Image credit: EL Loko

Leah Williamson speaks at Oxford Union

Footballer Leah Williamson addressed the Oxford Union on 16th May, discussing her career and the progress in women’s football.

Williamson is the captain of England women’s national team, known as the Lionesses, alongside playing for Women’s Super League club Arsenal. She plays in central defence or the midfield.

England’s Lionesses gained significant recognition winning Euro 2022, which was the country’s first major trophy since the men’s side won the World Cup in 1966. As the team’s captain of that squad, Williamson said seeing the impact of the win on the next generation of women in football gave her “goosebumps”.

In her address, Williamson first spoke of the “rapid and monumental change” seen in women’s football since the 2022 triumph. She explained this extends beyond statistics such as the increase in registered female football teams, but how the Lionesses “earned the respect of the nation”.

The captain emphasised how playing a male-dominated sport was both a “gift” and a “burden”, and the importance of prioritising being able to separate her own identity outside of sport with the help of her “support system”.

Interviewed by Union Librarian Isabelle Horrocks-Taylor, Leah Williamson described the Euro win as a feeling she would “hold onto forever”. However, she called the victory a “relief” given how the players put “so much pressure on [themselves]”.

Looking forward to UEFA Women’s Euro 2025 with the ongoing qualifiers, Williamson warned of the “real danger” of complacency after previous success, but at the same time feeling “very excited” at “what the group has to offer”.

Williamson missed the 2023 Women’s World Cup due to an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, a knee damage regarded as one of the worst injuries for footballers. 

Horrocks-Taylor raised the new ACL research conducted with WSL clubs to understand the common issue. Despite expressing how she “will never see the benefits of that”, she hoped its work would help the “future of women’s football” to protect the next generation.

Speaking of young talent, the Arsenal centre-back discussed academy player Katie Reid’s recent debut. Joking that she now has “the job of keeping Katie at bay” for the future, she explained how improvements in the women’s game should provide younger players a “headstart on the rest of us”.

Williamson answered questions on the Lionesses’ solidarity with Spain’s Jenni Hermoso following the Luis Rubiales World Cup kiss scandal. She explained that “[until] the world changes, there will always be problems,” as sexism and misogyny in football “reflect those issues in society”.

On advocacy for women and girls in sport, the Lionesses’ captain explained their work after the Euros as seeking a world “big enough… for everyone to do what they want to do”. The team was said to “always have a conversation around legacy” from their awareness that “[they] can affect so much more”.

During the audience Q&A, attendees asked about where progress needs to be in women’s football, highlighting maternity policies. Williamson referred to fellow Arsenal player Amanda Ilestedt’s pregnancy, saying she’s been looked after well but “the fact that [Williamson’s] mind was blown [by that] shows how far we need to go”.

The lack of diversity in England’s lionesses was also raised in a question, including the all-white England line-up at Euro 2022. Williamson expressed that the national group discusses diversity as a “top priority.” She believes more inner city pitches would be necessary to make the sport accessible to girls, otherwise England was “missing out on so much talent”.

In her final advice to Union members, Leah Williamson spoke of everyone’s “incredible potential” and “ambitions to change the world” needing to be balanced with the priority of happiness. She remarked that when she reflects she “will not speak of [her] professional achievements”, but rather “creating a life [she] truly enjoyed living”.

Image credit: EL Loko