t’s about changing attitudes,” says Belinda Scarlett, the curator of women’s football at the National Football Museum. “Sometimes the only way you can do that is by making really big bold statements.” Scarlett is talking about the bold pledge to increase representation of women’s football to 50% of its displays by 2022.
“It’s really pushed the National Football Museum,” she says. “Every time we approach a new project now the question is: ‘How do we make this 50-50?’ That would not have happened a couple of years ago.Even though we’re miles away from it at the moment, we start every conversation with that as a non-negotiable, which is fantastic.”
There is still be a long way to go, but progress has been fast. When the museum moved to Manchester in 2012, Scarlett instigated what she describes as a “a cursory attempt” to honour the women’s game.
“ I don’t think we did a terrible job,” she says. “We tried to integrate women’s football across the galleries. We took the decision not to have a women’s football section, which I think was the right decision. We were really sort of hamstrung by the fact we didn’t have a lot of material about women’s football. There’s only so much we could do in 2012 to really tell that story.
In 2017, the museum was given a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to help purchase a private women’s football collection that had been pieced together by Chris Unger, a US coach who died in 2015. Scarlett was charged with organising the trawl through box after box with two other staff members for an exhibition of the items. With a new CEO, Tim Desmond, who wanted to “tell the story of football at all levels” and a drive to extend the collection, the pledge was set in 2019.
Given there is so little known about the history of women’s football, was there ever a conversation about tipping the balance beyond the 50% mark? “I can understand why that argument could be made,” says Scarlett. “Realistically, because we’re a visitor attraction, we will always have to attract people who are interested in men’s football and that includes women who are interested in men’s football. It’s just about finding the right balance. But there’s a really strong case to say we don’t give men’s football any more space within that gallery, that it has enough space, that we have told those stories a lot and those stories are relatively well known, that we really need to tell hidden stories.”
This matters because “you can’t understand the present unless you look back at the past”, says Scarlett, and she hopes the impact of the pledge is felt by future generations. “Often the barriers that were put up against women in the 1920s are the same now, so when you look back at newspaper reports from the 20s, just prior to the ban on women’s football, they read almost word for word like the stuff that you get on Twitter . Just slightly different in tone but the angry man on Twitter is what you got in the newspapers back in the 1920s.
“It’s important for young people to see those barriers are not new challenges, they’re something we still have to overcome, and that women did push back in the 20s, that they continued to play despite all that negative publicityThat will hopefully give them a bit of fire to carry on and to push back today and say: ‘No that’s not acceptable, it wasn’t acceptable then and it’s not acceptable now.’”
Men’s football is also important at offering a gateway into the history of the women’s game. “People come and they say they want to see the 1966 trophy or want to see Geoff Hurst’s shirt, but what they remember is some object that they didn’t know even existed about the history of the game. That has a long-term impact. It’s not always what you expect. It’s not always the crown jewels of the game.”
One item that had that effect on Scarlett was the first cap of the former England player Liz Deighan. The midfielder made her debut in 1974 and was given the hand-sewn cap by the Women’s FA. With ‘France 1974’ embroidered on the brim, Deighan’s cap is studded with badges she collected from every game she played in or country she travelled to. “It’s that combination of the DIY aspects of women’s football, the role the WFA played, alongside the fact that women in the 70s were travelling the world playing football and representing England, that just makes that object so special to me,” says Scarlett.
As the museum continues to increase the representation of women’s football, there are highlights to look forward to. Next spring it will open a Lily Parr exhibition, the first dedicated space to a female footballer in the museum and based around the statue it unveiled of the 1920s goalscorer in 2019.
“Lily is a lens through which to look at the women’s game in the 20s,” says Scarlett. “It will tell the stories of all the women she played with and against. She is the focal point, but it will also be about the ban and will display the FA minute book that has the details of the ban from 1921.
“This story will be how women responded to it, not just Lily, but how women’s football probably wouldn’t have continued if those groups of women didn’t fight that ban and just play wherever the hell they could find a space to play football.”