Football is never just a game. We talk to Jody East, the curator of a new exhibition that will inspire fans and non-fans alike with historic and contemporary stories of football as a vehicle for self-empowerment and social change
To coincide with the UK hosting the Women’s European Football Championship and with Brighton & Hove as one of the nine host cities, Goal Power! Women’s Football 1894-2022, is a new exhibition running at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition highlights the close link between football and feminism with stories from the suffragettes to women and girls today who have fought for equal rights and dedicated their lives to the game. From the first pioneers who broke down established stereotypes, early football stars who drew huge crowds to games, to the Football Association’s historic ban of women’s football 100 years ago, and the game’s recovery following the FA’s gradual lifting of the ban from 1970 onwards – football is never just a game! Here we talk to curator Jody East of the Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust about the project, her favourite stories and where she’ll be watching the Lionesses!
Glorious: Tell us how you planned and organised this exhibition and what challenges did you face?
Jody East: We began by talking to as many people as we could, by joining networks and groups, such as Women In Football, and Fearless Women. We held a coffee morning at Brighton Museum a couple of years ago where we asked people to bring in their football-related memorabilia and we spoke to a couple of women who played for some of the Brighton and Hove teams back in the 1960s and 70s. Then covid happened. Everything was uncertain. The Euros were postponed. We couldn’t meet anyone face to face. And exhibitions like this grow out of developing relationships and spending time with people and chatting. It doesn’t work online. So everything became a little more rushed. It was never a challenge finding amazing stories and people. The challenge was narrowing down what we could put in the exhibition. As I say later on, less is usually more. Keeping a spotlight on a few key objects and key stories keeps it focused and interesting.
Glorious: Had you curated a sport-themed collection before? What attracted you to this project?
Jody East: No, I haven’t. But I have curated exhibitions based on social history and personal stories and activism. And that is really what this is about. It is just through the lens of football.
Glorious: Did you already have an interest in women’s football or is it a subject that you had to research prior to curating this exhibition?
Jody East: I had an interest in women’s history and in how football and the fight for women to have equal opportunities and access to resources, investment, visibility are intertwined. I live down the road from Lewes FC, who made news across the world a few years ago with their Equality FC campaign. So I was already interested in women’s football from that perspective, and how people within the sport were changing lives for all women. But, I have to admit, I didn’t know much about football, or the history of the local teams, or what the different leagues are and who is in them. So I have learnt a lot, very quickly.
Glorious: Do you/did you grow up supporting any particular football team?
Jody East: I have to say no. My dad is an Ipswich supporter, my brother West Ham. I grew up in deepest Kent so there wasn’t really that high profile, big club feeling anywhere local, compared to London teams or Man-United…. Having lived in Brighton & Hove for 20 years though, I am very much a Brighton & Hove Albion and Lewes FC supporter now (you’re allowed two teams, right?)
Glorious: Do you play/have an interest in any other sports?
Jody East: When I turned 30 I fell in love with trail running and sea swimming. I have done Ironman triathlon but now I love to bicycle tour and discover new places. I also love SwimRun events. Anywhere wild and remote.
Glorious: Tell us about your experience of researching this collection of stories/images.
Jody East: It’s been immersive, rewarding and fascinating. One thing that has really stood out is how generous everyone in women’s football is. There has been such openness in sharing contacts and ideas and skills. We couldn’t have done it without this.
Glorious: Did you get to know the women featured? If you could sum up each one in a few words, what would they be?
Jody East: This is probably one of the best bits of working on this exhibition, getting to know many of the women featured. I have had the privilege of spending time with Rose Reilly from Scotland, Petra Landers from Germany, Kelly Simmons from the FA, Khalida Popal from Afghanistan, plus the amazing women from Brighton & Hove itself. Their stories and experiences are all individual and different, yet they are all remarkable people, pioneers for women and women’s football, warm, kind and generous with their time and support and passionate about the power of football to make people’s lives better.
Glorious: It’s probably difficult to choose, but what is your favourite story from this exhibition?
Jody East: It’s so hard to choose. Probably Petra Landers’s story from Germany. She and her teammates were given a tea set each by the German FA when they won the 1989 UEFA Euro Championship. It’s a porcelain, delicate set, with strawberries and butterflies on it. As you can imagine they were disgusted. It gives a very particular message. So Petra hid it under her bed for many years. But now, she sees it as a tool to take her around the world talking about women’s football as people are fascinated by the story! And she is setting up her own mobile soccer academy in Ghana. She is still an activist and pioneer and gave our young people a good run around with a football when she came to Brighton.
Glorious: From the images/stories featured, which one would you most like to see made into a film?
Jody East: Well, Rose Reilly’s story is being made into a film. So I think Khalida Popal. She is one of the bravest, strongest, incredible women ever. Starting a women’s team in Afghanistan against so many odds, being forced to leave her country and travel as a refugee, start an amazing charity in Denmark, Girl Power, and work day and night to get the female players out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took it over again last year. We cannot take something as simple as playing football for granted, there are places in the world where your life is at risk for playing a game of football. People need to know this.
Glorious: What did you find most satisfying about the curation of this exhibition?
Jody East: I love finding out about people’s stories, and personal histories, and experiences. And what they might have kept in their own personal collections that could be used to share their story with a wide audience. Most of the people in the exhibition are incredibly self-deprecating and didn’t think they ‘deserved’ to be recognised as a pioneer. Having the opportunity to shout about their achievements and actions and share it with a younger generation has been incredibly satisfying.
Glorious: What advice would you give to aspiring curators?
Jody East: Always hold communities and the stories at the heart of everything you do. An ordinary object can tell an extraordinary story. Don’t use too many words. Less is usually more.
Glorious: If you weren’t a curator, what job would you do?
Jody East: Something in arts and heritage for sure.
Glorious: Will you be watching the Women’s Euros and has this ignited new interest, not only for football, but all women’s sports?
Jody East: Definitely, I have bought tickets to the England v Norway game in Brighton for my niece and nephews, and I’m also going to the quarter-final.
Glorious: Who do you predict will win the Women’s Euros?
The England coach Sarina Wiegman is brilliant and I think the Lionesses are going to do it.