By Tegan Baker
The history of women’s participation in football has always been complicated.
In the early 20th Century, women’s football was so popular in the United Kingdom that when the sport reached a peak in 1920 crowds in excess of 50,000 would regularly attend women’s matches. However in 1921 the FA quickly put in place legislation banning women’s teams from competing in FA regulation stadia.
Likewise, in the early years of English football, women and children paid significantly less for tickets then men. This lead to a large number of women attending men’s matches. Again the FA was so distressed by accounts of many women attending matches alone and barracking from the terraces, that stricter codes were put in place for women’s attendance.
The word fan is gender neutral. Stemming from the Latin term fanaticus meaning ‘devotee of the temple’, emotions are placed at the heart of fandom. No matter what you are a fan of, be it Manchester United, One Direction or Game of Thrones (or perhaps all three), what defines fandom is love, passion and obsession.
Emotions, of course, span across all genders. However, somewhere along the way from ‘devotee of the temple’ to ‘crazy super-fan’, different types of fandom were siphoned off, and heavily gendered.
‘Sport’ as we understand it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Birthed during the 19th Century, the basis of modern sport is rules and regulations, codes and ‘proper ways of doing things’.
The link between sport and masculinity was crystalised during the same time period, when sport was used to craft militaristic forms of masculinity by colonial powers, particularly the United Kingdom. This forging together of sport and men began to tie together men and sports fandom.
Sport, therefore, became intimately linked with ides of biological sex, meaning athletes are sorted in races, teams and competitions based on their genitalia. And it is very difficult for this not to leak into discussions of sports fandom.
There is, however, an important distinction to make between sex and gender. Sex is the plumbing we are born with whilst gender refers to the social baggage associated with our plumbing and therefore governs how we behave.
Due to the connection between sport and sex, regulation has influenced dominant ideas of what a fan should be. Women’s football had periods of wild popularity during the early 20th century however the regulatory actions of the FA in the United Kingdom began to position women’s participation in the game as improper or deviant.
Through this ‘repetition’ across the decades of particular ideas of fandom, sports fandom has become associated with men’s gender identity whilst it has not been associated with women.
The position of women as fans remain no less complicated in contemporary football.
Out of the thirty-two fans who kindly volunteered their time to talk football with me, five were women. Through sharing their experiences Lauren, Emily, Nora, Natalie and Amy helped to shed light on what it means to be a woman who supports football.
The most notable aspect to these interviews was the dominance of the term ‘women’ in conversation. I am also guilty of this in this post, referring to a split in the experiences between men and women through discussing women fans and not just fans. Linking back to the ideas of fandom as heavily gendered, with sports fandom associated with masculinity, women who are football fans appear to disrupt ‘gender’ norms surrounding how women should or shouldn’t behave.
This has implications for the ways in which each of the women who took part in interviews, could express her identity as a football fan. For Emily, this means having to work hard to gain respect as a knowledgeable fan despite being involved in the game since she was a child: “I mean there is always the assumption that even if you are wearing a shirt that you still don’t know that much?”.
Celtic fan Lauren shared how her fan identity had been nurtured by her father however he refused to watch her play, saying he “was of the school girls can’t play football. He came a few times to watch me play but he only lasted a few minutes because he couldn’t bear to see females on the pitch”. As both a player and a successful coach Lauren also battled against her club trying to establish a team for girls: “it was just very negatively viewed, you know. Girls couldn’t play soccer and they didn’t want us involved. And even when I had a lot of success with the teams that I coached, you know, we did very, very well, it was seen as a fluke. I couldn’t possibly have known what I was talking about!”.
Discussing gender and football fandom uncovers complex territory. With sport and sex differences intimately woven together, women’s participation in football as both players and fans is far from simple. In particular, it is when these women transgress the silent, yet powerful gendered expectations which govern their fan performances that gendered ideas become the most apparent.
In what senses, then, is gender an act? As in other ritual social dramas, the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a re-enactment and a re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualised form of their legitimation (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble).
For those interested, these books acted as source material for this post:
Baker, Tegan. 2015: Sports and bodies: A geographical exploration of bodily inscription. Lambert Academic Publishing.
Butler, Judith. 1990: Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.
Dunn, Carrie. 2014: Female football fans. Sage Publishing.
Goldblatt, David. 2006: The ball is round: A global history of soccer. Riverhead Books.
Mangan, John. 2012: ‘Manufactured’ masculinity: Making imperial manliness, morality and militarism. Routledge.
Tegan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Waikato, four months away from completing her PhD. Her research is focused on how long-distance football fans create senses of home in relation to the club they support. Tegan is also interested in the importance of emotion, memory and identity inherent in the practice of being a football fan and the tensions between this and the hyper-commercialised landscape of contemporary football.
Categories: Women's kōrero
Waiheke Islander currently in exile in Wellington. Supporter of Nottingham Forest and England, through thick and thin (there's been plenty of that). As a player is somewhat averse to the offside rule.