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The Icons, Rebels, Stars, and Trailblazers Who Transformed the Beautiful Game
By Gemma Clarke
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Women’s soccer has come a long way. The first organized games on record — which took place three hundred years ago in the Scottish Highlands — were exhibition matches, where single women played against married women while available men looked on, seeking a potential mate.
Today, champions like Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Brazil’s Marta and China’s Sun Wen, have inspired girls around the world to pick up the beautiful game for love of the sport. Inevitably, given the hardships and discrimination they face, women who play soccer professionally are so much more than elite athletes. They are survivors, campaigners, political advocates, feminists, LGBTQ activists, working moms, staunch opponents of racial discrimination and inspirational role models for many.
Based on original interviews with over 50 current and former players and coaches, this book celebrates these remarkable women and their achievements against all odds.
I didn’t think I could write this book.
Sure, it was my idea. It was the book I wanted to read, so it was certainly the book I wanted to write. But when faced with the prospect of actually writing it, my confidence faltered.
I thought about how when I started out as a sports writer, I didn’t want to write about women’s soccer at all. And although I’d been madly kicking a ball around in my backyard since I could walk, I didn’t want to play women’s soccer either. There was no setup for it in England, no professional league to aspire to join. I was the only girl out of hundreds of boys at the soccer schools I attended. So I grew up thinking there was nothing better than to be considered “one of the boys,” to be allowed into the realm of male culture and sports and, later, bestowed with the privilege of writing about the men’s professional game.
When the first newspaper I wrote for in England began sending me to report on women’s soccer—simply by virtue of being female—I was clueless and reluctant. It meant fewer column inches, less pay, less glory. The beauty of soccer has always been in its stories, those age-old rivalries and intriguing characters, and the narratives of women’s soccer were new to me. To make matters more complicated, I was entirely schooled in the automatic terminology of the men’s game. Was it okay to say things like “having a man sent off” or “keeping a man on the line”? During a phone interview, I once asked a player if the support of the home crowd would be like having a twelfth—long, uncomfortable pause—woman? Nothing quite rolled off the tongue the way the language of men’s sports did.
In the beginning, I made sure to compare female players to their male counterparts, as much for my own frame of reference as for the readers—who surely also needed a male lens through which to process things. I described Karen Carney as the female Wayne Rooney and Kelly Smith as the female David Beckham. It took time for me to understand the chauvinistic crap I was perpetuating as I came to love the women’s game, slowly and steadily, until I didn’t know how I’d lived without it.
Here’s another reason I wasn’t sure I could write this: I was scared because I had a shitty time as a woman reporting on men’s soccer. I know, right? Who’d have thought? Turns out the men who don’t like women’s sports don’t like women in men’s sports either. The obstacles came from outside in the form of e-mails from disgruntled male readers, and they came from within: my questions belittled in team press conferences, my knowledge questioned by other reporters, and those murky, icky incidents of sexual harassment carried out by club executives in quiet boardrooms and by pushy players in deserted hallways. Just the idea of writing about soccer again made me feel a little panicky, like boarding an airplane after a very turbulent flight.
And finally, I was pregnant. How could I possibly write a book through the fog of the final trimester and the delirium of childbirth and into the first sleep-deprived months of infant care? I thought I needed at least three nonpregnant, nonmothering years to do it, in which I would have lengthy coffee dates with each player and tweak each sentence into oblivion. But even having that debate with myself is a function of privilege, of doing a job that affords me some agency, when more than half of US mothers go straight back to work without any paid maternity leave.
Once I started writing, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t alone in questioning my capabilities or worthiness. When Sam Kerr, arguably the best forward in the world right now, walked onstage to accept the Young Australian of the Year Award in 2018, she grinned and said, “I’m pretty nervous. I guess the imposter thing is still . . . a thing.”
Becky Sauerbrunn talks openly about her struggle to feel confident, even though she’s the indefatigable captain of the USA, the world’s greatest women’s team. In the men’s game, confidence is seen as something that occasionally dips and wanes but can always be recovered. For female players, self-doubt is perpetual. And evidence bears it out. According to a 2009 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, female world-class athletes have less confidence than their male counterparts and are more likely to feel anxiety and to rely on “external information in establishing performance expectations.”
Women are more harshly judged, and their achievements are belittled. Just look at the coverage of women’s sports: while 40 percent of all athletes are female, women’s sports receive just 2 to 4 percent of media coverage.
Next, let’s consider language. “Sports” seems like a big, inclusive term, but it only really means men’s sports. There is “soccer,” and then there is “women’s soccer.” The Major League and the National Women’s Soccer League. The World Cup and the Women’s World Cup. The addition of “women’s” makes it sound like a niche activity or a knitting circle. It’s no longer the main event but a sideshow, worthy of less coverage. It is, as Abby Wambach succinctly puts it, “bullshit.”
It’s one of the many reasons women are paid less than men. Yet American soccer is a perfect microcosm of the pay gap: here you have a women’s team who outperform the men, who are more popular and more famous, who attract more viewers, and who still don’t get paid as much. It’s not even as though they’re asking for more, just to be paid equally. This is how women’s soccer has become integral to the fight for gender equality.
But it goes further back than that. The origins of women’s soccer are steeped in the suffrage movement and in the fight to be allowed to exist in public spaces without stifling clothing, and to participate in activities outside the home. Women’s soccer transcends sport; from the beginning, it has been essential to the struggle for female selfhood.
Now, who says you can’t write a book while pregnant and/or mothering? Oh, that’s right—a hundred thousand articles and op-eds and advertisements, the messages women are bombarded with every day. You can’t be a mother and a writer, you can’t function with baby brain, you can’t work and be a mother, you can’t not work and be a mother, you can’t be gay and be a mother, and you can’t be female and not be a mother. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t.
But then there’s Joy Fawcett, who nursed her babies in the locker room at halftime. And Emma Hayes, who suffered the loss of one the twins she was carrying in utero while coaching a game and somehow held it together for the remainder of her Chelsea team’s title-winning season. And many other players and coaches for whom motherhood wasn’t part of their journey but who also overcame overwhelming odds to do what they loved.
When the women in this book were told they couldn’t, they didn’t listen. When there was no path, no professional league, no World Cup, they forged ahead and made one. Behind every kick of the ball in women’s soccer is the power of all the women who made it possible.
I could have written about all of them, but I had to narrow it down. The selection process is mine, and there were some tough omissions. Even though the USA is number one and those teams of the 1990s made the global game what it is today, I tried to avoid bending too far to American exceptionalism. I wanted to paint a global picture, to share players’ stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told. This, to me, was about all these players from around the world resting shoulder to shoulder in the same book, from Pahrump, Nevada, to Papua New Guinea.
Organizing it into a cohesive chronology was complicated. Plenty of players don’t fit into one decade. Kristine Lilly, for example, played in four. So I asked her which was her favorite era, and I placed her there. For others, I went with the moment they made their breakthrough or the game they considered their best.
I’ve also tried to be evenhanded in terms of position and include a cross section of goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders, forwards, and coaches. Taken all together, they form a formidable squad.
It took some time to settle on a title. In publishing, ensuring that the word “girl” is in the title means you will likely sell more copies. But I couldn’t demean these players, these women, by calling them “girls” just to fit some patriarchal fantasy. Soccerwomen is an attempt to flip the script. This isn’t a niche sport, and these aren’t just women who play soccer; they are women who define soccer, who use the game as a force for social and political change, who lay their bodies and their lives on the line.
This book is a love letter to soccer in its purest form, played with passion, sometimes at great personal risk, and often without expectation or fanfare. It is a love letter to the players who constantly show us what is possible—if we work hard and show courage, determination, and tenacity.
Writing this book brought me more joy than I felt writing about men’s sports, and I hope that shows. It is imperfect, and it is all the better for that.
It is a testament to this:
If we question the narratives in which we’ve been indoctrinated, if we do what we love in spite of our fears, if we use our bodies the way we get the most from them, if we bring our best qualities to the things we do and the battles we fight, if we feel confident knowing we deserve our place in this world, we can help shape it for the better.
STEPPING OUT OF THE SHADOWS
It began as a means of attracting a husband.
Three hundred years ago, in deep, damp valleys beneath the jagged, snowcapped peaks of Scotland’s Highlands, women took to the fields to play the first organized soccer games on record. But these weren’t sporting contests so much as the basis of an unusual marriage custom. Women from local villages played exhibition matches, the singles versus the marrieds, while available men looked on, sizing up the athletic prowess and skills of the unmarried players and deciding whom to choose as a potential mate.
It wasn’t the most progressive of beginnings, but beyond the partnerships that ensued, beyond the domestic drudgery and the confines of eighteenth-century marriage, a love affair began. Women discovered soccer. They went from playing it for nuptial selection to looking on while men took over, kicking balls around in streets and stadiums across the United Kingdom.
When the men’s national football league was formed in 1885, there was fear that if large groups of predominantly working-class men gathered en masse, wide-scale violence would erupt. Several teams decided to increase female attendance as a means of nullifying the supposed threat and offered women free entry to home games. The scheme was so popular—women showed up every week in the thousands—that ticket sales suffered, and within a few years, it was halted for good.
Soccer and Suffrage
Interest among women remained high, and in 1894, a mysterious young woman using the pseudonym Nettie Honeyball placed an advertisement in the national newspapers, searching for women to join the inaugural British Ladies Football Club (BLFC). Her aim was to show that women could do whatever men could do and also could function better without being forced to wear the strict, stifling Victorian dress of the day.
After the first exhibition matches, several newspapers ridiculed the club. Male reporters decried the women’s play as lacking judgment, speed, and skill. Only an editorial published in the Sporting Man was supportive: “I don’t think the lady footballer is to be snuffed out by a number of leading articles written by old men, out of sympathy both with football as a game and the aspirations of the young new women. If the lady footballer dies, she will die hard.” A later article in the same publication praised the players for keeping a “pretty appearance”: “The ladies, no doubt, knew what colour best suited them, and certain it was that they appeared to the best advantage. One or two of the players wore dainty white gloves, while in several other instances the ladies allowed their hair to hang down their backs.”
The overwhelming disparagement continued as women’s exhibition matches gained ground and spectators showed up in the thousands. Press coverage was predominantly negative and so mocking in tone that soon audiences began to thin out. Within a few years, the first real attempt to popularize women’s soccer was over.
When World War I broke out in 1914, women were encouraged to step into traditionally male roles. They took over the workforce, from clerical work to bus conducting to manufacturing. Factories across the north of England were filled with women working the production lines, making weapons to supply the soldiers overseas. They were fit and strong, having honed their muscles over years of physically demanding domestic work, from beating rugs to manually washing and hand-wringing the laundry.
On their lunch breaks, female factory workers began playing soccer against the men, gambling on the score with cigarettes and chocolate. The women often won. As Alfred Frankland, manager of the Dick, Kerr munitions factory in Lancashire, stood at his office window and gazed down on the games, he sensed an opportunity.
In 1917, Frankland gathered the women together to form a team and organized an exhibition match to raise money for wounded soldiers. The game, between the Dick, Kerr Ladies and a team of women from a nearby munitions factory, took place at Deepdale, a men’s Football Association (FA) stadium, on Christmas Day and attracted over ten thousand spectators.
In the sporting vacuum left behind by the war, during which men’s professional soccer was suspended, women discovered more opportunities to gain ground. The Dick, Kerr Ladies began drawing vast crowds, showing their prowess against local teams until they were well known enough to take on a women’s team representing France.
The Dick, Kerr’s reputation grew with their audience. In 1921, the Ladies played sixty-seven games in front of over nine hundred thousand people in total. But not everyone was impressed. Critics bemoaned their attire, their shorts, and the fact that they kissed their opponents on the cheek before kickoff. Within the FA, the outrage was palpable. Yes, the women were raising vast sums for the war effort, but they were including trade unions as their beneficiaries. They were becoming too powerful, too political, and, worst of all, too popular.
The FA began a concerted campaign to discredit the women’s game. They hired medical experts to make detailed public statements declaring that soccer did terrible things to women’s bodies, that women were not biologically designed to play soccer, that it would inhibit their fertility, and that it was inherently dangerous. The Ladies shrugged off such ridiculous declarations and continued to play. A few months later, in 1921, the FA took their indignation as far as they could and banned all women from playing soccer in front of crowds at any professional stadiums. The ban lasted for fifty years.
The women earned nothing and asked for no compensation save travel expenses; their devotion was purely to the game and their capacity to raise money for charity. The Dick, Kerr Ladies were determined to continue. In 1922, they traveled to Canada by steamship to play a tournament, only to discover on arrival in Quebec that the Canadian Football Association had banned them from playing there, too—most likely after being contacted by the UK Football Association.
The last stop on their tour was the United States, where they were finally allowed to play. But since there were no women’s teams in the United States at that time, the Dick, Kerr Ladies were forced to play against men. From the moment they kicked off their first game in Paterson, New Jersey, the women wowed the crowds. Out of nine games played, the Ladies won three, drew three, and only lost three. Paterson goalkeeper Peter Renzulli recalled, “We were national champions and we had a hell of a job beating them.”
American newspapers raved about the women’s abilities. Even so, once the tournament was over, the women traveled back home to England to a country where they were no longer allowed to play, and they faded into relative obscurity.
The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies may have sparked an early appreciation of women’s soccer in the United States, but it took decades for the game to establish a firm foothold across the country. The sport slowly grew from schools and colleges until, in 1951, the first league was established. In 1972, Title IX legislation was passed into law, requiring mandatory gender equality in education. Women’s soccer benefited. Varsity teams nurtured talent throughout the 1980s, and in 1985, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) played its first match, a 0–1 defeat away to Italy.
The First International Tournament
In 1988, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) held its first women’s soccer tournament (delicately titled the Women’s Invitation Tournament), a test run for any future World Cups, in China. Moya Dodd, who played for Australia in that tournament and is now a leading figure in the soccer world, recalled how exciting it was to take part. There was pressure to “put on a good show,” but the players put everything they had into it. Norway won the tournament in front of a crowd of around thirty thousand spectators, setting the stage for what would come next.
It was a Spartan existence for women’s soccer players in those early years of international competition. Australia—known as the Matildas—trained in parking lots lit by the beams of their car headlights and were often ridiculed on the field. While Dodd had to sew the national team crest onto her own tracksuit, the USWNT played in the men’s team’s old uniforms.
Every minute on the field had to be fought for and earned. But out there in the darkness, the first sparks had been lit.
NETTIE J. HONEYBALL
The young woman in the photograph has pale skin, dark eyes, and a mass of strawberry-blonde curls piled on top of her head. Her hand rests on her hip; her chin is slightly raised. She stares at the camera with a look of defiance, energy, and excitement, although there is, perhaps, a faint trace of trepidation behind her smile.
Her photograph appeared in the Daily Sketch, a British tabloid newspaper, on February 6, 1895, alongside an interview with “Miss Nettie J. Honeyball,” one of the world’s first “feminine footballers.”
When she spoke of her decision to form the first British Ladies Football Club, her words appeared in shocking contrast to the deeply traditional, chauvinistic mores of Victorian-era Britain. She said, “There is nothing farcical about the British Ladies Football Club. I founded the association late last year, with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured. I must confess my convictions on all matters, where the sexes are so widely divided, are all on the side of emancipation, and I look forward to a time when ladies may sit in Parliament and have a voice in the direction of affairs, especially those which concern them the most.”
But to her audience, the most audacious part of the article wasn’t what she was saying but what she was wearing.
In 1895, Victorian Britain was a land of extremes.
Men were seen as superior in every sense—intellectually, physically, emotionally. Women were confined to domesticity, to an entirely separate sphere from their husbands, brothers, and sons, who went out to work. Increasingly, middle-class girls were encouraged to study within the home—music, singing, languages—but their skills were only being honed with a view to making them more marriageable. They were to learn nothing too intellectual, lest they intimidate a potential spouse.
And their clothing was prohibitive, cumbersome, and dangerous to wear. Women were expected to wear crinoline underskirts with steel hoops, cloth skirts that kept their legs covered down to the ankle, and corsets that squeezed their stomachs and chests. Everything, for Victorian women, was a bind. But the combination of domestic confinement and increased study gave middle-class women the impetus to take steps toward emancipation, to begin campaigning for the right to vote and the right to wear “rational dress.”
For Nettie and her cohorts, rational dress was a huge part of forming the British Ladies Football Club. In the picture that had so scandalized Daily Sketch readers, Nettie had been wearing a men’s uniform: a long-sleeved shirt, shorts, long socks, and shin guards. Nobody had seen anything like it before.
As she wrote in a letter to another newspaper, “There is no reason why football should not be played by women, and played well, too, provided they dress rationally and relegate to limbo the straight-jacket attire in which fashion delights to clothe them.”
Yet while women like Nettie were fiercely advocating for great changes, ancient attitudes prevailed. The same year that the British Ladies Football Club formed, a woman named Bridget Cleary was murdered in Ireland, burned alive by her husband and several neighbors who suspected she had been replaced by a witch. The trial gained a great deal of attention in the press, serving as a stark reminder that a woman with a modicum of free will was to be feared and subjugated.
As Nettie was about to learn, the more moves women made to broach equality, the more they met with hatred and hostility.
In the early part of the year, advertisements began appearing in the English newspapers:
The British Ladies Football Club. Ladies’ Football Match, North v. South, will be played on the Maidenhead Football Ground on Easter Monday Afternoon. Kick-Off at 3.30 pm. Admission 6d. Enclosure & Pavilion 1s. extra.
Ladies desirous of joining the above Club should apply to Miss Nellie J. Honeyball, “Ellesmere”, 27, Weston Park, Crouch End, N.
The notices promised an esteemed guest at the match as well: Lady Florence Dixie, a well-known novelist, newspaper columnist, women’s rights advocate, and member of the aristocracy. Dixie and her family were no strangers to newspaper coverage. Her father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had accused Oscar Wilde of an illegal homosexual affair with his son and was fighting slander charges in court. Dixie herself had been so forthright in her advocacy of women’s suffrage that she had received a letter bomb in the mail and had allegedly been attacked and stabbed by two men dressed as women while she was out walking her dog. Dixie had been approached by Nettie to act as a spokesperson for the upcoming game, the first of many for the BLFC, Nettie hoped.
The publicity worked. The match attracted around ten thousand spectators, who poured through the single turnstile at the revised venue of Crouch End in north London before kickoff, bringing to the lush field an atmosphere of curiosity and disdain.
A little before four in the afternoon, the Ladies ran onto the field, divided into the two teams, North versus South London. In James Lee’s comprehensive account, from The Lady Footballers: Struggling to Play in Victorian Britain, the sound that rang out around the ground was a mix of cheers and jeers. Some men fell about, laughing, at seeing the women running in shorts; others yelled out derisive comments. It made the women, who had only been playing for a few weeks, nervous, and the first three goals scored were own goals. Many of the spectators decided they had seen enough and filed out, pouring scorn on the women’s abilities. The most talented player on the field, Miss Gilbert, who powered her North side to a 7–1 victory, was deemed to be a man in disguise and was subjected to shouts of “Tommy!”
Newspaper coverage widely labeled the women’s efforts a “farce” and a “joke” and commonly resorted to attacks on the women’s physical appearance. Their dress was unbecoming, and worse, apparently, for the male journalists reporting on the game, the women were not what the men would describe as “beauties.”
It was only the beginning for Nettie. The hostility of the crowd and the press coverage served to prove her point that society still viewed women as ornamental, incapable of athletic prowess.
With the club up and running, Nettie took her teams on a tour of England in the months that followed. They played at a range of playing fields and stadiums belonging to long-established men’s teams; some of local press coverage was supportive and encouraged the crowds to cheer, while some remained cynical and derogatory.
An article in the Newcastle Daily Journal read, “With the advent of the new woman, it was only natural that she should have a desire to compete in those games which have been looked upon as being exclusively the property of man.”
Meanwhile, an editorial in the Blackburn Times gave the opposing view: “Woman in her place is a charming creature [but] the idea of donning football shirts, knickers, and shin-guards, and trying to ape the man is somewhat disturbing to one’s peace of mind. . . . Let them look to their hop-scotch and skipping-ropes, and leave cricket and football to the boys.”
The latter view began to permeate audiences, and by the end of the tour, crowds had petered out into the hundreds. Mrs. Graham, one of the club’s most talented players, who played both in goal and as an outfield player, refused to give in. She organized a tour of Scotland the following year, during which Mrs. Graham’s XI would take on some of Scotland’s men’s teams. It was a bold idea—one that ended in carnage.
- "An excellent, thoughtful read about a topic that has had scandalously little coverage. Women's soccer needs its own heroes and legends. Gemma Clarke is helping to create them. She put her heart into this book, and it shows."—Simon Kuper, Financial Times columnist and coauthor of Soccernomics
- "By tracing women's soccer from its earliest days to the young women breaking out onto the pitch right now through short biographies of some of the best women to play the sport, Clarke provides a comprehensive re-telling of soccer through the words and experiences of the women themselves. This is a book of heroes, but also a book about athletes, who just want to play the game they love. And it is, of course, about triumph in the face of discrimination and diversity. It doesn't take long into the book to start to question why anyone wouldn't choose to support these athletes, forget actively working against them to keep them off the pitch. And not long after that, you'll find yourself cheering these women on, fist-pumping their achievements, and standing in awe of what they done."—Jessica Luther, award-winning journalist, co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down, and author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct
- "Where we are now with women's soccer is because of all those who've come before. And my goodness what stories they can tell. In this engrossing read, Gemma Clarke not only shares the battle it has taken to get women onto a football pitch, but then goes on to introduce us to players the world over who we must thank for putting the '2019 Soccerwomen' in a better place. These are stories that have at the very heart of them what it really means when we use such phrases as 'fighting against all odds.' If you want to see what that looks like, over and over again, in its many forms, you'll find it in these quite brilliantly written pages."—Rebecca Lowe, NBC Sports Anchor
- "Soccerwomen charts the remarkable route of the world's most determined female footballers and coaches through fine storytelling and honest testimony. This book is rich with historical detail and personal anecdotes that bring to life the characters, their love of the game, and the way the trailblazers overcame challenges to influence the most popular sport on earth. Gemma Clarke writes with passion, precision and context in this important work. It puts into action the sentiment of the final words: 'To anyone who has ever been told they can't do the thing they love: don't listen. Do it anyway.'"—Amy Lawrence, football writer for the Guardian and Observer
- "You could describe Gemma Clarke's Soccerwomen as a who's who of women's soccer. But it is so much more than that. Her charting the birth of women's soccer in the munitions factories of England to the nuances of its development in the US and the fights for equal rights and pay, better conditions and just the right to play, is peppered with the rich stories of some of the game's most well known names--and those less well known but deserving of a place in the spotlight. Rich storytelling brings to life players sporting achievements and their off field battles, including; homelessness, alcohol abuse, injury, concussion, parenthood, the effects of natural disasters and war and sexuality. An inspirational read that will tell any young or aspiring player going through a difficult time that they can make it and they are not alone."—Suzanne Wrack, women's soccer correspondent for The Guardian
- "Long overdue...Younger readers will be outraged to discover how often men have used false claims about women's bodies to deny women the right to play, or to play as equals. There is still a long way to go, particularly in terms of equal pay-but, as Clarke so capably shows, we've come a long way, too."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Apr 16, 2019
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Bold Type Books