When football returned after covid, there was a noticeable decline in the behaviour of some fans at matches and often women bore the brunt, especially at away games. Women have had enough. So a few Hammers supporters teamed up to give female fans a voice and encourage and promote a more diverse fanbase.
The West Ham group follows in the footsteps of similar groups at other clubs such as the Fulham Lillies, and the Women of Watford to name a couple. Co-founder and season ticket holder Rachel McFetridge explains: ‘We love the game as much as any fan. A number of West Ham women follow the team over land and sea. It seemed appropriate to choose the name Intrepid Irons.
McFetridge continued: ‘A lot of work was done behind the scenes with the West Ham Supporters Trust (WHUST) over the past 18 months to improve the matchday experience for females.’ It’s not about penalising past behaviour but getting the West Ham family to make a positive change for the future.
‘While many women fans go to matches alone or in group of women, others go with husbands, sons and male friends. We have a collective responsibility to make it better for those girls coming through now than it has been for some of us,’ McFetridge says. Intrepid Irons have met a few times online to connect and share West Ham experiences – good and bad.
A number of women meet informally before games and the plan is to find a venue in Stratford for a meetup on a wider scale. Intrepid Irons will continue to campaign for better experiences for female fans. Some of the problems women fans face would make most decent male Hammers wince. Male fans enter the ladies’ toilets and stewards have to stand guard outside to keep women safe.
At away matches, groups of male fans will take the seats allocated to women fans and refuse to budge – something they don’t do to male colleagues. Others will block aisles when women arrive. Some openly take drugs in front of women and children. And there’s always someone who, as soon as they see a women arrive, uses foul language as loudly as they can.
McFetridge says: ‘It’s all about mutual respect. If you wouldn’t treat your mother or sister like that then why would you do it to other fans?’ Unacceptable behaviour didn’t just stem from fans but also from security staff and stewards too.
Intrepid Irons have been liaising with Football Supporters Europe on the treatment of women (and men) during security searches abroad. These searches have on occasions been horrifically intrusive with stewards touching women’s breasts and genitals. When something was said the usual response was to laugh or pretend they did not understand English.
It wasn’t just women who had to endure this – men too felt violated with inappropriate touching in their nether regions. When a number of fans were asked about their experiences, it was from a range of venues. FSE will continue to monitor this and speak to UEFA on our behalf.
At the London stadium women fans queuing at security have been asked if they are with their husband or father, when they are season ticket holders in their own right. ‘It’s unconscious bias. Some people just can’t process that women are fans and are not there because a man has invited them,’ says McFetridge.
Overcoming unconscious bias is an uphill battle. Recently Intrepid Irons met with representatives from the club to discuss initiatives for the game closest to International Women’s Day.
But on the day of the match the club dropped them all to focus on another campaign with no warning. McFetridge says: ‘Sometimes it really does seem like women at football are invisible. We want our voices heard too.’ This invisibility goes as far as the yellow reporting signs seen around the stadium – they omit sexism.
There is a lot to do, says McFetridge, but making the matchday experience even better will be worth it.
She caught the West Ham bug at her first game one cold November night behind a stanchion at Upton Park. Despite the game ending in a nil-nil draw, the excitement generated by the skills of Cottee, Dicks, Potts, Bishop and Ludo was enough to make her want more.
She rarely misses a game and ensured her children followed in her footsteps by getting them season tickets before they started school. Even if giving a voice to women fans means extra time and penalties, McFetridge is determined to win. Anyone interested in finding out more about Intrepid Irons can find them on Twitter and Instagram @Intrepid_Irons