The first British black female footballer
by Anna Kessel
Over a century ago a black British woman by the name of Emma Clarke was earning a living playing football. Her story has only recently been uncovered, despite her relative fame in Victorian Britain. She and her team, the British Ladies, appeared in many newspapers: journalists wrote about Emma as the “fleet-footed dark girl on the right wing”; she was sketched and photographed; and thousands of people flocked to see the team play as they made their debut in Crouch End, 1895.
Why did Emma’s story get forgotten?
Well, in 1921, as women’s football was enjoying unrivalled popularity with 53,000 watching the Dick, Kerr Ladies play at Goodison Park, the Football Association went and banned the game outright. Women were not allowed to play, referee or coach association football on any affiliated grounds.
For 50 years the game deemed “unsuitable for ladies” was in exile. Anyone who wanted to play it did so on parkland, usually uneven ground, littered with rubbish, dog poo and no facilities. It was in this wasteland that some truly remarkable individuals kept women’s football alive in England – from Pat Gregory and the Women’s Football Association to former England manager Hope Powell, rebuilding the game under the FA as we know it today. Proper investment has only come in the last 10 years, meaning that generations of talented women have missed out on the rewards and recognition they so deserved.
Meanwhile Emma’s story – and the stories of so many other women’s sports pioneers – was lost. When I tried to write about the history of women’s sport for my book Eat Sweat Play, I struggled to find the information. We know that women have been playing football from at least the 1860s – the same decade that The FA was founded – and yet their stories and achievements have not been honoured in public memorials or remembered in museums.
Just 1% of all sports statues in Britain celebrate sportswomen, none of those are of sportswomen of colour.
Meanwhile there are just two blue plaques to sportswomen in London’s English Heritage scheme. The stats are appalling. As the adage goes, you can’t be it if you can’t see it. For women of colour wanting to pursue a career in football that lack of visible role models is troubling.
Last week at the Royal Society of Arts, myself and co-curator Michelle Moore put on a special event to celebrate Emma’s life and bring her story to a wider audience. We invited groups of young people to perform their responses to Emma’s story, and the results were powerful. Twelve year-old Jemima Agbepa, from Football Beyond Borders, got up on stage and spoke about her experience of going to watch the England women’s team play Australia and how she felt seeing an all-white starting line-up representing her country.
“There was only one black player and she was wearing an Australian shirt,” she wrote. “I felt absolutely enraged as a young black woman. My country was not representing cultural differences and the multiple ethnicities that make up British society.”
Her words reverberated around the room, with senior decision makers and powerful influencers gathered in the audience.
Incredibly, 123 years on from Emma’s debut, we are still talking about representation. We are still debating how to increase media coverage, pay and attendances for women’s football. And we are only just beginning to accept that there is much we do not know about our own history. If we just start to look, imagine how many more powerful sheros, like Emma, might be found.