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Women in football: Smashing the glass ceiling

7th June 2019

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To kick off our Smashing the Glass Ceiling series, we highlight groundbreaking footballers Emma Clarke and Lily Parr. We also hear from members of the Starling Football Club and give an insight into the history of women’s football in anticipation of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019.


Emma Clarke: Britain’s first black female footballer

On 23rd March 1895, a crowd gathered in Crouch End in North London to watch the British Ladies’ Football Club play their first fixture. The club divided its members into the North team and the South team and played in front of 10,000 spectators, according to some reports. It was the first official women’s football match to take place in England.

Among the players was Emma Clarke. Born in Liverpool in 1875, she grew up playing football in the streets of Bootle with her older sister, Jane. In this 1895 snapshot (below), she sits with her fellow players as part of the South team. She is Britain’s first black female footballer.

A black and white photo showing Emma Clarke and the rest of her team.
Emma Clarke (back row, second left), 1895

The South team may have lost 7-1 to the North team that day, but for Emma, as well as the other players, the match was a victory for women’s rights. She later wrote of being a female footballer: “We were here to fight our cause [...] My mind was so taken by the light I dreamed for future versions of me [...] My eyes were in the sky and my feet were deep in soil.”

Emma was a goalkeeper and winger. Between 1895 and 1897, the British Ladies’ Football Club played more than 100 exhibition matches. Unlike earlier football matches of the 1880s in Scotland, the players of the British Ladies’ Football Club no longer had to wear corsets. Yet they continued to be constrained by the expectations of Victorian society and were often ridiculed in the press. Several played under different names. Mary Hutson, the Club’s founder, was known as Nettie Honeyball. Similarly, Scottish footballer Helen Matthews was known as Mrs Graham and only revealed her true name in 1900, ten years after she founded her team Mrs Graham’s XI.

Emma played for Mrs Graham’s XI in 1896. It was from a photograph with the team that her story was uncovered by historian Stuart Gibbs in 2017. Previously, she had been mistaken for goalkeeper Carrie Boustead, a white player. So much is still unknown of Emma, including how long she played and when she died. But what we can be sure of is that she was a genuine pioneer.

Lily Parr: 900 goals, back of the net

Across her 32-year career, Lily Parr became one of the top goal scorers in the history of football. In 1919, she scored 43 goals in her first season. In 1920, she played for England in the first women’s international match and bagged all five goals, leading her team to defeat France. In 1951, she played her last match achieving an 11-1 win over Scotland. In total, it is thought that she notched up more than 900 goals.

Lily started out playing for her local team, St Helens Ladies, near Manchester, when she was 14. In her second match, she impressed the opposing team’s manager so much that he asked her to join his team, Dick Kerr Ladies, in Preston.

A black and white photo showing Lily Parr and the rest of Preston Ladies.
Lily Parr (front row, centre) with Dick Kerr Ladies, 1946

Dick Kerr Ladies, named after the munitions factory where many of the players worked, is considered to be one of the most successful women’s football teams in history. Between 1917 and 1965, they won more than 90% of their 828 games. They were the first women’s team to tour overseas and to wear shorts.

On Boxing Day 1920, Lily played in one of their most notorious matches. More than 50,000 spectators poured into Liverpool’s Goodison Park Stadium to watch what would be one of the last official fixtures of women’s football for the next 50 years. Less than a year later, on 5th December 1921, the Football Association (FA) banned women from playing on FA-affiliated pitches. They deemed football to be “quite unsuitable for females.” It wasn’t until 1969 that the ban was lifted, four years after Lily stopped playing at the age of 45.

Despite the ban, Dick Kerr Ladies continued to play charity matches; the team raised £175,000 across its 48-year-existence. Lily became a role model both on and off the pitch, not only for gender equality in football but also for same-sex relationships. In the mid-1920s, she trained as a nurse, and met her partner Mary while working for Whittingham Hospital in Lancashire.

Lily is the first female footballer to be honoured with a statue, commissioned by Mars and made by Hannah Stewart. “I researched her quite a lot when I was working on her, I think it’s really important to know who you’re sculpting and why,” Hannah says.

Hannah sculpts Lily Parr.
Hannah Stewart sculpting Lily Parr, commissioned by Mars

“She was famous for having a powerful left kick and the pose reflects that. But most importantly, I wanted to capture her focus - she was known for having a gaze of steely determination.” The sculpture is on display inside the National Football Museum in Manchester and was unveiled on 3rd June to mark the eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Football at Starling

Starling Football Club was started by Adnan Ahmed in July 2018. “When I joined Starling, I started asking about bringing people together - men and women - for five-a-side football,” he says. “I thought about playing against other mixed teams in London, but there weren’t any that I could find so I approached other FinTechs to ask if they’d be up for a game.”

A team photo of Starling FC.
Millie Scott (front row, first left) and Adnan Ahmed (front row, second right) with Starling FC, 2018

On 13th September 2018, Starling played its first match, beating CurrencyCloud with a final score of 9-1. Millie Scott, Starling FC’s striker, started playing when she was 10-years-old and went on to play for Bedford Ladies. She now plays for Shanbrook Ladies, in Bedfordshire. What she likes most about playing with Starling is the social aspect of it: “I probably would never have spoken to some people in the bank if it weren’t for the football team,” she says.

It’s also a way of meeting other people in the industry. “As we played more games, the interest grew and other companies plugged in to what we were doing,” says Adnan. He made connections with fellow football enthusiasts in the FinTech space, including the challenger consultancy 11:FS, who were setting up the FinTech Football League.

“Starling was insistent that the league had to be mixed,” he says. “For me, inclusivity is something I value highly. You can’t exclude a group of people just because everyone else does. Football is about bringing people together, regardless of gender, it’s a game that everyone loves.”

Stay tuned for part two of this series when we’ll be highlighting women disruptors in banking, including our CEO and founder Anne Boden.

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