Women’s Football Everywhere,
Equality Nowhere ?
Words by Lucile Dumont, Translated from here:
The progressive feminization of football does not prevent the maintenance of strong inequalities in the discipline. Media attention often focuses on the struggle for equal pay between male and female national selections. However, in amateur football, far from the radar of sports competitors, other daily struggles for equality are waged. The enthusiasm for the Women’s World Cup in 2019 had given hope for the end of an era when Canal + consultant Pierre Ménès could freely affirm that footballers are «big donkeys too ugly to go to the club »1. Soon after, 86 players aged 5 to 45 slammed the door to a football club in Tarn2. After several attempts to negotiate with the management, they left denouncing the poor conditions of their sport, when their male counterparts benefited from all-inclusive treatment by the club.
A few months later, it was a Parisian club that lost all of its players. Amateur footballers, adults of all levels, had responded to calls for the creation of a women’s team in a club that previously had only men’s teams. The problem ? The club in question presents itself as bringing together people who fight gender-based discrimination, among other struggles. Promoter of popular football and open to all, he positions himself against the criminalization of supporters and police violence, under the banner of anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles.
Chaotic self-management, the spillovers of a virilize culture rooted in supportive activism, and great difficulties in recognizing the structural nature of oppressions against women and gender minorities fuelled a sexist continuum that eventually exasperated the group of players, of which I was a member. Against a silence that helps trivialize sometimes intolerable situations, I return to this experience from my point of view – that of a white woman, a graduate, from the small middle classes. The violence that may have surrounded it and the desire to reintroduce it in a reflection on the articulation of feminist struggles with anti-capitalist and anti-fascist struggles in a sporting context, however, lead me to silence the name of the club. A look back at a commitment that has had a lasting impact on personal, professional and activist trajectories.
The stricken history of women’s football reminds us that the conquest of stadiums by women is still far from being effective, making it a privileged ground for anti-existence struggles. If it is not a question of condemning football in the name of the sexism, racism or homophobia that characterise it all too often, it acts as a “magnifying mirror»3 of the cleavages that cross our society. In this, it is not impermeable to various phenomena of recovery, such as the idea that it would suffice to display « feminine » in order to present oneself as feminist, denounced by the name of purple washing4.
The militant spaces from one end to the other of the spectrum of the left are not impermeable there either. Faced with this, the self-organization of feminist groups and the struggles in nongender, racialized or LGBT +, aiming for the lowered groups to reclaim their claims, are less the result of secessionist will than the product of logic of exclusion and disqualification of women’s political speech.
Today, the dynamics of #MeToo and the flourishing of both feminist and queer, LGBT +, anti-racist and advocacy initiatives for sex workers, renew calls for ideological and practical questioning within militant spaces. Expectations are all the greater as we approach collectives that intend to combat discrimination.
“Your silence will not protect you either”
It is in this bustling landscape that the club of which I was a member responded enthusiastically to the request of a player who wanted to resume soccer by proposing the creation of a women’s team. The desire to get back into the sport, to be part of a team and to share the social life specific to football eventually convinced me to participate. The possibility of combining sports and social struggles has been decisive. Indeed, the club enjoys a certain aura among the militant and self-managed football clubs in Europe. It echoes the model of Italian calcio popolare clubs5, and demands a reappropriation of football clubs by supporters and players, which are an integral part of the management of the club.
It is also anchored in a broader movement to repoliticize amateur football in France, marked by the creation, over the last ten years, of teams that clearly display their political and social dimension (Les Dégommeuses, Les Hijabeuses, Paris d ‘exil, Football du peuple…). Everything seemed to me to indicate that we would be able to find our place in this space, far from fears of serving only as female representation or as a feminist guarantor.
“Make the effort to integrate”
The women’s team, created in early 2019, has reached a maximum of thirty players from 17 to 33 years old. The club financed part of the costs related to competitions and equipment. The training sessions, prepared and led by one of us, were held on a pitch shared with one of the two men’s teams. I have a good memory of the exercise, of how I found a more peaceful relationship with my body, of the success of new gestures, of small victories over oneself – rarely over others, let’s be honest. On the ground, we found our place.
Off-site, the situation was more complex. Some of the members of the club have asked that players, beyond their practice of football, get involved in the association. The difficulty of mobilizing is a classic of associative life: how to distribute the workload (volunteer), while respecting the right of everyone to choose their degree of investment ? This questioning was accompanied by a double standard6. As in many clubs, the majority of players practiced football without being involved in the management of the club and its militant actions, the latter two activities being mainly the responsibility of coaches and supporters. This division of labour is justified by the principle that since players already invest a lot of time in training and games, it is difficult to require additional investment in ancillary activities.
For the women’s team, it was on the contrary an involvement of the players in the associative structure that was requested. We were organizing ourselves on a sports level. At the militant level, if we wanted to carry political messages specific to women’s football or feminist struggles, we had to take care of them ourselves, in the name of this specificity. This principle of speaking by the first parties concerned is unacceptable. Its application has proved more delicate.
Reflecting on our desires and demands as a team meant organizing ourselves, at least initially, at the team level. However, this level of organization was telescoping with the structure of the association, which requested that we divide ourselves individually into different thematic commissions (forum, communication, politics…) in addition to that specifically dedicated to the women’s team, already invested by players and whose scope of action was poorly defined. The structure of thematic committees meant that the decisions taken by the latter were to be discussed in the other committees – in which we were poorly represented and where, at the same time, the freedom of positioning and speech of the women’s team disappeared.
It is on this level that the most important dissensions have emerged, which to date leave a series of questions open. How can we envisage the taking of the floor and the self-organisation of a non-mixed group within a mixed structure when the latter scrutinises each of the positions of this group, effectively denying its political existence? How can we go beyond the contradictory injunctions made to new entrants, asking them to get more involved in order to have greater legitimacy while refusing to see that the conditions of access to this legitimacy are not the same for all? In other words, how can we ensure that inclusiveness is something other than a consensus call or a pious wish? The team’s initiatives, taken in these contradictions, have given rise to a series of conflicts. In particular, they crystallised around the 2019 Women’s World Cup, organised by the Fédération internationale de football association (FIFA).
The World Cup raises the question of the visibility of women’s football and the positioning to be adopted when the only media initiative is that of a large mercantile barnum quick to silence discordant voices7. This strategic question goes far beyond football: should dominant women’s initiatives be rejected if this refusal implies the total invisibility of women in a given environment? Opposing enchantment and invisibility is a dead end, insofar as an indispensable critical look at this spectacle promoting women’s football does not necessarily amount to a blind compromise with the established order.
However, a proposal for action during a World Cup game attended by a dozen players was rejected. We had mentioned the idea of a visual or message (« Love Football, Hate Sexism ») deployed in the stands and accompanied by a communiqué explaining our critical position with regard to the way in which women’s football is promoted by national and international bodies. It was out of the question, we were told, if we did not also take a stand against FIFA inside the stadium – in other words, if we did not take a more “dangerous » action that, at best, ran the risk of being expelled from the military handstands (and, at worst, could lead to a stadium ban). In order to find a compromise, several of us joined the committee dedicated to the podium, to which we made a written and reasoned proposal. But in the end, accusations of complacency with football business and its pure washing, the threat that some of the fans will leave the club if we do this action and the disregard for our proposal have eliminated our desire to mobilize. Or rather : we were free to do it, but forbidden to do it on behalf of the team, and therefore the club. Communication, for associations and collectives now extremely dependent on social networks, is an enormous challenge. We learned this at our expense following the opening of a team Twitter account without prior validation by club management, and for which a review of posts by social media members was required. Having refused this control after episodes of temporary opening and closing, we were ordered to close it at the risk, we were told, of endangering the club. Since the slightest disagreement led to repeated requests for closure, we had to agree, or remain silent. We killed each other. The club’s negative response to a journalist asking to speak to us, before deciding for ourselves, was part of this series of incidents that ultimately prevented the women’s team from speaking on its behalf.
The criticism of “not knowing the political line» of the club and not sharing its values has repeatedly come back. The major consequence of this criticism was immediate : it effectively excluded us as legitimate members. We were asked to wait – until our turn came, whether we were more or deemed fit to intervene as full members – in the face of the explicit refusal to incorporate feminist issues into the club’s struggles. We had to adhere to collective validation protocols regularly flouted by others, but our proposals systematically failed. Our investment in the club’s structure was therefore short, and the verdict was implacable : we only thought of our autonomy and did not want to make the effort to integrate. « Separatist” feminists, in short. « Ungrateful chicks» The questions raised by the arrival of the women’s team and its demands took place in a context where several members of the club were trying on their side to streamline its operation, not without difficulties. These common interests have allowed ad hoc alliances but have not resisted the general lack of dialogue and mutual misunderstandings. The crisis was therefore spreading on several fronts – that of the women’s team and that of the « reformist » members – but the women’s team paid the high price, collectively and individually.
In the autumn of 2019, the Professional Football League decided to condemn homophobic insults in the gallery by authorizing the stopping of matches during the professional football championship. This policy was undeniably part of the continuation of the repression of supporters by the high authorities of football, which made it counterproductive and difficult to accept. It gave rise to numerous debates in which groups of supporters refused to acknowledge the homophobic nature of these insults. In condemning this homophobia on social networks, I found myself attacked by a member of the club, who also attacked friends outside the club. Insults on the physique of one (« please throw yourself with your sports waiver face»), threats barely veiled to the other (« speaks well on the other hand advice you are that a crook who does not know his subject we will undoubtedly meet and we will see if he maintains his words Paris is big, the world is small, especially ours »), eternal accusations of ignorance (« before criticizing what happens in football stadiums, maybe we must go there and not only once in June during the Women’s World Cup»). It became difficult to take a stand without fear of consequences, in a context where the defence of supporters took a central place.
In the meantime, we had learned that gender-based assaults – grandstand violence in a tournament – had marked the club in the past. There were mockeries, pronounced phrases – « stop eating if you want to know how to run » -, the finger of honor of a member who still hangs out on the group photo of a hundred footballers at an event in which we participated. The atmosphere was tense as new players slowly arrived.
The women’s team followed up the discussions and meetings. We wanted to keep playing. We have written a text whose collective dimension has been denied – divide to rule better: tactics are as old as the world. It was discussed at a turbulent meeting, which ended in tears following accusations of incompetence made to one of us by a member of the club. Criticisms of the paternalistic management of the club, however, we affirmed that we « unreservedly support the (club) ‘s struggle against all forms of discrimination » and recalled that, in our opinion, “a criticism of capitalism does not go without an anti-racist, feminist and queer perspective».
We asked for the opportunity to organize and communicate on our behalf, to choose whether or not to respond to requests from the press, while notifying the club office, with which we agreed to discuss our decisions in case of disagreement. Pay for your separatism. The written response of some of the members, strictly ranked in order of seniority, reaffirmed the rejection of our requests. Following this, the sending of a message from the women’s team proposing a meeting to discuss these “club values» that we were accused of not knowing was welcomed by a flood of flowery answers, ranging from « NICK YOU » to « I don’t pay the subscription to pay jerseys to ungrateful chicks» to accusations of “pooping in boots or trying to put sticks in the wheels » and other « stop victimization ». A meeting was finally held with players to discuss the situation. The news reached the ears of other members of the club, and an audio message arrived on our phones. One of them screamed clearly announcing the color : « I will come, and I will slap you. » That’s when we announced our departure.
The nine-month experience ended in this way, ending where sadly a gender continuum familiar to many of us culminates. Where and when does it start ? When can we recognize him? Difficult issues, which also confronted those who acted as allies, trying to engage in dialogue or refusing to train a team until a calm conversation was possible. Trying to solve «aggressive problems» individually, shifting the organization to the margins proved unnecessary until two conditions were met : recognizing that the problem was structural on the one hand, and ensuring that allies expressed themselves in numbers and publicly on the other. In panic and the desire to preserve the group and the initiative it carries, everyone acted according to their beliefs and position. Perhaps today is a time to reflect on what this story says about our sporting and activist practices. The difficulty of holding together a sporting aspect, vector of real social diversity, and a political commitment whose success therefore depends on overcoming multiple relations of domination. Others broke their teeth there, noting in the first place that there is no natural ally. The differences with the women present in the management of the club before our arrival, very few in number, only highlighted the whole difficulty of the feminist struggle: we do not all agree with each other for the sole reason that we are women. Added to this was a different relationship to feminist struggles and the club. We formed a new group within it, and wanted to carry a political identity whose demands seemed dissonant with their long-term commitment alongside the men’s teams, as supporters and managers. We have grasped our minority status differently in this space, struggling separately to keep our place there, and along different fracture lines. We were mostly white and seen as bourgeois, which disqualified our speech in the eyes of some, in the name of attachment to the popular roots of the club and the fight against racism. If the question of the prioritization of struggles – which we were also accused of – is known, we must hear the criticism it contains here. It reveals the state of contemporary feminist movements, our difficulty in moving out of intellectual and academic circles, the cost that feminist struggles represent in otherwise marginalized groups, and the general lack of training around the learning and transmission of these subjects.
Although they emerge most often in pain, feminist struggles are being built. The disgust of militancy, assimilated to oppressive practices where formation is confused with the duty of obedience, does not prevent certain convictions from strengthening. The experience has long injured more than one of us, but it has strengthened the women’s team that stood together in this crisis. Once this fight was over, the cohesion of the group was difficult to maintain, but it is not nonetheless non-existent : most of us continued football and extended collective initiatives, gathering us around teams or associations.
I’ve been feeling anger for a long time. I was divided between the desire to close this chapter and the need to acknowledge that it would leave traces for a long time on an individual and collective level. As such, I cannot help but believe that we need to talk about it, between us and around us. To open discussions about our sporting and activist practices, but also to enrich the history of our struggles and better understand them. At the detour of a powerful text8, Audre Lorde writes that in the past her silences have not protected her. And warns us: “Your silence will not protect you either. »9 ✪
__ [Nota Bene] ________________
- L’Équipe, 6 mars 2013.
- « Comportements sexistes : dans le Tarn, 86 joueuses de foot quittent leur club », La Dépêche, 24 septembre 2019.
- Mickaël Correia, Une histoire populaire du football, Paris, La Découverte, 2018
- On the model of pink washing for gay-friendly marketing. The purple color (purple) refers to feminist struggles.
- The calcio popolare (popular football) clubs form a heterogeneous movement marked on the left, which is characterised in particular by opposition to “modern football”, popular ownership, local roots and the active participation of supporters in the life of the club.
- The double standard refers to unequal treatment between two groups of individuals.
- “Repulsés de Argentine-Écosse au Parc des Princes pour avoir porter du vert”, Huffpost, June 20, 2019. The green symbolized a campaign for the legalization of abortion in Argentina.
- « Transformer le silence en paroles et en actes ». Dans Sister Outsider, Genève, Mamamélis, 2003.
- I thank those who have accompanied me in the drafting of this text.