The story of women’s football began in Scotland and has a history that stretches back almost as long as the men’s game.
It is a tale punctuated by triumphs and victories, told by women who stand among football’s true trailblazers. It is also a tale of injustice and a fight for recognition and parity which has continued for over a century.
Hibernian Park in Edinburgh was the venue for the first known women’s football match to be played under football association rules. Taking place on the 7th May 1881, less than a decade on from the first ever men’s international match in Glasgow, a team of Scotswomen dismantled England in a 3-0 victory.
Portrait of Lily St Clair, painted by Stuart Gibbs and displayed at the Scottish Football Museum.
A maiden voyage
A report in the Glasgow Herald painted a vivid – if unusual – picture of a Scotland team “smart in blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red belts and high heeled boots”. Hitting the opener and earning her place as the first ever recorded female goalscorer was Scotland’s Lily St Clare.
A rematch was played just a few days later in Glasgow but was abandoned due to crowd trouble. Despite this sudden and unplanned end, the games left no doubt as to the level of interest in women’s football.
The women’s game received a further boost during World War One and, with the men’s game temporarily stopped and players fighting on the front line, attendances at women’s matches were growing steadily.
On 2nd March 1918 an unofficial match at Celtic Park drew an estimated crowd 15,000 fans but when the war ended on November 11 that year, dreams of continued success and an official recognition of the game were increasingly eroded.
The pioneers become outcasts
‘Playtime’ was over. Women were expected to immediately return to their families and jobs. This message was given imprimatur by the Scottish Football Association who, despite commitments from several clubs backing the women’s game, followed the spirit of the restrictions placed on women's football by the English FA and banned members in the 1920s from advocating or even ‘entertaining’ women’s football.
Through this, women continued to play. Teams such as Rutherglen Ladies and Edinburgh Ladies have now become legendary names in an era from which official records are scant. Rutherglen and Edinburgh were crowned ‘Ladies World Champions’ during the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, beating English opposition to claim the title.
In 1948 the SFA enforced its approach to women's football by enacting a ban on women's football teams using the facilities and resources of the SFA member football clubs and engaging the services of licensed officials. However, this did not stop women continuing to play which they did throughout the decades. Information about this is currently limited but more is being uncovered all the time.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, when the undeniable case for equal rights was growing in visibility and volume, that the situation began to change.
The success of unsanctioned competitions, namely the unofficial women’s World Cups in 1970 and 1971, highlighted the interest and potential in the game.
UEFA then held a vote in 1971 to bring unofficial women’s organisations under the banners of their respective national associations. The vote was passed 31 to one in favour. Only one single country, Scotland, voted against.
A phoenix rises
In response to the continuing restrictions, the Scottish Women's Football Association was formed in September 1972. One of the Association's first actions was to play a match against England, organised by the first Secretary, Elsie Cook.
The Scotland women’s team, captained by Margaret McAulay Rae, played their first official international match against England at Ravenscraig Park in Greenock in November 1972.
Under pressure, the SFA finally relented in 1974 and gave token recognition to women’s football in Scotland. In the years that followed trailblazers again re-emerged, providing women with both a role model and blueprint as they pursued their professional ambitions. Among them were two giants of the Scottish women’s game, Rose Reilly and Edna Neillis.
Moving first to France and then to Italy to turn pro’, the Scots became key players for AC Milan. Reilly, who was among the first inductees to the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, would enjoy particular success playing for nine Italian clubs over 20 years, winning eight Scudetti, four Italian Cups, two golden boots and 22 caps for the Italian national team.
Reilly was able to represent the Italians, despite having made 10 appearances for Scotland, after being banned sine die by the SFA alongside two other women – the aforementioned Neillis and Elsie Cook – after calling for fairness and better support from the governing body.
In early 1998, the SFA agreed to the affiliation of the Scottish Women's Football Association and to become involved in the management of aspects of the women's and girls' game. As a result, in September 1998, the Scottish FA took charge of the Women's international side and established ten development centres to cater for female players across the country.
A new era
Finally, in September 1998, the Scottish FA took charge of the Women’s international side and established ten development centres to cater for female players across the country.
Over time the depth of the talent pool increased, new stars emerged and, in 2002, a major milestone was reached with the establishment of the Scottish Women's Premier League – which expanded with the formation of a second division in 2016.
A year later, Scotland women’s team qualified for a major competition for the first time in their history; reaching the 2017 Euro Championships in Holland. An appearance in the women’s World Cup soon followed and today the Scottish women’s team is well established and drawing impressive crowds.
It is fitting that over 140 years on from the first ever women’s football match that Scotland, the cradle of the women’s game, is again a place where female footballers can flourish.