The England Women’s European Championship: What the Lionesses can teach us about Collective Leadership

The following blog post was written by Rebecca Bolton, Programme Assistant and avid footballer.

The Lionnesses

“Why not? Aren’t women as good as men? We ladies have too long borne the degradation of presumed inferiority to the other sex. The subject has been in my mind for years. If men can play football so can women.”

Nettie Honeyball, quoted in the Cornish Telegraph, 24 January 1895

Everyone can see that the lionesses have been more than remarkable. The skill and determination of that team on the pitch would be enough to celebrate; but what the these women have done goes so far beyond their performance.

Their attitude from start-to-finish has been inspiring for everyone, not just women. There was never a moment where they were not working and pushing together. You could see they valued every single member of the team and did not for one second hang their success in the balance or one or two star players with big egos. They are lionesses because their strength and reliance comes from working as a collective force; a force that recognises hunting together wins the biggest prey. Their insistence of all members of staff being in the winning photo at the end of the match is a perfect example of this. They recognised the efforts of every person behind the scenes working to push the team forward into the spotlight and ensuring they stayed there.

As much as this has been both a joy and powerfully inspiring to watch, it is no surprise that they have worked collectively. This mindset has been carrying the movement to push woman into the spaces previously owned and dominated by male influence.

Looking back…

“Whether or not it has been the working mans’ religion or linked to proletarian community life, it has clearly mattered to many people that football, whatever the code, should be synonymous with masculinity.”

Jean Williams, A Game for Rough Girls: A History of Women’s Football in England

In 1921 the Football Association declared that football was ‘unsuitable’ for women and they were barred from pitches and facilities. A doctor interviewing for the Birmingham Daily Gazette claimed the sport was not fit for women due to the “jerky movements”, concluding that “… just as the frame of a woman is more rounded than a man’s, her movements should be more rounded and less angular”

It was a movement that had to be pushed from areas both on and off the pitch

Women playing football was deemed fundamentally unacceptable by not only professional institutions but by public opinion… and yet they still played. They saw that what was believed to be a sport for men was simply a sport where men dictated how it should be played. And because men had/ve the dominant voice, that perception and interpretation of the sport became what the sport was. Therefore, any variation from this was deemed wrong.

Despite this adversity, women established football teams all across the UK and this could only have happened through consistent and collective efforts. Their persistence in playing the sport led to an increased demand in matches for both ‘charity and spectacle’. This required organisation outside of the frameworks of what was not available to them; leagues, infrastructure and governing bodies. It was a movement that had to be pushed from areas both on and off the pitch.

Today – What can we learn?

There are two important takeaways from this that are important to highlight:

1. The lionesses are a reflection of our history
They stand on the shoulders of all the lionesses before them and have continued to work for what all women players have worked for previously. They would not have gotten to where they are without the efforts of everyone who has supported them and pushed for their success on the side-lines throughout history. This knowledge has been exemplified in their attitude towards each other which was embedded in their game strategy.

2. This is not the end
We have seen how collective leadership has pushed the movement of women’s participation in football and we have seen in real time how perceptions have been changed. This is an amazing moment in history and one that should be cultivated and drawn upon in future efforts to promote women’s equality. This goes so far beyond sport and we know that there is so much to be done. But we can be hopeful in the knowledge that the lionesses have proven that it can happen and this is definitely one way to do it.

Sign up to our newsletter for more insights and news from the world of social change

Free resources

Movement Building Canvas

The Movement Building Canvas is a practical framework and printable worksheet to help you or your organisation design and build a social movement.

See more resources