Jean Williams is a Professor of Sport at the University of Woverhampton in the United Kingdom. She knows more than most about women’s sports history and has some thoughtful and controversial ideas around the past, present and future of this pastime. She spoke with Nancy Kapitanoff about the evolution of women’s sports, and how individuals, companies and organizations are moving the ball forward today — leveling the playing field for girls and women to increase participation. 

When Jean Williams was 11 years old, she and her friend Annette were members of a school soccer team in England. “At school, we were able to play with the boys up to age 11,” she recalls. “I was okay at the game, but my friend was really good. When she hit 12 years-old, they said, ‘You can’t play anymore. I could see that she was clearly better than many of the boys, but she wasn’t allowed to play on the school team. There was no girls’ team. That injustice stuck with me.”

Williams, now a professor of sport at the University of Wolverhampton, near Birmingham in England, has written prolifically about women’s sports history, including the book, A Contemporary History of Women’s Sports, Part One: Sporting Women, 1850-1960 (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2014). She knows more than most about the injustices women faced on sports participation throughout history, and continue to experience today. The $30 million prize money for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is 7.5 percent of the men’s 2018 World Cup prize money.

Before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, nutrition bar company Luna Bar stepped forward to support the United States women’s national soccer teams’ (USWNT) fight for equal pay with a cash donation of $31,250 for each of the 23 members. That amount is the difference between the women’s and men’s World Cup roster bonus. After the team’s World Cup victory, Procter & Gamble donated $529,000 to the Players Association, the equivalent of $23,000 for each of the 23 team members, a gesture toward closing the U.S. Soccer Federation’s pay gap between the men’s and women’s teams.

“Commercial sponsors are highlighting how conservative the governing bodies of sport are, and how out of tune they are with the commercial potential of women’s soccer,” says Williams. “When private companies are making up the monetary shortfall, and U.S. Soccer is still discriminating against players who have just won a World Cup, it shows how conservative the governing bodies really are worldwide.”

But Williams does believe the unrestrained, rousing victory by the USWNT (on and off the pitch) has created a positive effect for the future. “Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT players are now cultural icons, and not just sporting icons,” Williams says. They stand for inclusivity, while certain world leaders promote exclusivity.

Discouragement and lack of worldwide funding for women in sports has been reinforced in the past with official prohibitions. In England, women were banned from playing Football Association (FA) matches from 1921-1971. In Brazil, the land of soccer legend Pelé, women were banned from soccer from 1941-1981.

For Williams, these bans are linked to wider aspects of women’s history. “I think women’s sports are linked to reproductive rights; the link between women’s sports and reproductive rights is key for me,” she says. “People are always trying to regulate what women do with their bodies. And they always think they know better than women about what to do with our bodies. It’s this notion that somehow, women have to be protected from themselves, which I think is a strong theme throughout women’s history.”

It was not Williams’ plan to become a professor of sport. She was an English teacher at Gateway College, a sixth form college (similar to a U.S. community college) in Leicester, England, for around ten years. Her master’s degree was in modern literature. “I was a huge fan of American novelist Toni Morrison,” she recalls. “I thought I was going to become a Toni Morrison scholar. But I played football soccer instead. I moved to another university and they said I needed to do a Ph.D., so I chose the literature of football. Because I also played football, my supervisor said, ‘You’re never here, you’re always playing, coaching, or running a league. Why don’t you just write about the history of women’s football?'”

“When he suggested this, I thought, ‘well surely that’s already been done?’ It had not. And from that moment the stories just piled up.”

In addition to writing extensively about historical and contemporary women’s soccer, Williams has also written about the history of various other sports, such as women’s motor racing, Formula 1, Olympic and Paralympic history, and the history of men’s and women’s sports clothing.

Digging into women athletes’ scrapbooks and 19th-century historical periodicals, she found significant, well-documented records of women participating in sports, some dating to the mid-1800s. There were unofficial soccer kickabouts in the 1860s. A ladies match between teams called ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ was covered in the May 9, 1881, Glasgow Herald newspaper. England sent a women’s soccer team to compete in New Zealand in 1914, but the team had to return to England at the outbreak of World War I.

There were also early international sports competitions between the United States and United Kingdom. In 1903, Irish golfer Rhona Adair, who was considered the top woman golfer in the world, crossed the Atlantic to compete with top American women golfers in a series of tournaments at premier venues, that included Merion and Baltusrol. Two years later a group of American woman golfers boarded a steamship bound for England to play in the British Ladies’ Championship and a groundbreaking “America versus England” match. American players included sisters Margaret and Harriot Curtis, who would later establish the Curtis Cup biennial competition that continues to this day; Georgiana Bishop, the 1904 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, and Frances Griscom, the 1900 U.S. Women’s Amateur Champion. Griscom was also a trapshooter, fisherwoman, and the first woman in her hometown to own and drive a car. During World War I, she drove a Red Cross ambulance.

By the 1920s, on both sides of the Atlantic, women’s sports were regularly featured in newspapers, magazines and the latest technology — newsreels. Media coverage for Flapper era athletes appeared often and comprehensively, seemingly more so than women athletes receive today.

“The great message from the 1920s, and part of the huge success of women’s sports that was being reported on as frequently as men’s, was the commercial agenda,” Williams says. “There was a huge postwar boom around manufacturing, and it made sense not to limit your market. It makes sense today, too.”

She also gives credit to sports editors at the Golden Age of Sports. “I think they were different; you’re dealing here with a different type of masculinity than the editors after the Second World War,” she says. “In the 1920s and 1930s, these guys considered themselves cultured and sophisticated, and it was part of their brand of masculinity to appreciate people who were the best at what they did.”

“After World War II there’s a rise in toxic masculinity. They’re the first generation of men who didn’t need to do manual labor. I think there’s an enormous nostalgia — a kind of fake nostalgia — for manual work. The type of editors in Britain after World War II, who are hugely influential, are the likes of Brian Glanville. He’d say, ‘Women’s football is like something out of Dr. Johnson.’ He associated women’s soccer with the words of English author and moralist, Samuel Johnson, who said this about female preachers: ‘A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not well done, but it’s surprising to see it done at all.’ In the 1970s Glanville said that women’s soccer should be played behind closed doors by consenting adults.”

“He didn’t feel the need to appreciate people who were good at what they did,” Williams says. “The tone definitely changed toward women’s sports after the 1950s.”

Williams works to spotlight early women’s sports histories that are not well known today. She wants to complete a full picture of women’s long-held enthusiasm for sports and to counter any false narratives that organized national and international women’s sports competitions only began recently. Title IX, in 1972, is one such example. This Federal civil rights law, prohibited discrimination within any education program in the United States that received Federal government financial assistance. It resulted in U.S. colleges and universities increasing funding for women’s sports programs. It’s a great example, but not where women’s sports history begins.

“I recently presented a motor racing paper at a conference, and people were gobsmacked by how many women racers there were in the early-20th century — and how celebrated they were,” says Williams. “Some people today consider themselves pioneers, but actually, it’s been pioneered three times already. I get frustrated with these narratives that keep emerging.”

Despite the global awareness and appreciation of the Women’s World Cup, and the USWNT in particular, the future of women’s sports development and equity remains unclear. “The problem is not actually women, is it? says Williams. “It’s large societal structures that need changing. Can you dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools?

“The voting systems that protect male power require change, to represent more women in the highest aspects of football administration.”

Sportswomen throughout history have started from a place of less than zero – having had to fight against forces that tried to deny them their right to participate in sports. Men have been handed approval, appreciation, and investment to play sports to their hearts’ content. “Women,” Williams says, “have not been given the resources.”

“There are a lot of feminist fathers, and there are a lot of feminist brothers,” she continues. “Men have always helped women do sport, and there’s been huge companionship around it. I think this interest will find the money, and I think the money is out there. We need to sell and package women’s sport imaginatively. I think that’s what Billie Jean King and Virginia Slims did.” Williams is referring to the 1970 incident when King and eight other female professional tennis players left the United States Lawn Tennis Association, due to the inequality of prize money between male and female players. They instead formed the Virginia Slims Circuit, proving that they could get their own sponsors.

“We don’t love sports because it’s good for us,” Williams concludes. “The British writer, Arthur Hopcraft, wrote a book called The Football Man, where he says that football engages the personality. That’s why we love it. We’ve got to stop trying to sell women’s sports as if it’s like eating five vegetables and fruits a day. We don’t want to do it because it’s good for us. We want to do it because it’s exciting.”