A Woman’s Game by Suzanne Wrack review – taking back the field | Sports and leisure books

Suzanne Wrack argues that for women just playing football is feminist, a form of activism. His book begins as a historical survey, but ends as a manifesto.

Wrack is a women’s football correspondent for the Guardian and Observer. It follows the rise of the game through the suffrage movement and World War I, when the influx of women into the workplace brought them to the football pitches – at its height, the famous Dick, Kerr Ladies FC drew a crowd of 53,000. It is partly this success, and the phenomenal revenue being passed on to charities, Wrack believes, that has drawn the Football Association’s ire. In 1921 he declared football “unsuitable for women” and banned the sport from the grounds of all affiliated clubs. “Fifty Years in the Desert” followed, during which the sport went underground. The ban was not finally lifted until 1971, which still seems far too recent.

Fascinating connections emerge from this story. Wrack draws a distinction between Nettie Honeyball, the self-proclaimed founder of the British Ladies’ Football Club in 1894, who advocated for gender-neutral clothing, and American star Megan Rapinoe, who was named Fifa’s Best Women’s Player of 2019, and described itself as “a walking protest”. (She refused to go to the White House during Donald Trump’s presidency.) Both footballers saw the field as an opportunity to effect social change, and Wrack diligently weaves together social and historical elements to show how the women’s game far exceeds men’s in inclusiveness. and activism. Witness Jake Daniels, who last month became the first male professional footballer in the UK in more than 30 years to come out as gay.

Yet women’s football is in a difficult position compared to men’s, and this unease is at the heart of the sport’s hesitant march towards professionalisation. Wrack also places it at the heart of his book: how far should sport push its independence from the male game and celebrate its differences? And to what extent does he depend on the men’s game to achieve lasting professionalism? Wrack’s own language is entangled in this conundrum: the women’s game is “catching up”, and Wrack says they are not yet “a durable and indispensable arm of [men’s] clubs,” which makes them sound like a member of a more powerful body. Wrack pleads for more independence, but also for women’s teams “from time to time to be grafted onto a men’s game”.

Interestingly, Wrack says women’s football is where she too “found a home”, and this book bears a slight shadow of memory. She alludes to her own exile from sport as a child, the discomfort she felt about her body, which seemed to disinvite her from school football – ideas that could have carried development. But this is a comprehensive and detailed historical study of women’s football at a crucial time in its growth, one that asks deep questions about what the game should do next.

A Woman’s Game: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Women’s Football by Suzanne Wrack is published by Guardian Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.