Celebrating Women’s Football

Emma Clarke the first black British football pioneer

This week I went to an event held at the RSA to celebrate Black History Month, and in particular to celebrate the life of Emma Clark. Nobody had heard of Emma until she was found, almost by accident, by a historian Stuart Gibbs who was researching women’s football.

He came across mention of her in the Stirling Sentinel in June 1896 which referred to “a coloured lady of Dutch build” in goal. It piqued his interest enough to find out more.

Britain’s first black female footballer, Emma Clarke, was born in Liverpool in 1876. The city synonymous with the slave trade in the UK. A trade that had only recently been abolished, and still within living memory.

The first women’s football match took place in Scotland in 1881 and following that several more women’s matches took place in Liverpool which she must have known about.

Emma did not come from a wealthy background. She was one of 14 children and a confectioner’s apprentice at age 15. Likely, she grew up playing football on the streets. Yet somehow her talent must have shone through. She made her British Ladies team debut in 1895, at a match in Crouch End attended by 11,000 spectators. She also played for the Mrs Graham Xl – pictured with the team below in April of that year.

(Emma Clarke, first known British black women’s footballer, second from the left in the back row in 1895)

Emma was paid approximately a shilling a week plus food and board – apparently a decent sum for the time. The papers wrote about her, calling her ‘fleet footed dark girl on the right wing’.

We can only guess at the attitudes she came up against.

A century later, what’s changed?

As Alice Kessel put it at the event, today we’re still talking about women footballers’ pay. How to raise the profile of the game to get more people watching it. How to get more women playing it. And how to deal with racism on the terraces.

Emma Clarke was tackling all of these issues – 123 years ago.

To put that in a little context, 2018 is the first year that the players in the women’s premier league have played as professionals. And only last year did the first club undertake to pay its men and women players equally – Lewes FC.

Also at the event, among many inspirational people, was the extraordinary Eartha Pond. She’s played football for Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs. She was shortlisted for a global teacher of the year award. She’s raised 100k for Grenfell. She’s a councillor. Clearly an absolute force of nature. And yet, when she was playing at the top her game, her agent asked the FA why she hadn’t been picked to represent her country and was told ‘she didn’t look like an international footballer’.

You need to see it to be it

What’s clear is that one fix that’s critically needed is representation.

The next generation of women need to see role models they can aspire to in football – and not just players, but referees, coaches, pundits and more.

Government, councils, the FA, clubs and schools need to be creating opportunities for girls. And also need a special focus on black and Asian girls who are the least likely group to be involved in sports beyond their teens.

As a business we’re proud that we are working with a leading sporting brand to help tackle this very issue. There is an obvious imperative at play here, with many layers of benefit. Advancing the game will empower and create opportunities for women in football but also build the commercial promise of women’s football for brands. And breathe new life into the beautiful game.

There’s so much more to do. As Eartha Pond put it, we need to be raising the profile of women in sport, asking questions of the powers that be. And also lending a hand to help those who need it to speak up.

How could you get involved?

There are links to some key organisations involved in promoting equality in sport below if you’d like to know more. Or you could join in by supporting the mission to put a blue plaque up for Emma Clark.

The future generation of women footballers that came along to the event representing the charity Football Beyond Borders and School 21 were inspirational. So I’ll leave you with the words of one of their team, 12 year old Jemima.