Q&A: Professor Jean Williams Discusses Women’s Football Conference

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On March 8th and March 9th 2018, the National Football Museum in Manchester, England hosted a two-day conference on women’s soccer. “Upfront and Onside: The Women’s Football Conference” looked at the history of women’s soccer, the evolution of women’s participation around the world, and the state of the game today. The conference tackled issues such as gender roles, religion, sexual orientation, and culture, and sought to create an inclusive atmosphere that brought in voices from every region.

Jean Williams, a Professor of sport from the University of Wolverhampton and one of the leading scholars in the world on women’s sports, organized the event. We spoke to her about the conference, the history of women in soccer, and the state of women’s soccer today. 

Backline Soccer: What kind of topics were discussed at the Women’s Football Conference? How successful do you think it was? 

Jean Williams: We discussed women’s soccer from a variety of international perspectives and this included South and Central America, North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. The overall quality of the papers was very high with several eminent Professors presenting new work. This was not just historical but related to contemporary debates about LGBTQ rights, how to digitise and collect women’s football research material, issues around the hijab and the forthcoming Women’s World Cup in France and so on. 

BS: What does it say about the change in football culture that the National Football Museum was interested in hosting an event like this? 

JW: The National Football Museum has always been supportive of women’s football and we had debates with the Director of the inaugural museum in Preston about integrating women’s football material through the collections. However, the accession of the Chris Ungar collection, with 25,000 items of women’s football memorabilia, has allowed us to revisit the ideas and current research trends in women’s football. 

BS: What do you think is the most significant moment or event in women’s football history? 

JW: There is no one moment. If there is one key defining aspect it has to be that women have always contested their right to play football since the modern codification of the game in 1863. It’s about a right to resources, a right to spectacle and a right to choose an athletic profession, as well as the freedom just to play.

BS: What do you think allowed women’s football to take off in countries like Germany and the United States? Do you think that success is duplicable around the world?

JW: The US is quite different than Germany, because soccer is still a minority sport compared with the big three and a half of American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice Hockey. Germany is a football country, so we can’t compare the two. But there are some strategies that link the two like playing double headers with women’s and men’s teams. You can begin to see Manchester City for instance with its ‘one club’ approach integrate the women across the brand. That’s the big message because having a women’s team can leverage sponsors that men’s teams don’t bring in. 

BS: It seems to be a time of growth and change for women’s football. Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is happening?

JW: These are not metaphors I would use. Change certainly, like China not now supporting its women’s team as much as in the past in search of hosting, and winning a men’s world cup in the next two decades. Growth depends how you measure the women’s game. Women are not a minority population in the world. Give the women’s game 51% of FIFA’s budget to match women’s place in the world, then we could see real growth. Similarly, we don’t need more leadership courses for women in football. Women are not the problem. The voting systems that protect male power are in need of change, to represent more women in the highest aspects of football administration. 


Having covered some serious topics in the women’s game, we wanted to give Professor Williams a chance to answer some fun questions about her favorite players and predictions for the NWSL season. 

BS: Who do you think is the best player in the world right now?

JW: Marta (still, probably always).

BS: Who is your favorite (current) player? 

JW: Nadia Nadim.

BS: Who is your favorite player of all time? 

JW: Mia Hamm, Nadine Angerer, Sun Wen, Mercy Akede, Shanice Van de Sanden, it’s an impossible choice. I could write an essay on Nadine Angerer’s hats. Next year at the World Cup it’ll change again. 

BS: Who do you think will win the NWSL this year?

JW: I think the Courage but I hope the Thorns.