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AS MEN’S grip on the levers of power began began to be loosened by the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave the vote to property-owning women aged over 30, so their dominance of the football pitch was also being challenged.
The Dick Kerr’s Ladies are perhaps the most well-known team of the era, famously playing St Helen’s Ladies in front of a sell-out 58,000 on Christmas Day 1920, but they were by no means alone.
This huge popularity of women’s football was reflected in a series of comic book stories based around female players, one of which, believe it or not, was called Ray of the Rovers.
Ray Lester appeared in a short story in The Football and Sports Library, a regular publication by Amalgamated Press. She moved to Liverpool, readers were told, to work for Rinsford’s Drapers with the specific intention of playing for the company’s women’s football team.
However, while working there she immediately came into confrontation with Mark Rinsford, the nephew of the owner, who was trying to gain control of the company from his dying uncle.
Ultimately Ray took control of the firm after winning a football match and thus defeating Rinsford. Ray might have beaten the evil Mark Rinsford but she lost out in the race to be the first female comic book footballer. That honour went to Nell Harmer who appeared a few months before Ray in the eponymous story Nell O‘ Newcastle, also in The Football and Sports Library. “Don’t Miss a Line of This Topping Story” the comic implored about the tale in which Nell played for the women’s football team at the mill of her uncle, John Hood, where she worked.
As it transpired the mill actually belonged to Nell, but Hood had cheated her out of her inheritance. In the end, thanks in no small part to the team spirit engendered on the football field, Nell and the other women went to work at rival Grey’s Mill leading to the financial downfall of Hood and enabling Nell to reclaim what was rightfully hers.
There were others apart from Ray and Nell. Bess O‘ Blacktown had a plot remarkably similar to Nell’s in which Bessie Booth plays football for the mill team where she works and defeats the corrupt owner by leading her teammates to another mill, where they form a workers’ co-operative and put him out of business.
The most prolific was Meg Foster, who appeared in three separate stories. Meg set up a team independently of the mill where she worked and even got to travel to Australia for a tournament although unfortunately Meg herself, her teammates and a men’s team — the Scardale Corinthians — all got stranded on an island where the natives were cannibals.
Other than Topsy Johnson, the goalkeeper in Nell Harmer’s team, the islanders were the only black people to appear in any of these stories. It’s a damning indictment of Western attitudes at the time.
Just like contemporary stories about male footballers, the stories about Ray, Nell, Bess and Meg used football as a plot device (remember it wouldn’t be until Roy of the Rovers that we’d see a comic that could really be said to be about football) but the sport was still an important enough component for the stories to be considered to be about women footballers.
On the surface they appear to fit neatly into the patriarchal narratives of the day that placed women in unchallenging, romantic stories.
Unlike some of their teammates, the protagonists were all attractive with hourglass figures, soft skin, lovely hair and dainty hands. Furthermore they were all eventually whisked off their feet by a man of a higher social standing. Or were they? Another reading is that these are strong-willed, independent women who chose the men lucky enough to be with them.
Academic Alethea Melling, who has studied the comics, suggests that if you scratch below the surface what you find — abhorrent casual racism aside — is a series of stories that challenge the dominant narrative of the day. The veneer is merely light camouflage helping them to be published.
Here we see working-class — not middle-class — women take centre stage, a rarity at a time, in stories that strongly promote both feminist and socialist ideals. In the aftermath of the first world war, as working-class militancy swept across Europe threatening to undermine or even destroy the old ruling classes, the stories were quite radical.
Union membership had more than tripled in Britain between 1910 and 1919 and the number of days lost to industrial action rose from six million in 1918 to 36 million the following year. Moderate union leaders were ignored as shop stewards took action and everyone from bakers and cotton spinners to miners and transport workers went on strike.
Even 12,000 police marched on Whitehall with their union leader promising: “The day when the government can use the police forces as a tool against any other section of the nation is past.” Ah well, it was a nice thought.
It was against this political backdrop that the issue of improved workers’ rights, co-operatives and the need for unified action to achieve these aims were worked into stories purporting to be about dainty women footballers.
Ray organised a mass faint by the shop floor women at Rinsford’s in protest at the poor quality food they were given; Bessie’s success at running the mill is based on profit sharing and women who betrayed their teammates were ostracised just as non-unionists were at the time.
Could it be that the storylines were similar for a reason? Could it be that they were hammering home the same metaphor of the poorly run factory (corrupt capitalist society) brought to its knees by the direct action of its employees (the working class) united in their common goal through the football team (union)? I’d like to think so, but we’ll probably never know for sure because the authors used pseudonyms and their true identities have been lost to time.
The fact that the main characters were women takes that radicalism and doubles it. While Bessie asks: “Why shouldn’t a girl run a factory as well as a man?” Meg asks an almost identical question: “And why shouldn’t girls play football, anyway? Coom to that, why shouldn’t they play it as well as t’ men?”
By 1934 the status quo had been restored and the film Sing as We Go starring Gracie Fields had the factory in which her character worked saved by the intervention of a middle-class man.
It was a far cry from the radical football stories a decade earlier in which the resolution was achieved directly because of the actions of the working-class female protagonists.
The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, at the time all-but-ubiquitous, was also dealt with as Nell, Ray and Bess all successfully fought off assaults. It’s seems that beyond the socialism the stories held deeper messages specifically aimed at young women.
Not only could they redefine the economic and social roles allocated to them in pre-war society, but they could also ignore the social mores of the time and take control of their bodies, whether to rebuff the unwanted sexual advances of the factory foreman or to play football in spite of those telling them it was unhealthy.
This is an edited extract from Roger Domeneghetti’s book From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media.
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