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1 August 2022

The success of women’s football is feminist revolution by stealth

The effect of seeing women footballers win will radically alter equality between girls and boys.

By Alona Ferber

Victory, like revenge, is perhaps a dish best served cold. Fifty-six years after England last won a major footballing trophy – a time when, as May Robson observes, women were still banned from playing competitively – it is the nation’s women who have brought home the win.

Just three years ago, at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the women’s game didn’t take over the nation. Now, women’s football finally seems to matter. The revolution this represents is hard to overstate – and it has taken place virtually by stealth. The thing is that football – that mass worship of the male body and what it can do, that subject of conversation that cements bonds between men and often excludes others – has been infiltrated by women who dared to take up space. They didn’t picket or ask to be included. They worked at it for years, dealt with the humiliation of being on the sidelines of the sport, of being deemed not interesting or important enough, and last night they stormed on to the pitch. 

Women over a certain age around the country are now comparing memories of being denied the opportunity to play, recalling their football-loving granny or great aunt who would have been thrilled to see this win, were she alive today. They are asking: isn’t it crazy that we didn’t get to play football at school? We grew up knowing that football was categorically not for us. We could be interested in it, we might be able to play it with our friends if the stars aligned, but the big leagues, the superstardom, the adoration, were only for men.  

For girls and boys, this win changes everything. The power of seeing the Lionesses triumph, of seeing that triumph celebrated by both men and women, is surely akin to seeing a woman in political office for the first time. As of last night, the beautiful game is for all genders. My five-year-old daughter has told me many times that only the boys in her school play football. But yesterday, cheering the win, she told me she wants to play for England, too. Seeing women footballers win will radically alter the way girls and boys see each other.

Of course, this is not the happy ending of the women’s football Hollywood blockbuster. The sport is still chronically under-funded and under-supported. “This generation of ladies have had to fight and scrap for everything,” Ian Wright said after Sunday’s match. He called on the Premier League to take over the women’s game ahead of the World Cup next year. There are still problems of diversity in women’s football, too. And there is also the fact that “proper” football is still men’s football. Why else would the game played by women need a special label, lest anyone confuse it for the real thing? Why else call them Lionesses – a name edging towards the patronising – rather than Lions?    

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This win cannot alone deliver equality between the sexes. But there is something extra delicious about the victory and its attendant overhaul of gendered stereotypes. In a video of the team jubilant after the match, they dance and sing around their manager, Sarina Wiegman. Their joy is infectious. They exude a sense of freedom. And it’s more than just a thrill. Five weeks after the Supreme Court rolled back women’s rights in the US, here in England a football team, by virtue of years of work under the radar, has extended ours.

[See also: Why I haven’t been watching the women’s Euros]

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