Thursday, September 17, 2009

Las Fútbolistas (Great Grandma on the Left Wing)

"Las Fútbolistas" Ángel Zárraga (Mexico, 1886-1946)

A friend recommended this painting to me - amazing, given the year it was painted and the commonly held view that women's football is a recent phenomenon spearheaded by post Title IX generations of American women. By chance, I happen to be just finishing Barbara Jacobs's incredible portrait of perhaps the most successful and famous side in English women's football, The Dick, Kerr's Ladies (see also this recent Guardian story). Jacobs charts the development of this team during and after World War I - Lancashire women working in factories (while men were on the front) formed recreational teams, and then played charity matches to raise funds for returning soldiers. These matches drew impressive crowds by any standard - 10,000, 15,000, 35,000, 53,000, 65,000. People with almost nothing to spend on themselves paid for tickets - and all the money raised (beyond expenses for the players) was turned over to local charities. (Interesting detail: the women's games from these years produced what is arguably the first night match in a Boxing Day derby.)

As these women became national - and even international celebrities - and as women's football developed rapidly into a form of popular entertainment - the establishment decided that it was too dangerous. It was deemed inappropriate for women by the FA in 1921. Jacobs points out that this ban was likely issued as much for reasons of class as gender - these teams forward images of working class women doing something other than laboring as servants and in factories, and breeding more workers to do the same. It also foregrounded the very different gender dynamics within the laboring communities of the northwest of England. Matches raised huge sums to support returning soldiers - wounded, traumatized, and re-entering a very changed labor market (changed, in no small part, by the war itself and by the women's work in the factories). Men in the northwest actively supported the women's game - the success of the women's game, in other words, not only challenged ideas about femininity, it challenged the social organization of relationships between men and women (thus not only were women banned from FA grounds, men were banned from refereeing women's matches).

Jacobs also points out that the FA must have been getting nervous - all of the profits raised by these matches went back to the communities which hosted them. In fact, were it not for the women, the FA could not have taken any credit for charity works during these years. But as thousands of people spent their hard earned dollars to see the women play, and to support their neighbors - it was inevitable that they would begin to ask: "Where does all the money raised by the men's games go?" Indeed!

I am inclined to think that this - the anti-capitalist, labor-oriented ethos of women's football and its fans - must have been the bigger challenge to the (fragile, shifting) social structures of the day. (Jacobs is very good at breaking down the complex class dynamics of sport and leisure in the UK.) The success of the league, and the FA's hysterical reaction proves a point made by a range of radical feminist thinkers - a truly feminist environment seeks to destroy mythologies of gender difference. In doing so, it tackles the very architecture of capitalism. And that's the bit that really freaks people out.

[I am researching the story behind this painting - there is a probably link between it & The Dick, Kerr Ladies - Zárraga was in France when he painted this and other gorgeous sports tableaux. It may have emerged from his contact with French women's teams - one of the great stories of the Dick, Kerr's Ladies were their matches against a French team both in England and in France. Seems very likely there is only one or two degrees separation between the painter and the Lancashire lasses.]


  1. Hi,

    These "Futbolistas" are wonderful !

    I blog about rugby history and - fine coincidence... - we both posted a story about Zarraga the same week...

    The painting is too small for me to (try to) help you identify the team... assuming it's a French one (I've Zarraga's bio and I don't think he ever travelled to UK)

    You could be interested by these two French newspaper prints - both from the 20s - showing women soccer and rugby

    I also once posted this video footage of women rugby in the 20s

  2. Interesting post. And interesting, too, how the attitudes towards women's football harden as you head south globally. The Scandinavians are great, generally, Mitteleuropa gets conflicted, by the time you get to Spain and Portugal...not so much. Practically no Middle Eastern women's sides of note until you get to subSaharan Africa, where at least the women get a place on the pitch...

    Same-same in the Western Hemi, where the U.S. and Canada are the only places where the women get real respect for playing; the Latin countries are impossible and in South America there's basically Brazil and a bunch of places where the men barely let the women past the touchline.

    Here in the US we don't really understand the politics and the class-structure part of the game. but my reading is that the toffs that have ruled the FA and FIFA have never been all that much about the laboring origins of the game and most of the players. There's so much money in the game now it's hard to remember, but I can still recall from the 60s and 70s the upper-class sense that there was something wrong that the son of a millhand or daughter of a farmer could make good money playing sport and expect to both keep the money and their pride. The expectation was that the club directors, owners and boards - all good, solid "leading" citizens would be in charge and the humble players would shut up and play...

    Not really all that different today at least for some, as you noted in your comments about the Williams outburst.

  3. I love great-grandmas. I also wish I could hit a like button for other commenter's comments (like Diane). I have no idea what you're talking about on this post, but I think it's cool anyway.

  4. Frederic,

    Merci! I'll check out your blog - thank you for the link.

    FDChief, thanks for your comment - here's my thoughts:

    If the movement northward mean that women's football were more supported Germany would be less strong than its Scandinavian neighbors.

    The support or lack of support for women's football is in many instances directly tied to some combination of 1) what countries followed the English FA's model and banned the sport (the US did not, for example - instead it quashed women's baseball!); 2) the visibility and character of the women's movement in that country; 3) (related to 2) the situation of women in those countries and also men (it's hard to play recreational sports when you are hungry, working all the time, don't have to access to space, etc.)

    If there is a North-to-South thing, perhaps it expressed more in terms of 'the Global South' - zones of super-exploitation?

    That said - Women are playing in Brazil, in increasing numbers and with increasing visibility (you'll find links to sites for women's football in Latin America in my blogroll). We don't know nearly enough about the scene there - international journalism on women's football is nonexistent. But if it were that terrible, Marta wouldn't by playing off season for Santos!

  5. Thanks, Jennifer, for this fusion of the arts, feminism and economic justice. That women's football has cultivated an "anti-capitalist, labor-oriented ethos" makes me wonder why Eduardo Galeano and those sharing his sensibilities have not explored such aspects of the women's game. I suppose there is residual thralldom to football as a marker of male potency.

    I'm not sure if you came across this article from the magazine at Universidad Pedagógica Nacional Francisco Morazán in Honduras, reprinted in 2006 by La Prensa in Nicaragua: "La pintura latinoamericano y el futbol." The author, Javier Ramírez, says that Zárraga includes his first wife, Jeannette Ivanoff, in the "Fútbolistas" canvas. In another work, "Futbolista Rubia" (Blonde Footballer), Zárraga uses Diego Rivera's wife, Angelina Belfo, as model.

    The article also surveys the relationship between European and Latin American visual artists and football and provides numerous examples.

  6. I love that you imagine me reading Hondoran & Nicaraguan journals & newspapers.

    Actually, I just had a chance to scour the databases for information on this painting - I'm very grateful to you and Frederic (whose site is really interesting!) for the information about this work.

    If you haven't read Barbara Jacobs's book, I really recommend it - I think it's one of my favorite works of football literature at this point - in part because it's intercut with song - a book that breaks into pub chants! Really great stuff, by a writer with a deep passion for the subject.

  7. Thank you for your comments on my book. As you rightly suspect, I'm intrigued by the social history and political history aspects of it. And thanks for recommending it!

  8. Having just discovered your site while prowling for post-Brazil info, I am pleased that two of my passions, football and leftist philosophy, have found an enthusiastic patron. However, on the subject of early feminine footballers, I came across the same info in one of my soccer tomes and was profoundly angered at the denial of the game to your gender.
    Now, though of a left bent, I would not characterize my anger as being a product of male empathy for feminism per se. No, what burnt my biscuits was the knowledge that these ladies had the same fever in their blood for this game that I do and were prohibited from expressing it. I know how consuming this love for the game and to contemplate not being able to go out on a pitch and kick and run and suffer and exult would be the cruelest torture for me. That this was done because of sexism and medievalist thinking just gives it a sanitizing name, and cannot adequately portray the injustice done to 50% of the population for decades. That "times have changed" merits an entire dissertation unto itself, but the fact remains that women sport remained subsumed under layers of discrimination even more profound than racism, which eventually was overcome in the male professional sphere because of economics more than any 20th century "enlightenment." Now I'm ranting, which I usually reserve for politics.
    I will opine later on the refereeing in the Brazil game, which will turn conventional post-mortem opinions on their heads.


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