Novelty, Thy Name is Woman?



ocial progress’, Karl Marx once wrote, ‘can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included)’, a statement which, for all its premonition, suggested that there was still a way to go before anything like equality was achieved within the unfolding of European history. Behind the ill-advised wording in which women are referred to as ‘the fair sex’ and the even more disastrous decision to single out ‘the ugly ones’, Marx emphasised the importance of what he would label ‘material conditions’ to the debates about social progress—what was necessary for social change, for Marx, was not a bourgeois theorising about the world but the actual social realities which underlie these intellectual discussions.

Action, then, is fundamental to social progress rather than mere academic analysis, a fact which caused him to write in the same letter ‘Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval.’

One instance of a ‘feminine upheaval’ that has been challenging the status of the masculine hegemony has appeared in the unlikely guise of world football. In recent decades, women’s football has undergone a transition from being a relatively inauspicious addendum to the men’s form of the game to boasting its own fully-televised international competition in the Women’s World Cup.

Since the 1970s, women’s football has become increasingly professionalised (although the English Premier League has been shamefully tardy in this regard) to the point that, in the wake of the most recent World Cup, the England Lionesses have become household names. In 2014, FIFA, with its typical self-congratulatory bluster, claimed that, ‘The efforts undertaken by FIFA, which can be rightly proud of its achievements, have produced impressive results from a developmental point of view.’ These ‘impressive results’ include the seemingly unlikely inclusion of a ‘women’s mode’ in the most recent Fifa console game from EA Sports. All, it seems, is well in the world of women’s football.

And yet, if you take the time to look beneath the encomia of the bourgeois—the comment pieces which appear in the major papers or the advertising promotion of the television companies—it becomes apparent that what is meant by ‘social progress’ in world football is far from the utopian finale that the media would have you believe it is. To invoke the spirit of Marx, then, by looking into the material conditions which underlie this contemporary fairy tale of women’s football, a far different outlook emerges.

Take, for example, the financial gap between genders in football. As Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism has shown, ‘the US national teams recently provided a stunning, high-profile example of pay failing to correlate to performance. In the World Cup, the women’s team were victorious, winning the whole championship, while the men’s team went out in the first round. But the women’s team won prize money of $2 million, while the men won $8 million just for being eliminated at the first hurdle.’ Whatever argument may be made about the rights or wrongs of this arrangement, the material conditions make it very clear that there remains an inequality between to two forms of the game.

Additional to this, as Sophie Penney has argued in a recent Varsity piece, whilst the coverage of women’s football may be on the rise, the content of this coverage belies yet another gender inequality. She writes: ‘According to research, in sports journalism men tend to be referred to by their surname and women by their first name. Equally, in the names of sports teams alone, men are called men, but women, girls. This treatment presents men as more professional figures, worthy of respect, while the women are belittled and denigrated.’ Once again, material conditions indicate a much disparate picture to the one blithely accepted by the world media.

In her article, Sophie Penney goes on to ask, ‘how has the sports media industry got itself into such a gender-imbalanced mess?’ The answers to this question are obvious enough: women are perceived ‘newcomers’ and treated as such; the market forces in play prioritise the cash cow that is the men’s game over the loss leader that is the women’s; despite the increase in coverage, the women’s game is still woefully under-represented.

However, in approaching the problem in this way, Penney seems to be suggesting that equality will be forged for women’s football when and only when it shares comparable material conditions to the men’s game. In what follows, I want to suggest that equality of material conditions is the bare minimum that women’s football is owed and that, in fact, it deserves far more.

To begin explaining myself, I want to return briefly to Marx. The form of investigation that Marx introduced with his return to material conditions has become more commonly known as ‘historical materialism’. This marrying together of materialism with history indicates the importance of history for the development of material conditions—each generation takes up the conditions which were fashioned by its predecessors and, in its turn, modifies them in its own way.

Accordingly, Das Kapital, Marx’s most famous literary output, takes the form of a genealogy tracing the rise of modern capitalism from the various material conditions underpinning it. To speak, then, of material conditions is to assume a very particular account of history—an account in which progress is the defining feature, as each generation moves its ancestral heritage into an ever-novel future.

In attempting to achieve equality in football simply at the level of material conditions (important as that may be), the concept of novelty is ignored somewhat. In focusing upon material conditions, we are faced with a future in which women’s football is always invited to mirror its more successful counterpart; ironically, this will condemn women’s football to an almost certain material inequality in the long term.

Whilst any talk of equality of material conditions should not be simply discarded at this point, this should only be the base-level of our expectations regarding equality in women’s sport. Women should be paid similarly, should be granted comparable coverage, should garner the same respect as the men. But by being treated as a sub-division of the men’s game, women’s football is being denied the very thing that made men’s football great in the first place: the capacity for novelty itself.

Football has a history. In his magisterial book, Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson shows how fundamental the development of football tactics has been for the rise of the men’s game. Since its earliest beginnings, the game moved from the forward-heavy pyramid into its inversion in the modern formations which favour the lone striker as the front man in a more conservatively positioned team. Through the first century of its existence, then, men’s football underwent its own form of historical materialism in which previous generation’s tactics were slowly modified and a genuine novelty unfolded. As history continues on its forwards march, no doubt this novelty will continue as the tactics of the game are pushed in a different direction.

However, women’s football, arising into prominence as it did when the men’s game was already fairly historically advanced, has no such novelty available to it. The game is perceived in a particular way (as a men’s game), it is to be played in a particular manner (as the men do), it is generally coached in a particular manner (usually by men) and the expectation is that it will never really attain the same significance as the men’s game until it attains a comparable level.

In short, the women’s game has no purchase whatsoever on the novelty that carries the men’s game from strength to strength. The women are always following in a tradition that precedes them upon which they can have no influence until the point that they have attained an equality in material conditions which, as we have suggested, cannot be achieved whilst men’s football determines the conditions under which football is understood.

As such, women’s football will never be truly equivalent to the men’s game until we allow them the possibility of their own history. As long as we force them to mirror the history of the men’s game then they will never be anything other than a derivative form of the game which will never quite match the prototype.

But by allowing women’s football its own history, its own tactics, its own coaches, by presenting it with the possibility to achieve novelty, it will cease to be treated as a means to a higher end but will become an end in itself, watched on its own merits and for its own unique sense of enjoyment. And then and only then will women’s football really have achieved equality within the history of the beautiful game.