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  • Published in Sport

Mrs Graham's XI, from Stirling in Scotland, are thought to be the first women's football team in Britain, and sparked riots after they beat England 3-1 in their second match ever in May 1881

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football explores the gendering of football

Julie Burchill describes male football supporters as 'intent on playing out some danse macabre amid the ruins of brute masculinity, determined to take as many as they can down with them.' Not quite how I'd put why I turn up to watch a game and support my team but there's no denying the fact that football remains mainly male. But at the same time as the centrality of hooliganism to fan culture in the 1970s and 1980s beat a grudging retreat, the response of male fans to retreat into the brutish certainties of their masculinity has been on the decline.

Such changes cannot be isolated from a corresponding  and more broader change amongst women. In the mid-1990s researcher and writer Helen Wilkinson called an increasingly assertive era in pushing back the barriers of exclusion a 'genderquake'. She depicted a generation as "women who welcome the breaking down of gender stereotypes and who want the opportunity to develop their masculine as well as their feminine attributes.”

This was perhaps best expressed by Nigella Lawson when she confessed she was 'becoming a man' in terms of her new-found liking for football during England's campaign at Euro 2004.

'I think I am turning into a man. I blame the football. Much of my grocery order was taken up with an appraisal of Ledley King, whom I rate very highly, as does my grocer. What II’ve found out is that being a man is much less high-pressure than being a woman. Now that I;m a man, I have endless conversations in which nothing personal is said, and very relaxing it is. Female exchanges are drainingly personal. Worse, they are based on the free flow of insecurities.'

Author Nick Hornby in his confessional style account of being an Arsenal fan, Fever Pitch, was one of the first men to own up to how his fandom was shaped by his masculinity.

'The first and easiest friends I made at college were football fans; a studious examination of a newspaper back-page during the lunch hour of the first day in a new job usually provokes some kind of response. And yes, I am aware of the downside of this wonderful facility that men have: they become repressed, they fail in their relationships  with women, their conversation is trivial and boorish, they find themselves unable to express their emotional needs.'

One of the lads

In this way football can both include, and exclude. A process of mainly male-bonding and keeping women out.  Anne Coddington's book One of the Lads: Women Who Follow Football remains almost unique in chronicling the experience and culture of women football fans.

The bookshelves, sport pages, TV and radio  studios remain overwhelmingly male. And the same more or less goes too for the fans' magazine When Saturday Comes the new football writing journal The Blizzard, or football culture websites such as the otherwise excellent In Bed with Maradona.

I recently edited a book on sport, London 2012 : How Was it For Us. It wasn't hard to find enough superbly gifted women sportswriters for the book to be almost 50:50 in terms of contributors, not one included on the basis of so-called tokenism but because they had something interesting to say.

Michael Lavalette achieved something similar with the gender mix in his very good edited collection,  Capitalism and Sport. Such a transformation in how we 'read' sport is rooted of course in political ideals and commitment shaped by values of equality and inclusion. This is hardly revolutionary stuff yet the obstacles to psych chug remain obdurate and unyielding. Back in 1997 Anne Coddington located the place of women in football fan culture.

'We have not yet reached a stage where women fans are developing their own footballing counterculture. The result is that women, unlike men, rarely find the same kinds of bonding processes through football that men do so easily.'

Almost two decades on despite the early 90s upsurge in women's support and involvement in football remaining almost as potent today that lack of change remains prevalent.

The feminist writer and thinker Ros Coward in her book Sacred Cows details the processes that were shaping the experience of women at the end of of the twentieth century. She suggests male networking survived but increasingly in the face of a growing self-esteem of women in public life. Men remained obsessively interested both in each other and themselves (sounds like any football-mad men you know?) but outside of the game were being forced to compromise with women who had higher expectations than ever before.

There are men who maintain a hostility to women but they do so now in the knowledge and experience of how powerful a few women have become. This has at least some kind of impact.

Discrimination

Of course discrimination still blocks the progress of many women in football, and even when women do break through they often still have to contend with male attitudes which range from the suspicious to the hostile. This was illustrated recently by the women in Football survey which revealed that 66% of women working in football had experienced sexism, including 10% suffering sexual harassment. This is a situation football's white men simply will never have to endure. Nevertheless, the number of women who occupy positions within and around the game which were previously the near sole preserve of men, is on the increase including FA and club officials, referees, coaching staff, physios and club doctors.

As these women continue to prove their competence and commitment, they are demonstrating something to the men who run football and to those who play and watch it, as well as to other women who aspire to more direct involvement in the game; that women really belong in the sport and that the game will be improved as a sport and as a spectacle for their involvement.

But the deeper change in football culture which is sexist at best, actively misogynist at worst will take a far deeper and more radical transformation than a few changes in the game's workforce gender balance.

Mark Steel gave us an idea of what this might look like after attending the 2012 Olympic Women's Football semi-final at a packed-out Wembley Stadium:

'The fans were so gleeful they'd be evicted from the ground at an England men's match for being too amicable.

But there was something unsettlingly unfamiliar about the game. Because the women appear to have different rules from the men, in that as a free kick is awarded they don't all surround the referee and pull that "Oh, my God I can't believe it, how can that be a foul, I wasn't even in the country at the time", expression, and no one dives on the floor clutching their head claiming the defender has just given them brain surgery without an anaesthetic and therefore must be sent off and executed.

You could no more complain about the lack of skill in women's football than moan it's not worth watching women's athletics or tennis. There were 61,000 fans at this game, yet it's only 18 months since two of the most prominent football TV presenters in the country believed women had no place in the sport whatsoever.'

This is nothing to do with a corporate-led sanitisation of the game which many fans quite rightly resent. Its about inclusion vs exclusion, equality vs inequality. That game at a capacity Wembley and others during that tournament showed the potential, not just in "men's" football but in the women's game. Meanwhile despite the men's Under 21 team, all manner of lower division play-off finals, non league cups and trophies, even corporate football junkets all being played on Wembley's hallowed turf no England women's football team is yet to be permitted by the FA to play there.

Despite whatever advances, some shaped by commercial imperatives, football today is yet to fully understand how to compete in an era in which women should be at least as important as fans, players and customers as men.

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here