I recently read an article by the BBC that raised an interesting point. It’s an issue that I had noticed and thought about briefly but had never taken the time to consider my own opinion on. Once I read the article, however, the debate intrigued me more and more, especially as a feminist and on a day when I had been asked the question “what do you want to see for your future?”.
The English FA’s women’s league, “The Women’s Super League” (WSL) has 19 teams in it. Most of them are the women’s teams from Premier League or Championship Clubs and therefore take that name, like Manchester City or Arsenal. Except Manchester’s side is called the Manchester City Women, and the Arsenal team are referred to as “ladies”. That theme continues throughout the league, with 11 teams known as “ladies”, a further five as “women” and another three who have alternative names (the Bees, Belles and Lionesses). Even two of those three, though, are gender specific.
As the BBC article states, there has been recent discussion over which label, women or ladies, is better. I should acknowledge that the term ‘ladies’ is frequently used in the British sporting vernacular and is the more traditional option. The argument for ‘women’ and therefore against ‘ladies’, however, is essentially this; ladies is an antiquated term that is connotative of the fragility that has long been a hallmark of negative gender stereotypes for women. As one footballer, Ashlee Hicks, is quoted in the article as saying, “I prefer women, it’s less dated”.
However, she immediately followed that remark up with the qualifier, “but it’s not massively important”. This is the really interesting part of the whole debate. Whilst, in my opinion, were I asked which name I preferred I would instantly say the far more modern, less patronising ‘women’, I would also add that I don’t understand why the question needed to be asked at all. My view was reflected by a survey I conducted of three of my teams-actual women footballers, from teenagers to adults. The vast majority voted for women as an option, some said they disagreed with the whole debate outright and three voted for “other”. None voted for ladies. Crucially, a large number messaged me saying they thought women was a better option but, again, didn’t see the point of the debate in the first place. The actual results are below.
To me, whichever side of the fence you sit on regarding the choice between two options, there is still a question to be raised about the nature of the debate itself and what it reflects about a wider societal view on female sport. The women playing in the WSL are world class footballers. A lot of them are English internationals; that’s the English Women’s side that came third at the 2015 World Cup making them the female counterparts of the Netherlands, who were at that time still a powerhouse. But there, implicit in that statement, is this debate again. Why did I feel compelled to offer you the context of a men’s competition to validate my point? Why are we discussing what to name a football team instead of its results? Why does anything regarding gender even matter when we talk about football?
The question that needs to be asked, in my opinion, is this; would we be debating the name of a men’s football side? The short answer, aside from the hours of argument we could indulge in, is no. This isn’t just about a name, either, and it isn’t just about women’s football. This issue of fixation on minor issues and any distraction other than the skill and achievements of female athletes, politicians, business people or musicians is beyond prevalent in our society-it’s endemic. We barely even think about it, just like I barely thought about the name debate before the BBC placed it on my newsfeed.
I agree that it’s not a bad thing to talk about whether the names of the teams reflect an outdated gender construct. We need to ask those questions to move forward and my generation is privileged to live in a time of increased gender equality and awareness. However, I also believe that if you view this example as indicative of a wider perspective on women’s achievements, we have some work to do. Step one for improving gender equality in football, and everywhere else too if you will, is changing how we talk about it. What women tennis players wear to Wimbledon, Hillary Clinton’s voice, Alex Morgan’s modelling contracts and whether a team is known as ladies or women needs to be placed into the background. For the people who ask me what I, as a young person, want for my future, that’s my answer. I choose that scenario because it leaves us with a lot more room to talk about how incredible these women are, and in this example, what amazing work they are doing for the beautiful game that we all love, regardless of our gender.
A youth grade footballer and lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).