The use of “Orwellian” tactics to curb Women’s Football

  • Market Insight 17 October 2023 17 October 2023
  • UK & Europe

With over 1.9 million fans crowding the stadiums of the 2023 Women’s Football World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the event should have been nothing short of a resounding success for the sport, and women’s sport more generally. The well-deserved celebrations were regrettably halted, and overshadowed, by the Spanish FA President kissing the Spanish player Jenni Hermoso during the ceremony.

However, in a record-breaking year for women’s sporting events (notably a 92,003 attending a US college volleyball match), it would be a shame for the biggest takeaway from this event to be yet another indiscreet act by a man, followed by a probe into sexual assault, rather than a step towards blowing the final whistle on years of discrimination against women playing football.

Female footballers of this generation should be acutely aware of the numerous legal obstacles their doyens had to overcome to enable this spectacle to occur. During World War I, the sport had become hugely popular in England amongst women working in factories and by 1921, there were about 150 women’s football clubs with some events drawing up 45,000 fans (the opener of the World Cup this year attracted around the same crowd).

However later that year, with the country’s men now returned from war, the English FA cracked the whip and banned the women’s game from being played on professional grounds and pitches of clubs affiliated to the FA. Indeed, the game was deemed “unsuitable for a women’s physical frame and should not be encouraged” and alleging that "an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects”. The women’s teams tried to use non-football grounds but the FA managed to prevent them from doing so. 

The FA’s influence extended far beyond British shores as New Zealand, Belgium and Denmark shortly followed suit by implementing the same restrictions and the French Football Federation formally declared that it would not admit women, although it did not formally ban the sport for women. There was also widespread support in Australia for the restrictions although these were never carried out. The British Colonial Administration banned the sport for women in Nigeria in 1950, citing the 1921 ban in England as a precedent. Several other countries around the world also instituted bans for periods throughout the 20th century. 

With such engrained disapproval of women playing the sport, no one can really blame the Aussie star Sam Kerr for pretending to be a boy to be treated the same as her male peers at the start of the century. Sarina Wiegman, the Lionesses’ coach, also started playing as a boy in the Netherlands as mixed teams were not allowed at the time and there were no girls’ teams nearby. 

In his recent judgment in the matter of R v Harry Miller, Mr. Justice Julian Knowles, opined that “We have never lived in an Orwellian society”. Such opinion in light of the treatment of women football players over the last century, suggests a very rose-tinted view of controlling and coercive societal behaviour falling squarely within the definition of “an Orwellian society”.1 It took another 50 years before women could once again muddy their boots on the FA’s turfs,2 and another 19 years before the first England women’s international match was played at Wembley (albeit as a ‘warm up’ before a men’s international kick off). 

Notwithstanding this revival, the obstacles faced by female professionals in the sport across different jurisdictions have not altogether disappeared. Equal pay and equal treatment remain high profile issues in football. In the UK, England’s Lionesses have been embroiled in a public dispute with the FA about a host of issues including bonus structures and the restrictions on players’ commercial activities whilst on international duty, and the Scottish women’s national team has announced their own legal action against the Scottish Football Association. It is anticipated that any legal action taken in the UK to address issues of inequality in pay and conditions will be brought under the Equality Act 2010 which is the main piece of anti-discrimination legislation. Under the Act, both men and women in the same employment performing equal work must receive pay unless the difference can be justified. 

Across the Atlantic, efforts by US football star Megan Rapinoe, and the lawsuit filed by US women against US Soccer in 2019, were not in vain. In December 2022, the US House passed a bill for equal pay in all sports. Whilst the bill will only cover athletes representing national teams, the change is without doubt a huge victory for women involved in US sport.

Unfortunately, the recent debacle with the Spanish Women’s Football team has demonstrated that steps in the right direction in some jurisdictions have not fully stamped out sexism and gender inequality across the board. We do not anticipate that the legal actions and discussions surrounding equal pay, equal treatment and sexual assault will subside anytime soon. 

1 R v Harry Miller and The Chief Constable of Humberside (14 February 2020). 

2 The 1921 resolution was officially rescinded on 19 January 1970.


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