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It might surprise people to know how long women have coached football

Dating back to the earliest days of the sport, women have coached — despite the game’s emphasis on masculinity.

Amanda Ruller, an assistant coach for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, passes a football during practice on June 8 in Renton, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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During the 2021 season, the NFL had 12 women working as coaches. At the same time, Sam Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity, equality and inclusion, continues to increase opportunities for women in the league while lauding those blazing trails. She and journalists covering the changes have celebrated Natalie Randolph as the first female coach of a male high school team when she began coaching the Calvin Coolidge High School team in 2010.

The recognition is important. But they’ve gotten the history wrong. Indeed, there is a much longer history of women serving as football coaches, and reviving and celebrating this history can help normalize women holding these roles. Stereotypes about masculinity and power in this hypermasculine sport have helped erase women’s longtime contributions to the game.

Football was formalized in the 1870s when representatives from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia met to develop a standard set of rules. The new sport had an essential role in being a site for proving manliness, something many public commentators worried was at risk with the closing of the frontier, increasing levels of immigration and concerns that the White, Anglo-Saxon male had become effete.

Yet from the earliest years of this manly sport, women stepped in as coaches. For instance, “Father of Football” Walter Camp regularly missed practices, so his wife, Alice, went in his place. She made meticulous notes and tactical suggestions to help her husband coach the team, and her contributions were so valuable that the undefeated 1888 Yale team considered her as much a coach as her husband. In fact, at the 25th anniversary dinner for the 1888 team, the menu included a photograph of Alice and Walter, titled “Head Coaches, 1888.”

Other women followed Alice Camp. Lillian Merrell, Annie Bragdon, Estelle Sherwin, Carrie Burckhardt and Cozette Brannon all coached male football teams in the years before World War I. Bragdon and Burckhardt’s teams had undefeated seasons in 1909 and 1913, respectively.

They did this work at a time in which high school football, like the collegiate game, was notably violent. The Journal of the American Medical Association, between 1900 and 1935, regularly wrote about the sport’s violence, including injuries and deaths at both the collegiate and high school levels because of its competitiveness and a lack of fair play. Thus, these pioneering women were coaching a highly violent sport, contrary to gender norms.

Most women coached school-age teams. Brannon coached the second team at the State Agricultural College in Arkansas. Brannon wasn’t necessarily the school’s first choice; her appointment was due to a lack of money and absence of anyone else willing to take on the role.

This was typical. School officials often only sought out female coaches as a last resort. The football field was a place for boys and men to prove their manliness; women’s involvement would undermine this. Women’s traditional role was as spectators, where their attendance would be a civilizing influence.

Nonetheless, while women were not the most celebrated or well-paid staff, they were in the mix. That became more true with world war.

When men went to fight or work in production to support the U.S. war effort during World War I, many more schools and colleges hired female coaches. Miss Iker (first name unknown) from Washington, D.C., and Anna Hurd from Oregon coached high school teams in 1917.

Similarly, during World War II, as millions more men were drafted, women again stepped into coaching roles typically unavailable to them. Pauline Rugh, Mrs. Joe Ward (first name unknown), Pauline Foster, Madeline Bell, Irene Stewart and Mary McMichael coached school teams in Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana in the early 1940s. Ward, a coach at Woodlawn Hills Elementary School in Texas, won titles with her team in 1940 and 1941.

As in the case of manufacturing, engineering, construction and other traditionally male jobs that women filled during wartime, most employers pushed women out or urged them to leave their posts to make room for men after the war. Those pressures affected women football coaches as well, with many leaving their positions. But not all of them did. Of those who coached during World War II, Ward stayed on for seven years, Bell for four years and Stewart for 16 years.

One thing remained constant over these decades — many found the idea that women might know about coaching football difficult to believe.

Reports about Hurd and Iker in 1917, for example, stated that their appointments were “radical” and “strange,” even if they were necessary because of the war. Articles about Brannon in 1916, Lambert in 1933 and Stagg in 1942 mentioned their husbands to reassure readers that the women were paired with men and thus fit into their expected domestic roles, at least at home. Sometimes, the mention of men was meant to explain the woman’s talent. The media attributed Lambert’s knowledge to her husband, Fonsa Lambert, a national football rules committee member, reassuring readers that true football leadership and expertise remained firmly masculine.

When Foster won her first game in 1942, newspaper reports mentioned that the opposing coach would “never live it down” that a woman beat his team. Such coverage was typical, as male football coaches shaped how journalists framed their coverage of female coaches, frequently emphasizing shock and amusement.

While articles did praise women for their efforts, knowledge and successes, they also included details about female coaches’ physical appearances. The media described Merrell as “beautiful,” Burckhardt as “most attractive” and Mary McMichael as a “buxom blonde.” These comments undermined these women by emphasizing their looks over their coaching achievements, reassuring readers that they were not masculinized by their roles.

While there is little evidence of many female football coaches in the 1950s and 1960s, the women’s liberation movement of the next decade sought to change this. The enactment of Title IX in 1972 required schools’ athletic programs to create greater opportunities for women and girls, and organizations like the National Organization for Women fought for women’s sporting rights. Karen Small in New Jersey, Jane Robinson in South Carolina and Judy Manthorpe in California are just some of the examples of women coaching football in these years.

However, negative attitudes toward the prospect of female coaches remained, preventing some women from taking on these roles. For example, Candy Hisiro asked the Maryland State Board of Education to overturn a 1978 ruling that prohibited her from becoming an assistant football coach in the state, an appeal that failed.

Since then, most women have been stuck in similar assistant positions at the high school level, but some women have become high school head coaches and even coached at the collegiate level. In 1984, Dot Easterwood Murphy started coaching wide receivers at Hinds Junior College in the National Junior College Athletic Association. NFL films followed Murphy in 1995 for a segment on “Football America.” In 1986, Carol White became a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech, where she worked with their kickers, making her, arguably, the first woman to coach in NCAA Division I football.

This progress happened despite football’s continued associations with masculinity, few playing opportunities for women and a lack of coaching pathways for female football coaches.

That’s why the fact that women are now coaching in the NFL is critically important. These women represent the few managing to reach the sport’s pinnacle, despite the large number of women who have come before them. Women have proved they can coach football well, yet their numbers at the professional rank remain small.

As we recognize women breaking barriers in sports today, it remains important that we also uplift those who came before to shed light on the many barriers women have managed to topple and to reveal the obstacles that still remain.