Book Review – ‘Unsuitable for Females’: The Rise of the Lionesses and Women’s Football in England by Carrie Dunn
Beth Mead, Leah Williamson, Chloe Kelly – women’s footballers and all household names after an epic summer last year saw the Lionesses reign supreme not only in Europe but in the public’s consciousness. But ask most football fans and they’d struggle to reel off the names of players from a decade ago, two decades ago, let alone going back to the origins of the women’s game over a century ago, whilst names like Billy Wright, Geoff Hurst and Duncan Edwards are as synonymous with the game today as Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish. There is an entire history that has been overlooked for decades in the women’s game, yet academics, writers and researchers are working hard to plug that gap and publishers are starting to get on board. Sarina Wiegman’s team have done much in popularising the game and galvanising interest in women’s football, but theirs is only the latest chapter in a story that has too long been suppressed. Whilst we rightly celebrate this modern generation of women, it is crucial that we fill in the gaps, giving those who laid the foundations for the Lionesses from the nineteenth-century on their rightful place in the story and making them too household names. Carrie Dunn’s ‘Unsuitable For Females’ begins this important task.
The book takes its title from the ignominious 1921 declaration by the FA that would place a ban on the women’s game for fifty years, but Dunn begins the narrative even before that, with Nettie Honeyball and Emma Clarke –pioneers of women’s football, but figures who have both been mythologised in different ways. From these earliest days, Dunn’s book traces a history of the game through some of its leading lights, introducing names like Wendy Owen, Pat Chapman, Linda Curl, Karen Walker, Jody Handley, Anita Asante and many more. Influential coaches in the development of the women’s game, as well as some of the trailblazing teams, are similarly written back into the story, as Dunn plots the domestic and international narrative of the game. And even for those who take an interest in the history of the women’s game will find a wealth of new information in this well-researched book. Indeed, anyone wanting to know more about women’s football in England will not go far wrong in reading this book.
Speaking directly to many of those involved, the book reflects the challenges and obstacles that previous generations faced just to be allowed to play the game, but the pride and joy of those who found not only a love of the game but a sense of belonging and camaraderie within football shines through. And whilst many of those who relive their earlier experiences express little regret at having missed out on playing in the current era, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been for these players had the game not been held back half a century. There is a ringing truth, however, that anyone who has been involved in women’s football across history will attest to: that the players of the past are not inferior to their contemporaries, but rather are equal to those of today in talent, skill and quality and to suggest otherwise is to do them a gross disservice. This is a fact that is emphasised throughout the book by the women themselves: women who were the first to play for England, the first to play overseas and the first to win a historic quadruple. They rightly deserve their place alongside Sarina Wiegman’s pride of Lionesses and it is heartening to see this recognition emerge, albeit much too belatedly.
Whilst this generation of Lionesses have impressively stamped their mark on history and fiercely taken the opportunities that have finally come women’s way, it is humbling to think of those who missed out on such chances by a hundred, fifty or even ten years. We can only imagine what heights players like Lily Parr, Sylvia Gore, Sheila Parker et al would have reached in this era, but let’s not forget their names or their vital contributions in laying the foundations for Leah Williamson’s team to step into the light.
Postscript: Carrie Dunn’s ‘Unsuitable For Women’, it’s probably the most informative and significant contribution to a joined-up history of the women’s game that I’ve read, so was refreshingly eye-opening.
(Publisher: Arena Sport. June 2022. Paperback: 240 pages)
Buy the book here: ‘Unsuitable for Females’