By Kasey Symons
I had the immense pleasure of meeting Katie Taylor three years ago at the International Football History conference in Manchester.
This conference hosts academics and historians who are researching any code of football, though the program is usually dominated by scholars investigating the histories of the world game.
I went along to this conference for the first time in 2017 while still working on my PhD thesis looking at historical framings of women as fans of Australian rules football. I was the only person presenting on Aussie rules. There was only one other presenter on the program who was not looking at the round ball, American football was getting a run as well as the women who had played it.
It can be really hard as an early career researcher attending academic conferences, particularly as a young woman. I’ve had great experiences at the conferences I’ve been privileged to present my work at and met wonderful people who have become great mentors and friends to me, but the first day, that first social event… it’s daunting.
My survival strategy is always to find women who are at a similar stage to me in their academic careers and try to start a little network of support. At a little pub in Manchester the night before the 2017 International Football History conference commenced, I spotted a woman wearing an Indianapolis Colts shirt enter the corner where the conference was hosting their welcome drinks and I couldn’t believe my (Andrew) Luck!
I am a Colts fan. I like following the NFL. Here was a woman, in Manchester, at a conference where I knew no one, wearing the shirt of my NFL team. This woman was Katie Taylor and since I nervously bumbled up to her that night and blurted out ‘I’m a Colts fan too!’, we’ve become great friends and I’m such a supporter of her work.
The presentation she gave in 2017 was titled “Glamour on the Gridiron”: Women’s Professional American Football Leagues in the 1930s and 40s”.
It was brilliant, and another illuminating moment for me as I started to look more and more into the history of women’s participation in a variety of football codes. I’d never considered there might be a long history of women playing gridiron as well, but of course they did, and of course they do.
Katie’s presentation that year was taken from her PhD thesis which she will soon be completing. Her thesis focuses on the history of women playing American football between 1890 and 1960.
“1890 represents the earliest examples that were definitely women playing the American code, it stops in 1960 as there is more research on the post-1960 years including the leagues that formed in the 1970s. The thesis looks at the different ways that women have taken part in the sport, from playing games for fun, as part of physical education programmes, and in professional leagues.”
Katie is much more of an American football fan than I, and it’s her passion for the game that drove her to pursue a PhD in the field.
“I first started researching the area when I needed a topic for my dissertation for my MA in Sport History and Culture. It was purely driven by my interest in the topic as someone involved in the sport and a smattering of literature that suggested that women may have played the sport.”
I find it so fascinating that a woman from the UK is so in love with the NFL, but it’s been something she’s come to love more and more over the years, and with the NFL pushing into London with international matches, its UK fan base is growing.
“My husband has played softball for years and back in the early 2000s, two of his teammates were Americans on secondment to the UK. We often went to their house on a Sunday evening for dinner and invariably the football was put on. I found the sport dull, too complicated to understand and I couldn’t follow the ball most of the time. My friends suggested that if I picked a team, I would then have an interest.
“Being a huge motor racing fan, especially of IndyCar, it made sense to pick the Indianapolis Colts, home to the famed 500 race. The more I watched, the more I loved it. I then established a flag football (the non-contact version of the sport) team at the college where I teach and then later became involved in managing the Great Britain Men’s Flag Football team.
“There is a strong American football culture in the UK, both for male and female players, but also fans. The fact that the NFL have been having three or four regular season games in the UK each year since 2007 is an acknowledgement by the NFL that the UK has a solid fan base. These games sell out very quickly and additional games would also sell out. As a result of this strong connection with the NFL we frequently have players come to the UK to coach young players of all genders. I was even lucky enough to meet Andrew Luck, the former Colts quarterback, a few years ago at a Q and A event he did when he was in London.
“There are a lot of opportunities to play the sport and the UK has contact leagues for universities, adults, women, U19s, and U17s. The British American Football Association’s website lists over 75 contact teams for the men’s leagues and 19 women’s teams. There are also extensive leagues for both genders in the non-contact version of the sport.
“In terms of playing, there are GB teams for women’s flag, women’s contact, men’s flag, men’s contact, GB U19s and GB students.”
With so much passion and experience within the game, it seems a natural fit for Katie to put her academic rigour into researching the history of women in the game she loves so much which spans well over a century.
“It is hard to put a definitive date on when women started playing, as some newspaper reports mention women playing ‘football’, but a lack of detail makes it difficult to confirm what code they were playing. However, as early as 1892 female students at the School of Design in Philadelphia played the sport, although in a modified version using tags as tackles.”
“The 1930s and 1940s represent the most diverse decades in terms of female participation in the sport. In these years, non-contact football emerged in educational programmes, some young women were able to participate on male teams, and formal attempts at professional leagues emerged in Toledo, Los Angeles, and Chicago. By the end of the 1940s many of these innovations had disappeared and Powder Puff games remained the dominant way that women played the sport.”
Looking at the sport currently, Katie details the growth of the game and what it looks like right now for women who want to play gridiron.
“In the UK women are able to play in amateur leagues for both contact and non-contact football. However, in the United States there is the Women’s Football Alliance which is a professional league. It continues to grow but is a long way from being similar to the NFL.
“Talented female players are increasingly being hired by NFL teams as coaches. The appointment of Jen Welter by the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 started a steady stream of women into coaching positions, including GB’s very own Phoebe Schechter at the Buffalo Bills. This past February saw Katie Sowers, an Offensive Assistant Coach for the San Francisco 49ers become the first female, and openly gay coach, on the sideline at a Super Bowl.”
Sarah Thomas became the NFL’s first full-time female official in 2015. There are also women who are executives in the league offices and at various teams.
The NFL also now runs a NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum each year in order to help women make contacts in the league and gain the chance to work in the league.
Moving forward, Katie hopes to see these developments continue to grow.
“The NFL are involved in developing with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to make women’s flag football a varsity sport at the collegiate level, allowing women to be granted scholarships. This is a great step, but it would be lovely to see the NFL develop the women’s game in a similar way to the WNBA. It would take a while to get this going but working alongside the Women’s Football Alliance would be good. In addition, more female coaches, officials, and league executives would help demonstrate to everyone that women have the ability and knowledge to be successful in the sport.”
Looking forward with optimism is important and I’m sure there are many American football fans who would like to see these steps taken to see women’s American football become another powerhouse sport for women. But looking back, acknowledging the history and giving a voice to the women who have put in so much work and passion into the sport is equally important, and that’s what Katie is doing with this significant and impactful research.
“When I started that Masters dissertation I had no idea that I would find that much information. I initially planned to incorporate other roles that women have had in the sport including coaches, team owners, cheerleaders etc. As the research carried on, I realised that there was more than enough research to just focus on players. By the end it was evident that there was more than an MA dissertation could cover and I wanted to extend the research into a PhD. The next step is to turn the thesis into a book.”
And I cannot wait to read it.
Follow Katie on twitter to keep up to date with her research.