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Photographer Flora Maclean Is Championing Equality In Football
23 Sep 2016 7:31 AM
In the early twentieth century, an insatiable enthusiasm for women’s football swept across the UK. After the outbreak of WW1, women often began engaging in the game to raise money for charities that supported injured soldiers and their families, but the true extent of its success was entirely unforeseen. Crowds came in their droves to see teams play, with some of the most popular games in London and the North of England recording upwards of 50,000 attendants.
This sparkling reception, however, was not echoed in the upper echelons of the English Football Association, and indeed society, and the early prosperity of women’s football was not to last. Why? It was quite unbecoming for a woman, they scoffed, and besides, it was taking away the spotlight from the male game. By the time 1921 rolled around, the Association made a decision to ban women from playing on their grounds, citing in a simple statement that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Are you frustrated yet?
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that a Women’s Football Association was formed, and only in 1993 did the FA recognise it again with an official Women’s Football Committee. As a result, the society we live in has very much grown into one that sees football – and football culture – as a man’s sport, because that’s what we’ve been fed. It’s exactly this misconception that photographer and footballer Flora Maclean is rallying to change.
Maclean plays for the London-based football team Boiler Room Ladies FC. Over the past few years, she has been making portraits that celebrate the culture of women’s grassroots football in her club, the UK and beyond with an ongoing project called ‘Every Player Counts’. A player herself, Maclean’s desire to begin documenting female footballers was born out of her own experiences of the prejudices against the women’s game. The exclusion, she says, begins young.
“When I was a child, football was my reason for living”, Maclean remembers, “I wore my kit to school, I filled up all the sticker books and I had a football table in my room”. Despite playing for as long as she can remember, Maclean became increasingly aware of the inherent sexism in the game as she grew older, and recognises the self-consciousness this spawned in her as a result. “It changed me as a child, and I stopped playing football after caving into all of the social 'girl' pressures”, she says. “I had lost touch with the sport completely by the time I was 17”.
Photographing women’s football teams became a way for Maclean to reconnect with something she loved. Having reached a point where she had had enough of accepting how the public saw the women’s game, she decided to fight for it instead. “The main driving force of the project is to steer away from the singular, male-dominated story of football and show the untold side of it”, Maclean explains. “A friend pointed out to me that a lot of women’s history is lost because it’s not documented. I became aware of how important it is to photograph, write or record your experiences in some way. You never know what it will change in the future”.
There’s a softness to Maclean’s images. Her portraits are intimate and imbued with a sense of strength, yet they don’t overemphasise the fact that it’s female footballers we’re looking at – just footballers, doing something they love. “Although the series is about women, I didn’t want it to focus on gender because playing football shouldn’t feel gender-specific”, she explains. “Yes, I am female, but I don't bring that to the pitch. I don't feel particularly masculine or feminine when I play. I just play because I love to, we all do. The players in my team don’t want to be confined to their genders, in or outside of the game”.
Maclean believes that as women have consistently been told throughout their lives that they can’t play, or shouldn’t want to play, that the idea of women and football has never been normalised. There’s still a stigma attached to it that throws up the same tired stereotypes. She recalls some wince-inducing questions such as “so, it’s not ‘real’ football?” and “are you gay then?” from strangers upon learning that she plays. “It just goes to show how uneducated people are about women’s sport”, she says.
In a culture that is still more comfortable with women smiling and clapping from the sidelines, you can’t help but ask why women are still always given the supporting role. “In a way, the subject of football has been an effective platform for speaking about the wider prejudices that women experience, far beyond the pitch”, she says. “Opinions are largely ignored, strength and performance are grossly undervalued, and funding and access is limited.”
While photography has helped Maclean to begin the conversation, she is also taking an active role to inspire women to hit the pitch. Alongside her Boiler Room Ladies team manager Trish Lewis, Maclean has been working with organisations such as Kick It Out and Women in Sport to help promote the women’s game. They have also been asked to host lessons on diversity in the sport with children at Millwall Club. Elsewhere, The Boiler Room Ladies are also organising a tournament called Playing for Kicks – ‘for women by women’ – the first of which is taking place on Saturday 24th September at Shoreditch Power League. All proceeds raised will go to Women In Sport. Everybody is welcome, to put together a team and join the tournament, or to watch.
The women that Maclean photographs are filmmakers, stylists, editors, teachers, illustrators, DJ’s and more. Some are mothers and some are still kids themselves. Some have played professionally and some are just starting out. All of that is left behind on the pitch though, and Maclean is keen to point out that no matter what level you play at, everyone gets a chance. “The support network we have is amazing, it’s very different to the way men play. There’s no blame culture, just reams of encouragement. We’re always spreading the word and looking for new members”.
Maclean’s photographs offer an irresistible call to action, and she wants women to feel inspired – and empowered – to get involved. There’s no denying that the world still has a long way to go before it catches up with women’s sport, but Maclean does believe that things are beginning to change. “I hope that people will see my pictures and recognise that women can and do play, that football isn’t a masculine sport and that gender doesn’t mean anything. There’s something so instinctive about playing. Your mind switches off and your body just does it. It makes you feel like a child again”.