Scotland’s road to next month’s Women’s World Cup officially started on October 19, 2017, with victory in Belarus.
But the journey to footballing recognition began much earlier, in 1628, when the first record of women playing the sport in Europe occurred in Carstairs, Lanarkshire.
Over the next 400 years, Scotland’s females – including the fishwives of the 18th Century, the rulebreakers of the Victorian period and the factory workers of the game’s First World War boom – have defied expectations to blaze a trail for the current stars as they step on to the world stage.
Glasgow Caledonian University’s Dr Fiona Skillen, a senior lecturer in history with an expertise in sport, has recently uncovered a wealth of information about women in football and has shared her findings with The Sunday Post.
It all began on August 21, 1628, when John Lindsay, minister at Carstairs, noted in the kirk records: “…having regretted the break of the Sabbath by the insolent behaviour of men and women in footballing, dancing and Barley Breaks…”
Fiona said: “There’s another mention in the Kirk records in 1656, with a minister saying similar, that it wasn’t appropriate.”
Mentions of women’s football were still popping up in church records by the end of the following century.
Rev Dr Alexander Carlisle, for the Parish of Inveresk in East Lothian, wrote: “On Shrove Tuesday there is a standing match at football between the married and unmarried women, at which the former are always victors.”
Fiona continued: “We don’t know how regularly it was happening, just that at times it wasn’t appreciated by the church.
“In terms of more organised matches, the first game with FA rules took place at Easter Road in Edinburgh on May 7, 1881.
“It was billed as England v Scotland but there is no evidence to show there was a selection process. It was branded that way to get people through the gates and about 1,000 attended.”
Scotland won 3-0, but the press reports of the time were more concerned with what the players were wearing.
“The Scotch team wore blue jerseys, white knickerbockers, red stockings, a red belt, high-heeled boots and blue and white cowl,” detailed one report.
“Their English sisters were dressed in blue and white jerseys, blue stockings and belt, high-heeled boots, and red and white cowl.”
Fiona said: “A week later in Glasgow another match took place, but it had a not-so-friendly crowd that stormed the pitch and the game had to be abandoned and the players rescued.
“There’s no mention of women’s football for the next 10 years and then another couple of matches pop up in the 1890s, but it wasn’t particularly well regarded by the population.
“The women were transgressing societal norms as they were supposed to be in the home and were seen as delicate.
“Playing sport was masculine and Victorian understanding of females was they had limited energy and such physicality could damage their organs, especially the reproductive organs.
“The aspiration for women in that period was to marry and have children, and those playing football were seen to be putting that at risk as they may no longer be physically capable of having babies!”
Women continued playing after the turn of the century and the First World War brought a boom in interest.
“Working in the factories led to increased leisure opportunities, one of which was football,” explained Fiona. “It was actively encouraged by the employers. Not only did it help them get fit but it was thought it would keep them out of trouble and stop them unionising or using their breaks to come up with demands.
“They started playing each other in informal leagues through the factories.
“It continued to be popular after the war, but in 1921 the FA passed a ban that essentially said women would not be allowed to play on its affiliated pitches and none of its clubs or refs should have any involvement.
“They said it was not suitable for women.
“It was part of a movement of the time, with men coming back and wanting to return to the status quo.
“Some historians call it ‘the backlash’.
“Women were told to go back to their roles in the home, and to the same leisure pursuits as before the war.
“The SFA didn’t seem to pass any ruling against women, but they did send out reminders to clubs proposing women’s matches that it was not suitable.
“It was 1947 before the SFA stated it didn’t endorse women’s football.”
Because of that, women were forced to play on public pitches or rugby pitches, and it became an almost underground pursuit.
It remained that way until 1971, when UEFA voted to permit women to play football.
Fiona continued: “Thirty-two of the 33 UEFA member nations voted in favour. The only nation that didn’t was Scotland.
“That proved problematic for the likes of Rose Reilly, Elsie Cook and Edna Neillis and the established women’s teams of the time, which were receiving no recognition or support. An international match in Greenock was organised against England, but facilities were so bad the players had to change in the groundsman’s hut.
“For their final training session before the match, Elsie had to flag down a furniture lorry to transport them after their minibus failed to show.
“It was 1974 before the SFA reneged. They were getting a lot of pressure from UEFA, plus the equalities acts were coming in at that period.”
In the years since, the game has continued to grow and now the current crop of players, led from the front by top goalscorer Kim Little, will make history when they kick off their first World Cup match against England in two weeks’ time.
Fiona added: “All of these women throughout the years were unquestionably pioneers. They faced so many obstacles and barriers, but their passion drove them through.
“As the World Cup beckons, we should understand we have a very rich history of women’s football in this country and we should be celebrating it.”