WHEN, at 2pm tomorrow, the Euro 2013 play-off match between Scotland and Spain kicks off at Hampden, it will not only make history but represent an act of atonement by the Scottish Football Association (SFA).

While most people believe women's football to be a modern development, it was alive and kicking before being suppressed for much of the 20th century by the SFA and, in England, the Football Association (FA).

The tipping point for the football authorities was a match held at Goodison Park on Boxing Day in 1920, when 53,000 fans crammed into Everton's ground to watch a game between two women's sides. This was clearly a threat to men's football, and the minutes of a fateful FA meeting the following year stated: "Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the council feel impelled to express the strong opinion that the game is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged - the council request clubs belonging to the association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches."

The "request" meant that women's football could not be played at men's grounds and killed off hopes that the game would further capture the public's imagination. The ban was to last for 50 years until it was lifted by the FA in 1971. In Scotland, where a women's match at Tynecastle attracted a crowd of 15,000 in March, 1921, the situation was similar.

Richard McBrearty, curator of the Scottish Football Museum, says there is nothing to suggest a formal ban existed – but it was unofficial policy.

"By the mid-1920s and early 1930s there are examples in the SFA minutes of a member club approaching the SFA to ask permission for their ground to be used for the staging of a women's football match," he points out. "The SFA would refuse permission."

Heaping irony on injustice, the first known instance of a women's match anywhere in the world was at Easter Road on May 7, 1881. Then, a Scotland side beat England 3-0. But rather than build on this, and encourage a healthy activity for women and girls, the football authorities decided to exorcise it from their grounds.

The side which packed Goodison to the rafters in 1920 had a strong Scottish connection. William Dick and John Kerr had established a company to manufacture trams and locomotives. From origins in Kilmarnock the main factory moved to Preston and, during the First World War, converted to the production of munitions. As was typical then, the workers were predominantly women and formed works teams to raise money for injured soldiers. Dick, Kerr Ladies established themselves as the Manchester United of their day, attracting huge crowds in the UK, France and the United States.

The side drew 15,000 to Tynecastle for a match against Edinburgh Ladies. But when the drawbridge was pulled up by the governing bodies on both sides of the border, women's football was left out in the cold. According to Stuart Gibbs, an artist who organised a recent women's football exhibition at Hampden, some clubs in Scotland were prepared to flaunt the SFA's unofficial ban.

"There are newspaper reports of games at Rugby Park and Shawfield," he says. "It seems that some clubs ignored the ban – the money they were making from these women's matches must have outweighed any fines they were getting from the SFA. The 1920s were a hard time for clubs."

According to Gibbs and McBrearty, newspaper reports of these early games were often spiteful and vindictive. Some were supportive, but usually media organisations chose to ignore women's football altogether. In the 1940s and 50s, a team called Edinburgh Dynamos played at Meadowbank Stadium, then a venue for athletics and speedway, attracting sizeable crowds. This was despite the SFA also refusing to allow their own referees and linesmen to officiate at women's matches – but again, some may have defied the association.

At last, with women's football in danger of petering out, the FA lifted in 1971 its edict. It would be heartening to state that the SFA joyfully followed suit, but the reality is that in Scotland 50% of the population continued to be treated shabbily for many more years.

Hampden curator McBrearty believes that it took pressure from Uefa, and Britain joining in 1973 what was then called the Common Market, for the SFA to recognise that equality legislation was going to catch up with them.

"From my reading of the minutes, the SFA had to step into line with the rest of Europe," he says. "Uefa sanctions may well have followed, and although the SFA did the right thing and recognised women's football it seems they had to be dragged there."

Even then, the women faced huge difficulties. Elsie Cook, who ran Stewarton Thistle, the club which nurtured Rose Reilly – the only woman to have been inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame – in 1972 became the first secretary of the Scottish Women's Football Association. Her counterpart at the SFA was Willie Allan, a stickler for the rule book who fobbed off attempts to arrange a meeting. But Cook's persistence eventually paid off.

"I finally got an appointment with him at Park Gardens," she says. "He turned out to be a lovely wee man, but he said there was no place for women playing football. He couldn't bring himself to say the words, but patted his chest and asked how a woman could play a contact sport. I felt sorry for him."

Undeterred, the women started their own international team, and in 1974 travelled to Italy for two games at their hosts' expense. The second was in the San Siro where Sheila Begbie, a striker with Edinburgh Dynamos, scored Scotland's only goal in a 3-1 defeat. The team were also invited by Jock Stein to play in an exhibition match at Parkhead as a crowd warmer before a European Cup tie against Olympiakos. The legendary manager shook hands with all the players at the end.

But if Stein was open-minded, Scotland's female footballers continued to be shunned by the SFA. The national team was finally taken under the governing body's wing in 1998, and later in the same year Vera Pauw, the wife of Rangers assistant manager Bert van Lingen, was appointed coach.

Pauw was replaced in 2005 by Anna Signeul, but attitudes towards women's football remained ambivalent until very recently. Jim Farry was the first chief executive to be fully supportive, but pockets of hostility remained within the organisation until the arrival of Stewart Regan and Campbell Ogilvie.

Now, some three months after Hampden and Wembley hosted Olympic women's football matches – the three games in London attracted a total of 210,000 fans – the SFA has made Hampden available to the Scotland team, who hope it will help them qualify for next summer's European Championship finals in Sweden.

San Siro scorer Begbie is now the association's head of girls' and women's football. She says: "Being told we could play at Hampden was a real statement of acceptance for us. The SFA are putting a lot of resources into this match, and that means a great deal to Anna, the players and everybody in women's football in Scotland."