Novelty, Thy Name is Woman: What Karl Marx would say about Women’s Football

In celebration of Euro 2017, Jon Mackenzie looks at what Karl Marx might have said about women’s football…

‘Social 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. Lying beneath the ill-advised wording in which women are referred to as ‘the fair sex’ (not to mention the even more disastrous decision to single out ‘the ugly ones’), there is a kernel of truth which cannot be ignored. And that is this: if you want to know how socially progressive a society is, don’t simply make recourse to the dialogue that that society has about itself. Instead, look at the actual state of affairs within which the various members of that society find themselves.

For an illustration of how this might look in practice, we could turn to the paradigmatic example that offers itself to us in the unlikely guise of world football. Since the 1970s, women’s football has become increasingly professionalised (although the English FA has been positively counteractive in this regard) to the point that, in the wake of the most recent World Cup in 2015, the England Lionesses became household names. Of course, in 2014 FIFA, with its typical self-congratulatory bluster, had 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’ incorporated 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 mainstream media—the comment pieces which appear in the major papers or the advertising hoardings of the television companies—it becomes apparent that what is meant by social progress in world football is far from the utopian finale of the long march of history that much of the media would have you believe it is. In following in the spirit of Marx, then, and delving into the social environments which underlie this contemporary fairy tale of women’s football, a far different outlook emerges.

Take, for example, the financial gap which has opened out 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 (and John Amaechi has comfortably put paid to most of these arguments), a brief perusal at the actual circumstances within which our female footballers find themselves makes it very clear that there remains an inequality between to two forms of the game.

As for player development, things hardly be more differentiated between men’s and women’s football. In this vein, Ceylon Hickman has documented her experiences as she progressed along the developmental trajectory at the highest level of the women’s game. What she found was that any positivity that may exist around the promotion of football amongst young girls swiftly drops off the further through the system that you advance. Where the problems exist is not bringing young women into the game but providing them with a potential career path from youth football into the professional game. Her conclusions are damning: ‘If the FA are serious about investing in the women’s game, they need to invest in structures that work for women across the board. We need frameworks of progression which allow talented female footballers to move into the adult game, rather than the current policy of hanging us out to dry at 16. By contrast, the men’s game is saturated with footballing avenues for young boys into the upper echelons of professional football: development squads, county teams, FA Youth programmes. Yet for the girls, it’s all or nothing.’ Once again, a summary glance at the social position of women in football reveals a gaping chasm between the women’s and men’s game.

Beyond this, as both Sophie Penney and Ceylon Hickman have argued, whilst coverage of women’s football may be on the rise, the content of this coverage belies yet another gender inequality. For instance, Sophie Penney 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.’ In her article, Ceylon Hickman continues with this idea: ‘The way we frame the game linguistically has tangible impacts on how the sport is treated in the wider world… As condescending language is normalised within institutions, it allows the women’s game to be infantilised and seen as a subset of the men’s game… At the moment, the way we talk about the women’s game just reinforces its supposed inferiority, especially when we compare the rhetoric to the men’s: we don’t just play football, we play ‘women’s football’.’ As before, the social position women within our society indicates 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?’ Now to many people, the answer to this question seems obvious enough: the women’s game is just not as good as the men’s. How can you expect, so the logic goes, for fans to make space in their schedule to watch an inferior form of the game? It is only understandable, then, that the market forces in play prioritise the cash cow that is the men’s game over the loss leader that is the women’s. However, in approaching the problem in this way, the implicit assumption is made that any equality for women’s football will be achieved when and only when it shares a comparable status to the men’s game—when women are playing the game to the same level as the men and, as a result, have earned the right to recognition. In what follows, I want to suggest that this sort of equality is, in fact, damaging the game and that women’s football deserves far more.

To begin explaining myself, I want to return briefly to Marx. As we have seen from the quote with which I began this piece, Marx advanced the idea that the unfolding of history is impelled not so much by the discourses we hold about it but by the actual conditions which underpin our lives: the circumstances that Marx labelled the ‘material conditions’ of our existence. To explain the notion of ‘material conditions’, it is helpful to look at the way that Marx understood the way that historical development within societies occurred. If you were to ask Marx the question, ‘how does societal change happen?’, he would answer by saying ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life’. What this means is quite simple: the society that we find ourselves in emerges from out of more fundamental material processes which cause it to be structured in that way. If you want to know why some people within the populace are poor and others are rich, you shouldn’t look at them as individuals. Rather you should look at the material circumstances that led to their situation in the first place: their upbringing, their education, the means that were available to them as they grew up. Accordingly, Das Kapital, Marx’s most famous literary output, takes the form of a genealogy tracing the rise of modern capitalism through the various material conditions underpinning it.

Why this might be interesting for our argument is that it suggests a different explanation for the gender imbalance in world football—an explanation which does not lay the blame at the feet of women’s football itself. Let us approach football as Karl Marx might. We would ask: what are the material conditions which operate behind the scenes of the history of football? Do they explain why, even in the present day, the women’s game is disregarded amongst most football fans? Looking at the history in this manner, it soon becomes clear that the development of women’s football has been occluded as a result of external conditions which led to women being denied a place in the history of modern game. Some of these conditions are general—long-standing ideas about gender roles in society, etc.—whereas others are more specific to football itself. For one of these more specific instances, one has only to look back to 1920 and the Boxing Day fixture where 50,000 people flocked to Goodison Park to watch Dick, Kerr Ladies FC take on St. Helen’s Ladies: an indication that women’s football had achieved the same status as the men’s game. Yet within a year, the FA had banned women from the sport and the idea was reinforced that football was for men and men only.

What this tells us is that it is the material conditions that run beneath the surface of society that influence the general opinion about the way that football should be played. Given that those material conditions have been inevitably shaped by men for as long as football has existed (and well before, we might add), it can hardly be a surprise that the women’s game is still the victim of an undue imbalance. For true equality to exist within football, therefore, women should not simply be seeking to attain a comparable status to the men within the wider history of the game—they should be permitted the capacity to influence the material conditions that fundamentally govern this history in the first place. This idea needs fleshing out more practically.

In his 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 development 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, having been restricted throughout its history by the men’s game, has no such novelty available to it. 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 status which, as we have suggested, cannot be achieved whilst men’s football determines the conditions under which football is established. In light of this fact, women’s football can 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 perceived prototype. 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. Then and only then will women’s football really have achieved equality within the history of the beautiful game.

‘Social progress’, Karl Marx once wrote, ‘can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex.’ He was right. But he also understood that this social progress would only come when the material conditions that underpinned society were adjusted, 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.’