FEATURE: From the Suffragettes and Dick Kerr’s Ladies to Arsenal superstar Heather O’Reilly inspiring Hitchin Belles – a century of inspirational women footballers

PUBLISHED: 16:40 06 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:54 06 February 2018

Arsenal star Heather O'Reilly and the Hitchin Belles

Arsenal star Heather O'Reilly and the Hitchin Belles

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CometSport is proud to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage – and on February 6, 1918, Britain started the journey towards a fairer, more democratic place to live when the Representation of the People Act was passed.

Arsenal star Heather O'Reilly and the Hitchin BellesArsenal star Heather O'Reilly and the Hitchin Belles

Suffragettes and suffragists across the nation fought for many years to win the vote – and the women who came after them haven’t stopped fighting for change ever since.

Since 1918, women across the UK have channelled the ‘Suffragette Spirit’ to campaign for progress in many fields. Every day they harness their passionate voices to empower communities and create a fairer world – and it is no different in the world of sport.

Women’s football was popular World War One, with the Dick Kerr Ladies were the stars of the age.

They were made up of 11 factory workers from Lancashire and through their skills on the football pitch went on to become celebrities during WW1.

Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst circa 1908. Dr Pankhurst’s great-aunt Christabel Pankhurst came to speak in Letchworth in 1907Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst circa 1908. Dr Pankhurst’s great-aunt Christabel Pankhurst came to speak in Letchworth in 1907

With men being sent to the battlefields back in blighty women not only took on their jobs, they grabbed their places on the field of football.

Their popularity peaked in 1921, drawing crowds of more than 50,000.

But the small-minded minions at the FA, threatened by the rise of the female game shamefully banned this golden era of women’s football by calling on affiliated clubs to refuse the use of their grounds for women’s football.

Shockingly it was only as recently as 1971 the FA lifted the ban on girls playing soccer.

Millicent Fawcett, who founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage, speaks at the Suffragette Pilgrimage in Hyde Park. Picture: PA ImagesMillicent Fawcett, who founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage, speaks at the Suffragette Pilgrimage in Hyde Park. Picture: PA Images

Fast-forward four decades and the sport is growing all the time in our area and across the country.

There are many fine examples including the ever-growing Hitchin Belles – who coincidentally hosted Arsenal and US footballer Heather O’Reilly during their weekly training sessions at the boys’ school on Friday.

The club are thriving, also establishing a strong relationship with Arsenal Women as the North Londoners sister club.

Heather won three Olympic gold medals and a Women’s World Cup spoke to CometSport to praise the bond and the club, while adding she had a wonderful time with the girls from North Herts.

Members of the WSPU on a horse-drawn bus covered with leaflets and posters advertising their cause. The driver is a Miss Douglas.Members of the WSPU on a horse-drawn bus covered with leaflets and posters advertising their cause. The driver is a Miss Douglas.

She said: “The relationships between Arsenal Women and the Hitchin Belles is really special.

“It is important for us as athletes to inspire the next generation of players but also the next generation of girls in general.

“Even if they don’t go on to play professional football, hopefully they see someone like me or one of my teammates and think it is cool to work hard, to have big dreams, to be bold, to be supportive and work together.

“Football has the very unique opportunity to bring people together – people from different countries, communities, religions and background.

A protest meeting by the WSPU outside the Queen's Hall in central London.A protest meeting by the WSPU outside the Queen's Hall in central London.

“But at its base, football brings joy and that is enough reason in itself to be part of it.”

A sentiment the Suffragettes a century ago would no doubt have agreed with – and even if the FA didn’t back then it is now a big supporter of women’s football.

Belles chairperson and popular coach Gemma Smith, who was present when Heather visited has also recently qualified as an FA referee.

Speaking of the Arsenal’s star’s inspirational visit she said: “We were delighted to welcome Arsenal Women’s player Heather O’Reilly to our training session on Friday evening, where more than 150 girls train each week across six different age groups.

A policeman restrains a demonstrator as suffragettes gathered outside Buckingham Palace, where an attempt was made to deliver a petition to the King. Picture: PA/EMPICS Sports Photo Agency.A policeman restrains a demonstrator as suffragettes gathered outside Buckingham Palace, where an attempt was made to deliver a petition to the King. Picture: PA/EMPICS Sports Photo Agency.

“Heather who took time out of her busy schedule, immediately connected with the girls and not only did she answer the girls questions she got stuck in and participated with the sessions.

“To have a female role model who is as inspirational as Heather for our girls and other female footballers is phenomenal and just shows how far girls football has developed.

“It was obvious to see in our players faces what it meant to them and will inspire them to achieve their own footballing goals.”

The pioneering women footballers from Dick Kerr Ladies more than 100 years ago would surely have agreed.

Arsenal Women's star Heather O'Reilly with Hitchin Belles Gemma Smith and a keen youngsterArsenal Women's star Heather O'Reilly with Hitchin Belles Gemma Smith and a keen youngster

Hitchin Belles would like to thank the Arsenal women sister club programme and Tom Hartley for arranging the visit on a ‘truly wonderful evening’.

Edited versions of this article will appear in this week’s Comet newspaper as part of our celebration of 100 years women’s suffrage, as well as the Islington Gazette website.

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