Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation marks 30 years of progress and stutters

England’s captain, Katy Mclean, leads the celebrations after the defeat of Canada in the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup final. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

In the past 30 years of women playing sport, one single theme has dogged their progress: wombs. More specifically the male sporting establishment’s view on what should or shouldn’t be done with them. Running at great distances, jumping at force, even turning upside down were all, incredibly, labelled a danger to women’s ability to procreate. Antiquated science prevailed for another half a century as campaign after campaign fought for barriers to be overturned and women be allowed to compete in marathon running, football, pole vault, and triplejump.

It was within this climate that a group of female academics came together to found the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation three decades ago. Anita White, Sue Campbell – who would later go on to chair UK Sport – professor Celia Brackenridge and Margaret Talbot were collectively inspired by a growing women’s sport movement in the United States spearheaded by Billie Jean King. Initially known as the Women’s Sports Foundation and quickly dubbed the “Greenpeace of women’s sport”, the WSF was viewed with suspicion by the establishment, according to White: “We were seen as a protest group because we were campaigning for equality. At that time women’s sport wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. It was seen very much as the male preserve. There’s since been a feminist struggle within almost every sport.”

White’s passion for equality came from her experiences as a hockey player. Having captained England to World Cup victory in 1975, she was dismayed to attend the BBC Sport Personality of the Year as one of only four women in the entire auditorium. “I was angry about the lack of recognition on behalf of the team,” White says. “I thought: ‘Gosh, we’ve won the World Cup and no one is really taking any notice at all.’” Were they shortlisted for an award? “You’ve got to be joking,” she says with a laugh.

Nine years later, following a period of politicisation for White and Brackenridge in the United States, the WSF sprang into action. The launch coincided with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, an event Dr Jean Williams, a specialist in women’s sports history, describes as a sea change for women, especially those from Britain. Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread smashed through barriers of gender and race in claiming gold and bronze medals in the javelin and received nationwide acclaim. For Sanderson, who had experienced racial abuse growing up in Wolverhampton, becoming the first black British woman to win Olympic gold granted her heroine status. But it was the inclusion of the women’s marathon that really began the process of chipping away at one of sport’s longest-held scientific myths.

“In the 1950s there was a Swiss doctor, Francis-Marius Messerli, who advised the International Olympic Committee, and there were certain things he considered women could not do medically,” Williams says. “Women’s pole vault [which was first included in the 2000 Olympics] was also still in question because of this idea that if women turned upside down it messed around their internal organs and reduced their ability to have children.” If that sounds antiquated then consider that as recently as 2005 the International Ski Federation was arguing women should not ski jump. “It’s like jumping down from, let’s say, about two metres on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view,” said the FIS president, Gian-Franco Kasper.

Triumphantly disproving the theories about female capability, Joan Benoit of the US went on to win the 1984 marathon in 2hr 24min 52sec – a time that would have earned her the men’s gold in 13 out of the 19 previous Olympic finals – and women’s marathon running began to take off in earnest, with Liz McColgan Britain’s first headline name.

But progress across women’s sport remained unequal. While marathon running flourished, producing female multimillionaires, women’s football remained well behind the curve. Even when the Football Association did bring the sport under its umbrella in 1993, it struggled with how to market it. Williams recalls an early FA poster promoting the women’s game with a photograph of Ian Wright in a blonde wig.

As England Women prepare to play at Wembley for the first time in their history next month, White notes the irony that her own sport regularly played internationals there as long ago as the 1970s. It has taken three decades for women’s football to be afforded the same invitation. “I know, I know,” says White, sadly.

For women such as Sylvia Gore, England’s first official goalscorer, in a 3-2 win away to Scotland, playing at Wembley will remain an unrealised dream. Gore, who was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame last week, says: “We did go to Wembley once, as the first England squad, in 1972. We had a kickaround for the newspapers before going up to Scotland for the match.” The former striker, nicknamed the Denis Law of women’s football after she scored 134 goals in a season, says she is thrilled for this generation of England players. “I’m only sorry it wasn’t in my era. We’re all England players and it would have been great to be able to play there. I envy the girls playing there now, and when I go to watch them in November I’ll be kicking every ball.”

When Gore began playing in the 1950s, women’s football was still banned by the FA – a rule introduced in the 1920s that was lifted only in 1971. She managed to gain acceptance playing with boys at school and even trained with the school team but the ban meant she could not play on matchdays. “The boys wanted me to play … I was very disappointed about the rule.”

Instead Gore spent her career navigating the skeleton structure of women’s football at that time, often playing on muddy or icy pitches with scant changing facilities. She remembers one particularly muddy game for the Manchester Corinthians; the buckets of water they usually washed with hardly made an impression on their sodden kits. “So we threw ourselves in the duck pond!” she says, laughing, “and I had to get two buses home after that. That’s the type of thing we had to put up with. But we just wanted to play football. And now look at where the game’s got to.”

Gore’s England team toured internationally, playing charity matches, and raising more than £250,000. In the 1960s they played at San Siro in Milan, in front of 11,000 but their progress back home remained slow. Does she feel pride at her contribution to the state of the women’s game now? “Oh crumbs yeah,” she says. “When I look at the girls and the setup they have, I go back to the 1970s and we couldn’t even keep our own kit, we had to hand them back in. I would love to be playing right now.” Gore hails the inclusion of women’s football in the FA as an important moment for the sport and now sits on the FA women’s committee. This year she became the first female director at the Liverpool County FA.

While the success of England women’s rugby in winning the World Cup in August generated plenty of headlines, a recent report from the WSFF cites women’s sports coverage at just 7% of sports media. Williams argues it was probably better 30 years ago before the advent of the Premier League in 1992. “Our media diet of sport changed radically, and women’s sport – along with many other sports, including lower league football – all suffered as a result.” In contrast, the launch of Channel 4 in 1982 provided a home for sports outside the mainstream, which included women’s football – then broadcast as a regular highlights package on a Saturday afternoon. White also notes the annual international women’s hockey fixture played at Wembley in front of 60,000 – mainly schoolchildren (“We could hardly hear the whistle for all the screaming”) – and broadcast live on ITV.

“It is an urban myth that women’s sport was covered only during Olympic years, that hasn’t historically been the case,” says Williams who points to 1962, a non-Olympic year, when the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award featured an all-female top three – a result not since repeated – with the swimmer Anita Lonsbrough, the sprinter Dorothy Hyman and the swimmer Linda Ludgrove. If media coverage is a deciding factor in Spoty winners then perhaps it is no coincidence the longest stretch without a female winner in the programme’s 60-year history coincided with the 1992 birth of the Premier League, lasting from McColgan’s 1991 triumph until Paula Radcliffe’s in 2002.

In sports administration we are only just beginning to make up for a lost generation of female administrators. As the IOC forced gender-segregated sports governing bodies to assimilate in order to gain Olympic status, bodies such as the All England Women’s Hockey Association, set up in 1895, were dissolved resulting in a loss of control by women over women’s sport. The pattern was mirrored in football, cycling and athletics. Exceptions such as Dame Mary Glen-Haig, the first British woman to become a member of the IOC, or Dame Tanni Grey‑Thompson, are all too rare. Indeed the coverage this week of the news that Chelsea’s Marina Granovskaia is tipped to take over as CEOand become one of the most powerful women in football all too accurately demonstrates the fascination of a woman at the helm endures.

While 2014 has felt like a breakthrough year for women’s sport – ski jumping has finally been included in the Winter Games programme, while female coaches made headlines as Helena Costa and Shelley Kerr were appointed by men’s football teams and Amélie Mauresmo was hired by Andy Murray– White laments that the dialogue around the subject remains stuck in the 1980s. “You look at the agenda 30 years ago and the agenda now, and there’s not very much difference, really. I got the notes out of the archive recently, the chapter headings are exactly the same. OK, we’ve made progress, but there’s clearly still a long way to go.

“We’ve just celebrated 20 years since the Brighton conference, the first global conference on women’s sport in 1994. The purpose of that conference was to accelerate the process of change because I and others felt we would be dead before we saw anything like equality for women. We were constantly being told by the establishment: ‘Oh, it’s a matter of time, change will come, don’t be so pushy, it will happen.’”

Ruth Holdaway, today’s chief executive of the organisation White cofounded all those years ago, agrees. “We’ve come a long way, but the job isn’t finished.” WSFF relaunched as Women in Sport this week, “with an emphasis strongly on ‘in’. We can’t get more women and girls playing sport without women’s sport being as ubiquitous, well-funded and accepted as the male equivalent. Women’s sport is extraordinary. It has the power to inspire, amaze, move and change every one of us. It deserves to be celebrated.”



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