasion for the Unemployed Ex Servicemens Distress Fund, bringing in a sum worth around £650,000 in modern value that day alone.

The following year the Dick, Kerr team would play in front of nearly a million spectators and continue their valuable fundraising. They were filled to the brim with the best players of the era, having taking a Manchester City style approach to recruitment, albeit without the morally dubious Middle Eastern owners. Foremost among them was chain smoking, openly gay inside forward Lily Parr, who was renowned throughout the game for her brilliance, and would still be one of the most famous people in the country today were it not for the overt sexism of the era in which she played.

By now the Football Association had begun to take note. Not only were these women challenging the popularity of men's teams but they were using their fundraising for other causes. The women were now playing matches in support of striking miners in the North, and the FA saw this as an unacceptably political position and the chance they had been waiting for to stop the growth of the women's game.

An FA propaganda card from the 1920's. These people ran the game.

The FA thus launched a successful propaganda campaign against women playing, using cards like those above as well as finding sympathetic doctors to say that the game was unhealthy for women. Nobody knows what a woman should be doing with her body quite like a man, after all.

Their main tactic, however, was to slander the Dick, Kerr Ladies and claim that some of the money raised for charity had gone missing and alleging financial impropriety. Whilst the claims were false, they garnered enough popular support that the FA were able to successfully ban all women from playing on their grounds in late 1921. With no FA members able to host matches, coach women or officiate in their games, the sport effectively died.

The FA would eventually reverse this ban in the 1970's - only under pressure from UEFA - but that fifty year gap is the single most important reason as to why women's football is where it is today, and why so many men feel able to hide in the shadows and continue to mock and deride female players. It is against this backdrop that women's football must be viewed.

And what does this have to do with West Ham? Maybe nothing, and maybe everything.


The Privilege

By banning the game, and forcing women's clubs out of existence, the FA did more than just keep women down - they elevated men. And that is the crux of all of this. In the course of those fifty years, the roots of what we now see were put down. Football was established as a game for boys, with girls quite literally banned from playing. This had an effect in obvious ways, as all of the money from sponsors and supporters was diverted to men, and culturally football was allowed to take its place as a male activity.

While men were allowed to be professional, women were kept at a level below that of even non-league football. There was no funding for girls, but also no infrastructure for them anyway. No access to high class coaching, facilities or medical care. It's easy to scoff at a perceived lack of athleticism until you realise that until very recently female players were having to pay for their own operations and healthcare. This would bankrupt Andy Carroll.

Because of all that, there was no publicity for their endeavours and thus no heroes for young girls to emulate. When I took my daughters to see West Ham women for the first time, it really stuck with me that they told me their favourite player was Rosie Kmita because "she wears her hair like us". It hadn't ever really occurred to me that this might be important because, as a guy, I've never had to look far to find a hero in any field who looked exactly like me.

Rosie Kmita - icons come in all shapes and sizes

Never underestimate the power of heroes - no white boy in this country has ever had to wonder if anyone like him could ever become a footballer. And the problem is that those boys then grow up in the shadows, never understanding the privilege that allowed them the freedom to play football and which they so easily take for granted.

And what was also missing was the cultural framework that exists for men. The wisdom passed down by the generations of fathers and grandfathers didn't exist in the same way for girls because their female relations weren't allowed to play. There were no magazines or comics with female footballers, no highlights of women's games, kit sizes were in "Boys" and if you wanted to offer football as a club to young girls in the last century, you needed to be prepared to travel a very long way to get fixtures.

Essentially every possible barrier was put in place to prevent girls from playing the game. And still men sneer at the standard of women's football, as though it would be any different if the gender roles had been reversed and men had been playing the game professionally for just a decade or so.

But that is the problem with privilege. As Hollywood executive Franklin Leonard said "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression". We are a very long way from equality in football, and yet men have been conditioned to feel that they own football, and that the participation of women somehow requires them to give something up. It is this curious thinking that drives so much of how some men view women and football.


The Rebuttals

So, in reading up about this piece I started looking at what West Ham fans have been saying about our new team. The club, who were shamed into supporting their women's team, went from distinctly amateur to professional in a short space of time. High class players like Gilly Flaherty and Claire Rafferty arrived, the club started to spend some money on the team, and slowly the women started to occupy a slightly less tiny portion of the West Ham world.

This reached a peak when a documentary about the women's team was filmed by the BBC and began broadcasting last month, primarily showcasing the club's decision to allow teenager Jack Sullivan to run the women's team, but also doing a nice job of highlighting the journey of the group. I went to watch it through my fingers and came out liking everyone involved a lot more. What they are trying to achieve, after all, is remarkable.

So, this piece isn't really about West Ham, and certainly not about West Ham fans, a large section of whom are embracing their women's team without descending to misogyny.

And yet most of what I could find online was largely demeaning and unhelpful. This is not unique to West Ham fans, of course, and as a season ticket holder for the women's team I can attest that there is a nicely growing group of fans who watch the side each week. But everywhere you look, online chatter about women's football seems to be dominated by men telling us how poor it is, to the extent that the Guardian now pre-moderate all comments on the topic.  Start a thread on your forum about your clubs youth team and you'll never get anybody popping up to tell you that youth football is a waste of time because it can't compare to the Champions League. Do the same for your women's team and it will happen in a matter of minutes.

I have no doubt that most football fans are behind their women's teams, or at worst ambivalent, but there is a decent number who just seem to be actively opposed to the concept. The comments on this Marina Hyde piece about FIFA's scheduling of the Women's World Cup Final are instructive.

You'll be familiar with the lingo by now, I'm sure:

"Women players aren't as good as men"

Ah yes. The binary choice. Women aren't as good as men and therefore the sport they play is crap. Serena Williams couldn't beat the world's number 600 guy so it renders her achievements obsolete.

The really interesting piece about this argument is that men never apply it to men. So they can parse the fact that Floyd Mayweather couldn't beat Anthony Joshua, or that Usain Bolt couldn't hang with Mo Farah over 10,000 metres, or that Chris Hoy wouldn't last a day on the Tour de France with Geraint Thomas.

In those cases, the nuance is fine and can be processed. It is irrelevant how those men compare because they'll never have to face each other. Fran Kirby, however, isn't as good as Messi and therefore we won't watch her play.

OK then.

"Women need to get there on their own. If the product is good enough they'll get crowds and TV money and sponsorship, Until then - I just feel like it's being forced on me"

Another favourite. The Mobius strip of internet arguments where people say they won't give their money over until something is good, but that thing can't get good until you hand your money over. Wonderful.

The only real way to test this of course is to ban men's football for fifty years, and direct all available resources into the women's game. Then the men can work their way back up and show us how it's done. Assuming that won't happen, then perhaps we could all acknowledge that having suppressed and ignored women's football for generations, then the least we can do now is give it even a sliver of support.

I also have no idea how a sport is supposed to grow without funding and exposure. The British cycling team didn't become the best in the world by working full time and training in the evening. Instead we just accepted that pumping money into a sport can help and we gave them National Lottery funding. And Nicole Cooke, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott seem to evidence that women can become elite when supported by a professional framework.

"Having female pundits is just tokenism"

Off the beaten track perhaps, but this is almost the prime example of where men seem to retreat most quickly to the shadows and fire off abuse from the safety of the darkness. What is clear from reading around this is that a lot of men feel that the job of talking about football belongs to men. And therefore "giving" the role to women involves taking a job that belongs to a man and presenting it to an undeserving woman. And by extension, if we tell ourselves that women get to places in life through tokenism, then we can be comfortable that men are getting there deservedly. And by the way, that is a pretty helpful starting point for any men who feel the need to assess the trajectory of their own careers.

I mean, fancy listening to Eni Aluko and Robbie Savage and somehow deciding that Aluko got her job for reasons other than her ability, and not drawing the same conclusion about Savage. For what it's worth I think pretty much all punditry is tired, cliched drivel and I hardly listen to it. And indeed, I concede that not all women pundits are to my taste, much in the same way as their male brethren.

Can we please stop having inarticulate pundits who only care about their appearance?

But that's just a personal take on what I do and don't want to listen to, and the idea that women simply don't possess the ability to be broadcasters - in an area of stunningly low quality already - sounds a little bit "-ist" to me.  We have heard these arguments before through human history and those presenting them have invariably been found to have been on the wrong side of that history.

Even more remarkable is the fact that fans are still spouting this nonsense in an era when it's really not hard to find incredibly accomplished women like Kelly Cates and Gabby Logan fronting football shows with all the practiced ease of someone like Gary Lineker, except that they didn't get the two year grace period that he got to learn the job while being terrible.

All of this boils down to personal preference, of course, and I accept the difference in role between a presenter and pundit but for all that, let's not make out that every man on screen is great at this. You all remember Gazza as a pundit, right?

"I'm not sexist, I have a daughter"

"If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit" - Rust Cohle, True Detective.

In Rust we trust. This, but about women instead of religion.

"Why is men's football subsidising the women's game?"

It's not. Women subsidised men for fifty years while the Football Association that was supposed to represent them took their half share and gave it entirely to men. We should be thankful they aren't asking for reparations and charging interest.


The Context

And so we come to it at last. The great elephant in the article. The reason this matters.

With every muttered aside at the dinner table, every snide comment on Facebook, every derogatory comment on the train and each "I'm sorry but.....", men chip away at what women are trying to achieve. It doesn't seem like much, of course, because none of the people who say these things have had to work as hard as women just to play the game and be taken seriously while doing it.

I spend my weekends coaching my daughters under 11's team and I love it, truly. It is a life affirming thing for me, even when we have to stop a particularly engrossing discussion on Expected Goals because someone is doing the Floss. And those girls are every bit as talented as their brothers and male classmates, with the only difference being that they have to listen to grown men tell them that the game they play, and the women they look up to, are "shit". And it wasn't lost on me that when I asked Amber Stobbs (formerly of West Ham, and now running Equal Focus Football) to take a session for me, the girls were energised by this in a completely different way, to the extent they queued for her autograph after. Representation matters. Heroes matter.

And this is the bit I don't understand. Even if men do think the women's game is useless, and the standard of goalkeeping is hopeless and the only reason to watch female athletes is because they want to have sex with some of them, I still don't understand the need to constantly denigrate it. I think watching Top Gear is one step removed from introducing yourself at work meetings as The Archbishop of Banterbury but I don't feel the need to go on websites devoted to the show and tell people it is shit. Likewise, deep down I suspect that men who wear shoes with no socks are all probably aliens who have misunderstood how humans dress, but I don't take pictures of them and post it on social media when I see teenagers doing it.

"Yes, just like a regular human - they won't notice a thing"

In researching this article I started to ask various my closest female friends whether they had ever suffered sexual harassment. The answers I received depressed me so much that I just stopped asking and pretended I'd never peeked under that rock. From the woman who had a guy get on the Tube and start masturbating in front of her, to my friend who had to pick up her dog and run 400 yards to her car because a man had followed her for a mile, to the one I can hardly bear to type, of the girl whose sister was followed into a park and stabbed to death. By the end one of my close friends told me I'd be better off just assuming that every woman has suffered this to some degree, unless they explicitly tell you differently, and to stop being so naive. While we bleat about "not all men", I think we might have missed the point that it does rather seem to be "all women".

And maybe that doesn't have anything to do with football or West Ham, but it all exists in the same universe. The world's most famous footballer has been creditably accused of rape and the world's media appears to have developed a sudden and dramatic case of myopia. Marlon King played Championship football after serving a prison sentence for sexual assault. Richard Keys and Andy Gray still have jobs, which is mystifying on several levels. I can't write a word about Ched Evans without unleashing the hounds of hell. Women are still not allowed to attend matches or play the game in certain countries. I'm afraid the fact that Alex Scott covers the odd England game doesn't really mean that feminism has taken over football completely.

We're deep in the shadows now, and a long way from the simple act of posting that you think women's football is a waste of time, or that you can't understand why a woman is commentating on a game. But like it or not, these are all a part of the same dark shadows that women spend their lives literally crossing the road to avoid in a way that men would never consider.

I'm not asking you to care about the West Ham women's team (or whatever team you support) if you can't bring yourself to do so, but I am asking you to acknowledge the reality of what led us to this point. To understand the disparity in how football as a sport has treated men and women, and recognise the debt that has to be repaid. West Ham women deserve our support just as much as anyone who pulls on the claret and blue, and it would be amazing if they could start to attract bigger crowds and garner wider attention. Imagine if we could be leaders for women's football in the same way that we were once were for black players. That didn't weaken the club - it made us stronger. It gave us Clyde Best, Leroy Rosenior, the Charles boys, Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe and now Grady Diangana and gave black West Ham supporters some heroes that looked like them.

We could do the same for the women of West Ham. Let's get out of the shadows.


For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend this wonderful piece by John Simkin at Spartacus Educational or the book "In A League of Their Own" by Gail Newsham. 

I am a long way from being an expert in this topic and am indebted to Emily Pulham, Bianca Westwood, Sue Watson and Amanda Jacks for their help with this article. 

Despite the assistance of those people and resources, any mistakes in this article are entirely mine and I would be happy to address any historical inaccuracies.