8 Reasons Why Lily Parr Is The Football & LGBT Icon You Should Know Ahead Of The Women's World Cup

Hulton Archive / Staff / Getty Images

Although the Women’s World Cup had its inaugural tournament in 1991, women’s football dates all the way back to the 1890s. Many people’s knowledge of female footballers might begin and end at Bend it Like Beckham, but history has a long list of women players who fought to have their talents taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Among the most celebrated of these is Lily Parr, who had an incredible footballing career from 1919 until 1951.

When WWI broke out, the men of Britain were dispatched to the front lines and women were sent to the country’s munitions factories. The new female factory workers were encouraged to exercise, and to play football in particular, not only to keep fit but also to keep their minds off of the war. Of the 900,000 women who worked in the factories, around 150 football teams were created, each representing their respective factory.

The most successful of these teams was Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, who had Lily Parr as their secret weapon. A pioneer and a role model, Parr made it her life’s mission to prove women could play football just as well — if not better — than men. From contradicting gender stereotypes to living openly as a gay woman, Parr paved the way for future generations of women both on and off the pitch.

Here’s what you need to know about Lily Parr, the 1920s trailblazing, goal-scoring winger who changed women’s football forever.

1. She was a born athlete

Parr was born in 1905 in the Lancashire town of St. Helens. From an early age, she showed a keen interest in sport, learning to play both rugby and football from her older brother. By the time she was 13, she could score from anywhere on the football pitch. By 14, she had developed her signature power kick and, soon after, made her debut in 1919 playing for St. Helens Ladies.

Lily Parr in training. B. Marshall / Stringer / Getty

2. She refused to conform to stereotypes

Parr was almost six-feet tall, had jet-black hair, and always had an unmistakable look of determination in her eyes. She towered above the rest of her teammates but never let others’ expectations of who, or what, she should be get in the way of being true to herself. She fought against the deeply ingrained stereotypes people had about how women should look and behave. She smoked cigarettes on the sidelines before each game and refused to conform to the notion of being “lady-like.”

She smoked cigarettes on the sidelines before each game and refused to conform to the notion of being “lady-like”

3. She helped make sports history with her team

After her second game playing for St. Helens Ladies against Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, Parr played so well that the opposition’s manager, Alfred Franklin, requested that she join his team. Parr readily accepted and made the move to Preston, where Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and its munitions factory were based. From there, she went on to lead one of the most prolific careers in football history.

Dick, Kerr’s Ladies blazed a trail that future women’s teams would follow. Their players were the first to wear shorts on the pitch, and were also the first to go on tour in both Europe and the USA. The money raised from their games went to charity, and over the course of their 48-year-long run, Dick, Kerr Ladies raised the equivalent of nearly £10 million.

4. She broke records

In Parr’s first season playing for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, she scored an impressive 43 goals. Her skills on the pitch started attracting large crowds and soon people were coming from far and wide just to see Lily kick the ball with her famously fierce left foot. Over the course of her 32-year-long career, Parr scored nearly 1,000 goals, an outstanding achievement that helped her become the first ever woman to be inducted into the National Football Museum’s Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

Over the course of her 32-year-long career, Parr scored nearly 1,000 goals

The most notable example of Parr’s power to draw in a crowd is the Boxing Day match in 1920 when 53,000 fans filled Everton’s Goodison Park and the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies defeated St. Helen’s 4-0. The attendance record set by this game would remain unbroken until 2012 when 83,000 spectators gathered in Wembley Stadium to watch the World Cup final between the USA and Japan’s women’s teams.

5. She never let the haters get to her

Despite having one of the most powerful kicks in the history of the game, across either side of the gender divide, not everyone was convinced Lily Parr’s talents could match a man’s.

One particularly condescending male professional goalkeeper approached Lily during one of her games. Not believing she could play as well as a male footballer, he challenged her to score a ball past him from the penalty spot. Parr accepted, determined to quash his and anybody else’s doubts about her. Although the goalkeeper was able to save her shot, Parr’s kick was so powerful that the football broke his arm.

Lily Parr leads a strategy discussion. Harry Shepherd / Stringer / Getty Images

6. She defied the patriarchy

In 1921, despite the massive following women’s football had gained during the war, the Football Association made the cataclysmic decision to ban women’s teams from its grounds and pitches. The FA stated: “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

Although this was a huge blow to Parr and her teammates, she was determined to prove the FA wrong. Parr continued to play football and tour abroad until 1951 when she retired.

7. She was an LGBT pioneer

Alongside being one of the best footballers in history, Lily Parr was also championing LGBT rights long before society recognised them. While living in Preston and playing for Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, Parr met her partner Mary and lived with her in a house they bought together.

Parr was openly gay and never tried to hide her sexuality. At a time when LGBT people were still being persecuted for being true to themselves, Parr refused to be anyone other than who she was.

8. Her legacy lives on

In 1971, the FA finally lifted the ban on women’s teams using their grounds and pitches. Although Parr died in 1978 after battling with cancer, she had lived long enough to see women’s football get the justice it deserved.

Far beyond her legacy of 1,000 goals is Parr’s success in forever changing people’s perceptions of the women’s game.

The huge viewership for the Women’s World Cup in 2015 is a testament to how far women’s football has come and how its popularity continues to grow globally. Women around the world are increasingly chasing their dreams of sports success, and that’s very much thanks to Lily Parr and her teammates. Far beyond her legacy of 1,000 goals is Parr’s success in forever changing people’s perceptions of the women’s game.

As a tribute to her impact on the game of football, a life-size statue of Lily Parr will be erected outside Manchester’s National Football Museum in June 2019.