When people think of the best English footballers from a century or so ago, they tend to think of England great Stanley Matthews rather than Lily Parr.
But Parr’s tale is every bit as storied as Matthews’ or that of Plymouth Argyle legend Jack Leslie – he had been called up by England in the 1920s only to later have his name withdrawn for selection due to the colour of his skin.
Playing for Dick, Kerr Ladies while barely a teenager – alongside working in a Preston munitions factory bearing the same name – Parr would go on to dazzle in front of sold-out crowds, often playing against men, earning herself a reputation as one of the game’s most fearsome ball strikers.
Writing exclusively for Sky Sports News, Aston Villa Women’s defender and 71-cap England international Anita Asante explains why Parr can rightfully be regarded as one of football’s first female icons.
“The emergence of the Dick, Kerr Ladies team was hugely significant in itself. A lot of people associate women’s football kind of in the context of the modern era because of the level of visibility we have now.
“But, for me, Dick, Kerr Ladies were pioneers of the women’s game, participating in sporting activities that women were not really seen to do at the time. They worked in the Dick, Kerr & Co factory during the week, and on weekends sometimes played in front of 50+ thousand people.
“And Lily Parr was the first female football icon in a way – she’s the predominant figure that people have referred to as the starting point of the women’s game, not least because of her notable talent.
“She was referred to as having one of the hardest shots when she was a footballer playing against other teams, which included men’s sides as well. That’s the best indicator of Dick, Kerr Ladies’ ability and how good they were – that thousands of people wanted to come and watch them.
“Lily Parr is one of the defining faces of that era for what they were doing and for the barriers they were breaking down for future generations. It’s phenomenal what she was able to achieve during that period in and around wartime.
“The sacrifices she made and her preparedness to work in a munitions factory during a difficult time for Britain showed her character as a person. She also travelled with Dick, Kerr Ladies to America and beyond. Lily was dedicated to football, earning plaudits for her crossing ability and the goals that she scored as well as the milestones that she reached.
“Not only that, but according to some historians Lily was also part of the LGBT+ community at a time where there was a widespread lack of tolerance. On that basis, I presume it would have been very difficult to live as her complete self, yet she was still able to hit real heights.
“I think it’s important to always see a person as more than one thing. We are human beings and not defined purely by our sexuality or just by being athletes. We’re a lot of different things to a lot of different people in our lives.
“I’m sure even Lily in her day was that for the people around her. She was a strong, determined, passionate woman with a lot of skill and ability as a footballer. But to others, she was someone’s friend, sister, daughter, and all of those things.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge people who may have been in the LGBT+ community during a time like that to illustrate and understand the reality of people and their relationships in history. You’re always going to get debates but it’s more important to underline the fact that she was a genuine trailblazer in a male-dominated sport, at a time where lots of things were still taboo and not fully understood like sexuality and gender barriers.
“Lily Parr and Dick, Kerr Ladies attracted audiences of men and women who wanted to come and watch because they saw them as talented. It was genuine entertainment and that shows a level of respect during a time period where we’re told gender and society was not as evolved as today.
“From that perspective, Lily Parr showed an ability to walk through walls, showing people that it’s possible to do the things you want to do. Whether that was to live with her life partner or not is perhaps debatable but her determination and will is not.
“Lily probably hasn’t got the credit she deserves, in all honesty.
“I love football and have been watching it forever since I was little. I know of and have been taught about the legendary names we hear about in the men’s game, the Maradonas, the Zinedine Zidanes, the Zicos – people know about the historical context of the men’s game.
“But the women’s game is so under-archived, I think. And historically, it has not really been shared across mainstream channels so that it can reach a wider audience. That limits our knowledge about the precursors for the women’s game today.
“Lily is part of that history and it’s important for us to know and to understand when the game started, where we’re going, and actually why the game is at the place it is today.”