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Artillery Row

“Women of Steel” won’t bend easily

Female football players should be able to play against other women

Sheffield has a long and proud history of steel production. Three notable qualities of steel are its strength, toughness and durability. All qualities are similarly noted in the “women of steel”, who maintained production of steel during the Second World War when the men of Sheffield had gone off to fight. These women were vital to the war effort. My aunt Lily was just such a woman; she worked long hours making ammunition. As a newlywed, Lily’s husband had gone off to war, returning home on leave during the period of the Sheffield Blitz. The house my aunt lived in took a direct hit as the family ran to the shelter. Her young husband Lawrence was buried under falling rubble as he ran, but the fierce and fearless Lily dropped to her knees and began to dig him out with her bare hands until she was knocked unconscious by debris. She was dragged by neighbours into the shelter, and Lawrence died. She could have been a broken woman, but Lily was made of steel; she returned to the factory, her hair brushed carefully over the deep scar running down the back of her head. She lived to be 93.

These women are never far from the minds of Sheffield people, and a statue honours their efforts outside the City Hall. It is iconic and well-loved. In the lifesize piece, two female foundry workers wear the dress typical of male steelworkers of the time: coarse baggy overalls, belts, hobnail boots and goggles, with heat proof gloves in hand. They could, however, never be mistaken for men. The clue is in the way they lean into each other, one woman with a hand around the other’s waist, the other with her hand on her friend’s shoulder. There is a fierceness and a gentleness combined, their heads held high in defiance of a distant enemy, but also in sisterhood and a clear determination to do whatever they could to contribute to victory.

This week a new breed of women of steel stepped forward into the media spotlight. In the Sheffield and Hallamshire Women and Girls football league, a man named Francesca Needham has for some time been a player for Rossington Main FC Ladies team. Francesca is not a woman of steel, but this week he has learned a thing or two about what sits in our souls: the spirit of our wartime sisters. It has been reported that during a match against Mosborough Ladies FC on 29 October, Needham took a shot so powerful that when a female player blocked it, she sustained a broken leg. A fundraiser set up for the injured player said she had sustained an injury “extremely detrimental” to her work and personal life. Rossington Main FC by contrast said that the injury was the result “of passion and commitment from a very talented player”.

It is a tremendously insulting position to take against a woman seriously injured by a man. This statement clearly supports men who fully utilise their physical advantages against women, who will be excused as showing “passion”. The implication is that women should accept such physical danger and not adequately recognise it for the power and aggression it is.

Women’s broken bones should cause a swift rethink of policy

At this point other women stood up for the injured player and for themselves. A number of teams stated they would not play against Rossington Main FC whilst they were fielding Needham. AFC Bentley Ladies postponed their scheduled fixture on 12 November, and Mexborough Athletic failed to show for their match against Rossington on 19 November. Mexborough Athletic are deemed to have forfeited the match, and thus women are losing out on their games and the potential wins, because a large man who poses a threat to their safety has a place on a team in their women’s league. It is an outrageous situation, and those enabling it, including the Football Association and Sheffield and Hallam Women and Girls, should be utterly ashamed of themselves.

Needham is a tall, powerfully-built male, and those women have the right to fair and safe competition in single sex sport which would, and should, exclude him. The Football Association is letting women down until it becomes very clear about excluding men, however they identify, from the women’s game. Women’s broken bones should cause a swift rethink of policy.

I sense that the women on those teams are becoming nervous of being seen as the aggressors for not wanting to play against a man. Tweets from Mosborough Ladies about the incident have been deleted, the crowd funder paused. This is a position we see over and over again: women forced to accept what they know is unfair or risk being called transphobic bigots.

Rather than apologise, Needham has issued an entitled statement containing the implied threat of legal action if women won’t play with him, positioning himself as the victim of “perceived discrimination”. He said:

Rossington Main Ladies FC has faced many challenges from teams unwilling to play against us whilst I am on the field. This unfortunate circumstance has prompted me to investigate pursuing a case of discrimination …

After stating he would step down from the team, he continued:

The decision is rooted in the desire to safeguard the team and the club’s trajectory. It’s disheartening to acknowledge this situation contradicts everything in the diversity and inclusion policies.

Women of Sheffield began to comment under the Facebook statement but were swiftly shut down by a man named Garth Restell who was hosting it on behalf of Needham. He posted shortly afterwards:

People are entitled to their opinions, I understand that, but if you are not here to support the whole team and only hear because ur sad little lives need drama, do yourselves a favour “go shit in your hands and clap” I suggest you look into the diversity and inclusion section of the rules set out by the FA. Your negative comments will be deleted and you will be removed.

It is similarly disheartening for women that “inclusion” has now become a byword for failure to safeguard them against men who pose a physical, and now legal, threat. Needham’s statement, wallowing in self-concern — coming at a time his opponent is, at least temporarily, losing her footballing career and ability to work — asserts his right to potentially hurt women or to take legal action if they won’t let him. He has stepped aside, but only to position the women opposing him as bullies. I would hope their managers stand absolutely firmly behind the women and their right to single sex competition, but if they won’t, other women in the city certainly will.

Given statistical evidence that it is highly likely that at least one of the women on teams in the league will have suffered trauma as a result of male violence, it could be hugely disturbing for them to encounter a man in close physical proximity during the game. To see him physically hurt another woman would have a devastating effect — especially when they feel they cannot object without threat of legal action.

Fiona McAnena of the campaign group Fairplay For Women told me, “The success of the Lionesses inspired women and girls to play football. More girls are getting the chance to play at school now too. Does anyone really think they’d be inspired by a team of male players with ponytails? Anyone who wants to encourage girls into football should be speaking out now. It’s not fair and it’s not safe. This isn’t about inclusion, it’s about validation of someone’s identity. Football can include everyone but women’s football can’t include male bodies.”

Kathleen Roberts, one of the original women of steel who fought to be remembered for her efforts said, “As the men returned, they started getting rid of us. We got no thanks whatsoever for all the years we put in, we just got our cards and that was it. We were just thrown on the scrapheap with no thanks whatsoever.”

Here we are again decades later. Sheffield women are having to fight for their places on football teams, against men who then break their bones. How much longer until the current women of steel, playing football, are thrown on the scrapheap as the men saying they are women take their places on the pitch?

In Sheffield? I’d say never. You cannot bend the women of steel. We will wrap our arms around each other’s waists, holding our heads high, and we will have victory over these entitled men.

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