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#SheBelieves in the Power of Language

Ceylon Hickman argues that in order to give the women’s game the respect it deserves, we need to rethink the way we talk about it.

A few weeks ago I lost a cup final. It was 0-0 until the 70th minute. Then a free kick floated into the box, over my head and into the back of the net. 1-0 Birmingham. 5 minutes later, they scored again, this time a defensive error. We put the pressure on in the last 15 minutes with nothing to lose and in the 85th minute, clawed one back. The ball was back on the halfway line and we believed the equaliser was on the horizon. Extra time was in sight and I could almost visualise the dreaded walk to the penalty spot to settle the match. It wasn’t to be. Despite our best efforts to reproduce a Barcelona-like resurgence, the whistle had blown and we had lost.

Anyone who has experienced the sensation of losing will know what that moment felt like. It is difficult to put into words. It’s a panging feeling of guilt that you could have run that bit faster, won that second ball or jumped that bit higher for the header you lost to the towering centre back. Losing a cup final is one of the worst experiences in the game, no matter who you play for or how you lost it. And it often takes a while to get over.

That’s why I was so surprised when – before I’d even had the chance to wipe the smallest tear from the corner of my eye – I was asked to ‘mix in’ with the opposition for a photo-op in support of International Women’s Day. There I was, shoulder to shoulder with players who just minutes ago had taken my hopes of glory away, expected to shout ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ with a smile on my face and no sign of a chip on my shoulder. As the cameras clicked and the players around me smiled along, I couldn’t help but ask myself if this would have happened if we were men. My guess is no: I don’t believe any of the men on the pitches adjacent to us would have been asked to perform any form of solidarity with their opposition, for any cause, immediately after losing a cup final they had worked all season to reach.

A not-so-happy International Women’s Day

What happened after that cup final is characteristic of a broader problem in how we talk about the women’s game. In saying this, it is not my intention to undermine the sentiment of International Women’s Day. I wholeheartedly support the initiative and had no qualms in engaging in the celebrations. But I believe there is a time and a place for these celebrations. My performance as an athlete and my cause as a feminist are intertwined but separate. When I play football, I am aware that I am deconstructing stereotypical norms of the female subject. But in these moments, my priority is my performance, not my politics. Losing a match, whether a cup final or not, is the precise manifestation of failure. For me, there was nothing to celebrate in those 5 minutes after the final whistle had blown. Not my performance, not my participation, and certainly not the arbitrary factor of my gender.

In women’s sport, and particularly typically male-dominated ones, an individual’s involvement is constantly tied to a notion of ‘empowerment’. I cannot seem to play football just because I want to win or because I appreciate the game in all its beauty. The fact that I play football is always pretext for something more: I’m a ‘strong woman’ who has ‘overcome barriers’ and can tackle any conflict that might come my way. All because I play football.

Recently, England were invited to play in the SheBelieves Cup in the United States, taking on Germany, France, and the US. The cup is an extension of the #SheBelieves campaign which was started by the USWNT in an attempt to encourage young girls and women to ‘accomplish their goals and dreams’. The tournament ‘assists in spreading the positive message of empowerment and provides a stage to shine the spotlight on positive female role models (athletes and non-athletes alike) and showcase their accomplishments both on the field and in culture at large.’ There I was, tuning into the YouTube live streams each night, to watch four of the best teams in the world compete for what sounds like a parody trophy: the ‘SheBelieves Cup’.

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Ellen White celebrates her last minute winner against the USA in the #SheBelieves Cup

The patronising tone isn’t just found at a national level: it happens right down to grassroots. You only have to look up the local girls teams in your area to find evidence of the double standards held in place for female footballers. ‘Deerness Valley Divas,’ ‘Luton Town Belles’, any team titled ‘Ladies’ instead of ‘Women’. Research conducted by Cambridge University Press found ‘higher levels of infantilising or traditionalist language for women in sport’ with women being referred to as ‘girls’ much more frequently than their male counterparts suffer the label ‘boys’.

This asymmetrical use of language was perhaps best evident in the reaction to England’s performance at the World Cup in 2015. For instance, the official England Twitter account congratulated the squad and noted how the ‘Lionesses’ could go back to being ‘mothers, partners and daughters.’ These women were not just athletes. That story wasn’t good enough for the narrative the British Press had constructed throughout the tournament. Instead, the audience had to be reminded that whilst these women were beating international sides at the top of their game, they were still loyal homemakers, devoted wives, and loving mothers. And their own national footballing authority wasn’t going to let them forget it.

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The swiftly-deleted tweet

The way we frame the game linguistically has tangible impacts on how the sport is treated in the wider world. If we are committed to professionalising the women’s game, we need to treat it with the same respect that we do the men’s and that begins with language. As condescending language is normalised within institutions, it allows the women’s game to be infantilised and seen as a subset of the men’s game. In order to truly professionalise and value it, we need to give the women’s game its own autonomy. At the moment, the way we talk about the women’s game just reinforces its supposed inferiority, especially when we compare the rhetoric to the men’s: we don’t just play football, we play ‘women’s football’. Language is used to make the women’s game feel different. It’s employed – often by actors who have little involvement in the game – to remind us that our sport isn’t the norm. Men are usual. Women are unusual.

It is up to us, then – as actors within the sphere of football – to change these things. In whatever form the game is played, it deserves its own freedom. If you’re thinking of starting up a local grassroots team for females, think about gender neutral team names. If you’re a global footballing organisation thinking of a name for a tournament, ask yourself if you’d invite four of the best men’s international teams to compete for the ‘HeBelieves’ trophy. 

Avoiding gender-loaded terms allows us, as footballers who happen to be female, to momentarily detach from the intertwined and exhausting struggle that exists between feminism and football. It is only once we are granted that freedom that our sport will finally be seen as just that: a sport.


Ceylon is in her final year as a politics student at King’s College, Cambridge. During her time at Cambridge, she has been a stalwart of the university’s first XI. She is also a regular contributor to the podcast, A Team of John O’Sheas. She tweets @ceylonandi.




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