International Women’s Day 2023: when were women allowed to play football, cricket and rugby in Britain?

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NationalWorld takes a look at the history of women in Football, Rugby and Cricket

2022 was one of the biggest years for women in sport with the record-breaking attendance at the Euros finals in July highlighting just how much the attitudes have been changing in recent years.

2023 is set to be another stellar year and we have already had one World Cup take place in one sport with another scheduled for this summer in another. England reached the semi-finals of the cricket T20 World Cup in South Africa last month and the Lionesses will hope to build off the back of their Euros and Arnold Clark Cup triumphs as they travel to Australia and New Zealand for the football world cup later this summer.

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England’s Netballers will also participate in a World Cup this summer as they hope to build on last year’s triumphs which saw them win silver at the Commonwealth Games.

However, while there is much to celebrate for International Women’s Day in 2023, it was not so long ago that women were still fighting just for the right to play the sports they are now excelling in.

Here is a round-up of the key dates which led to women participating in some of the biggest sports in Britain…

Football

Just in case you missed it, England’s Lionesses won the Euros Championship competition in 2022. However, less than 60 years ago, women were still fighting for the right to play football let alone participate in (and win) tournaments.

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The first recorded football match was between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ in 1895 but just under 30 years later, the FA banned women from playing on Football League grounds exclaiming “the game of football is suitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

England vs France in first official international match in 1920 England vs France in first official international match in 1920
England vs France in first official international match in 1920 | Getty Images

Fast forward over 40 years to 1969 and a Women’s Football Association was formed with 44 member clubs involved and two years later, the FA Council lifted the ban which had forbidden women playing on grounds of affiliated clubs.

The inaugural Euros competition was instigated in 1984 and the Lionesses reached the final but were ultimately beaten on penalties by the Swedish. Seven years later, the WFA then launched a national league, comprising 24 clubs and in 1994 the FA then took on the administration of the Women’s National League and League Cup competition.

In 2002, the FA announced football had become the top participation sport for girls and women in England - three years ahead of their proposed schedule.

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The Women’s Super League which we have today, was first formed in 2011 and Chelsea have gone on to be the most successful club, winning five WSL titles, including in 2021-22.

Rugby

Similarly to football, there are records of women playing rugby which date back to decades before they were officially permitted to play the sport.

It wasn’t until well after the Second World War, where attitudes towards women shifted exponentially across all formats of life, that women were allowed to participate in rugby. However, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland, was the first school to form a rugby team in 1884 and in the team included a young woman called Emily Valentine who is now recognised as the first official woman to play rugby.

On the other side of the world, in New Zealand in 1891, there is a record of an attempt at a women’s touring team but this was stopped due to social unacceptance and the team forced to disband.

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1962 is, however, the year in which the first ever recorded women’s rugby union team was formed at Edinburgh University and a fully documented women’s club match took place the same year at Toulouse Femina Sports in France.

After this landmark, the first national association for women’s rugby began to develop but it was not until 2019 that every member of the England Women’s Rugby Union team was offered a full-time professional contract. The Red Roses were the first women’s rugby team to become fully professional, and the majority are still not, including Wales and Scotland.

Cricket

Cricket is well known for being a stereotypically very white and very middle-class sport in England, and while this is most definitely the case, women have been playing the sport for just as long as the men and the first ever Cricket World Cup was actually played by women.

Harrod’s vs Woollands ladies cricket match in 1918Harrod’s vs Woollands ladies cricket match in 1918
Harrod’s vs Woollands ladies cricket match in 1918 | Getty Images

In 1973, the then England captain Rachael Heyhoe Flint asked Wolverhampton businessman Jack Hayward about the feasibility of a World Cup and he stumped up £40,000 to help fund costs of teams travelling to England. The experiment was such a success that ICC decided men should also have a World Cup.

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Of course, this is not to say that women haven’t had their challenges competing alongside the men. In 1963, English cricketer Len Hutton said in a charity match against a women’s side that women playing cricket was “absurd, like a man trying to knit” - the women’s team went on to win the match.

Women were also not allowed to become Marylebone Cricket Club members until 1998, despite there being records of women playing cricket ever since 1745. England’s cricketers were also only able to celebrate “the dawning of a fully professional era” in 2014.

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