For many centuries, any kind of sport has been considered as a man’s world. From participating in the Olympics events through to mainstream football, golf and rugby, the female of the species has barely been able to get a look in with all the men dominating the scene.
Throughout the course of history changes have been made, giving women the chance to shine. These changes did not just occur randomly, though. It has taken some pioneering females and their determination to make a stand for themselves and other women. The fight for female equality in sport is a long way from being over but at least the battle has begun thanks in large part to a select group of pioneers that wouldn’t let their sex define them.
Who are these women that have opened doors and broken down barriers for other women? We will be taking a look at some of sports best pioneering females, and what they have done for their respective sporting sectors. You may be surprised at just how far we have come, especially in the past couple of decades.
Olympic Heroes Make a Name for Themselves
The Olympics has always been a big deal when it rolls around every four years. The event is such a spectacle, bringing competitors from a huge number of countries around the world to participate in their favoured sport for a chance to win gold. While women did first compete in The Olympic Games in 1900, just 22 women were able to enter, competing in a total of five sports – tennis, sailing, croquet, golf and equestrianism.
Throughout the proceeding years though, the participation of women in The Olympic Games has increased. Some sports today are now exclusively for female competitors to enter, while others allow entries for both sexes.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Arguably, one of the reasons why women have managed to gain more traction in The Olympics is due to Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Born as Mildred Ella in 1911, Babe was an American athlete who excelled in various sports, including golf, basketball, baseball and track and field.
It was in track and field that she women two gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California in 1932. Didrikson also set four world records, breaking her own record in the 80-meter hurdles with a time of 11.7 seconds.
Following on from that, she became a professional golfer and went on to win 10 LPGA major championships. It was within this sector that she became best known. Didrikson became the first women to compete against men in January of 1938 in the Los Angeles Open PGA tournament.
This sort of circumstance did not occur again until six decades later. This led to her becoming the first female golf celebrity in the United States of America and the leading player of the 1940s and into the 50s. She then dominated the Women’s Professional Golf Association before achieving the same status in the LPGA.
An American sprinter who was born in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph became a world-record holding Olympic champion and international sports icon in track and field events. This came about following her success in both the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. It was in the latter of these two Olympics that she won three gold medals, claiming first place in the 100-meter and 200-meter individual events as well as the 4 x 100-meter relay. She was then acclaimed as the fastest woman in the world in the 60s, becoming an international star as a result.
Rudolph was among the most highly visible black women in America and internationally in the 60s, thanks to her Olympic achievements. This made her a role model for black and female athletes. She helped to elevate women’s track and field within the United States as well, while doing her part for civil rights and women’s rights. Not only that, but her legacy lies in her efforts to overcome childhood diseases and physical disability in order to become the fastest woman in the world. Her celebrity status also led to gender barriers being broken down at previously all-male track and field events, such as the Millrose Games.
Nawal El Moutawakel
A former hurdler, Nawal El Moutawakel became the very first female, Muslim, born in Africa, Moroccan to become an Olympic gold medallist. Born in Casablanca, El Moutawakel was studying at Iowa State University when she won her Olympic title in the inaugural women’s 400 metres hurdles in 1984. So big was the occasion that King Hassan II of Morocco called her to give his congratulations and announce that all girls born on the day of her victory would be named in her honour.
Not only that, but her gold medal also represented a huge breakthrough for sporting women in both Morocco and various other primarily Muslim countries. She became a pioneer for Muslim and Arabic athletes, confounding many beliefs that women from such cultural backgrounds could not be successful in athletics.
Tennis Stars Propel the Game Forward
Tennis has always been a compelling sport to spectate, and today there are some highly impressive stars of the game. While it may be more common to think of women like the Williams Sisters or Steffi Graff from more recent decades, pioneers of women’s tennis did exist a lot earlier than these ladies.
Charlotte Dod, familiarly known as Lottie, was an English multi-sport athlete, although she is best known for her dedication to tennis. She won the Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Championship five times, with the first one of those wins coming when she was just 15 years old back in the summer of 1887. Still today, she remains as the youngest ladies’ singles champion. She did compete in other sports as well, such as golf, field hockey and archery.
Dod entered her first tennis tournament in 1883, when she was just 11 years old, playing doubles with her sister Annie. However, it wasn’t just that Dod was competing in tennis tournaments from a very young age, but that she had a certain style of play at the time. Regarded as unorthodox back then, Dod’s style of play is quite notably modern by today’s standards. It is thought that she was the first player to advocate hitting the ball just before the top of the bounce and to adopt a modern, single-handed racquet grip.
Other than entering women’s tournaments, Dod would sometimes play against men and often win. On one occasion, she defeated star tennis players Ernest Renshaw and George Hillyard when playing doubles action with Herbert Baddeley.
Billie Jean King
A name that everyone knows from the world of women’s tennis, Billie Jean King is an American former World No. 1 professional tennis player. During her career, she won 39 Grand Slam titles, with 12 of those being in singles competition, 16 in women’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles. She was also a member of the winning United States team in seven Federation Cup and nine Wightman Cup tournaments.
King also serves as an advocate for gender equality and has spent a lot of time as a pioneer for equality and social justice. It was in 1973, at the age of 29 that she won the Battle of the Sexes tennis match, facing off against 55-year-old Bobby Riggs to do so. Riggs was heavily critical of women playing sports and was highly vocal about this opinion leading up to the event. The event remains as one of the most famous tennis matches of all time, and King took home the $100,000 winner-take-all prize from it.
She would also go on to be the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation. She is regarded by many to be one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time, being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 for her efforts.
Women’s Cricket Gets the Nod
Not many people look to women’s cricket as being something that exists. It still remains quite heavily in the background when compared with sports like women’s football, tennis and golf, for example. However, this doesn’t mean that it has not come forward leaps and bounds. Thanks to certain pioneering efforts, women’s cricket is now more recognised than it ever has been before.
Rachael Heyhoe Flint
Rachael Heyhoe was born in Wolverhampton and after being educated at the Wolverhampton Girls’ High School, she went on to attend Dartford College of Physical Education. From there, she became quite the powerhouse in cricket, setting out to make a career from the sport straight after graduating.
She was chiefly a right-handed batswoman, and would occasionally perform as bowler. Between 1960 and 1979, Heyhoe participated in 22 Women’s Test cricket matches, with a batting average of 45.54 in 38 innings. She took 3 Test wickets and claimed three Test centuries, which included her highest score of 179 not out. That became a world record when she achieved it in 1976 against Australia. Heyhoe went on to become captain of the England women’s cricket team for 12 years until 1978, and while in this position, she never lost a single match.
Heyhoe was also highly instrumental in her efforts to hold the first Women’s World Cup, recdiving funding for such from her friend and businessman Jack Hayward for it. She captained the England team during that tournament, scoring a half-century in the final, allowing England to win against Australia in 1973.
She would also play as goalkeeper for the England national field hockey team in 1964 and was a single-figure handicap golf player.
Football Gets the Female Touch
Football has notoriously been a male-dominated world for decades, making it one of the hardest sectors for women to make their mark. However, this hasn’t stopped them from trying…and succeeding. Today, women’s football has much more respect and attention than it ever did before.
Mariel Margaret Hamm-Garciaparra may have retired from professional football now, but she has done so with a lasting legacy behind her. Hailed as a soccer icon, she played as a forward for the United States women’s national soccer team from 1987 to 2004. She became the face of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the first women’s soccer league in the United States. There, she played for the Washington Freedom between 2001 and 2003.
Furthermore, during her time with the US national team, Hamm participated in four FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments. She was even present at the inaugural tournament in 1991, taking place in Guangdong, China. The team would also be led by Hamm at three Olympic Gmaes, including 1996 in Atlanta, 2000 in Sydney and 2004 in Athens. She held the record for most international goals scored (by a woman or a man) until 2013 and currently ranks third in the history of the U.S. national team for international caps with 276 and first for career assists at 144.
American football is, of course, popular across the United States more so than anywhere else. And while the NFL does not include female players, this does not stop it from employing females elsewhere. Kathryn Smith is an American football coach, who most recently served as the special teams quality control coach for the Buffalo Bills from 2015.
This move made her the first full-time female coach in NFL history. She was also the only woman to ever hold a full-time coaching position in the NFL until Katie Sowers was hired by the San Francisco 49ers in 2017.
Other Pioneering Women
Ann Meyers Drysdale
The ground-breaking career of Ann Meyers Drysdale began very early, and she became the first player to be a part of the U.S. national team while still in high school.
She was also the first woman to be signed to a four-year athletic sponsorship for college – UCLA. Drysdale then became the first woman to sign a contract with a National Basketball Association (NBA) team – the Indiana Pacers – for $50,000.
Despite the fact that Drysdale was not chosen for the final squad, the move did make a significant impression that women could play basketball professionally. This occurred many years before the founding of the WNBA.
Alexandra Rose Raisman is a former gymnast and two-time Olympian. She captained both the 2012 Fierce Five and 2016 Final Five women’s Olympic gymnastics teams for the U.S. Both of these teams won their respective competitions. In 2012, she won the team gold medal, floor gold medal and bronze medal on balance beam before taking home the individual all-around silver medal and floor silver medal in 2016. Another team gold medal was awarded in the same year.
While Raisman has been wonderfully successful on the gymnastics floor though, she has actually also become quite the advocate in battling sexual abuse. She was one of over 100 gymnasts who came forward to speak out against the former US Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. She delivered a blistering 13-minute speech against Nassar at his trial, stating that she herself was sexually assaulted by him and that USA Gymnastics overlooked reports of such abuse. Since his conviction, Raisman has worked tirelessly to fix USA Gymnastics and gain justice for all sexual abuse victims.
Mixed Martial Arts is a world that is heavily dominated by men, but some women have come to the fore to prove that they are just as capable of fighting. Ronda Rousey is one of MMA’s biggest stars, who rose to prominence for submitting her opponents with a brutal armbar. She made her amateur debut in 2010 and in November of 2012, she signed with the UFC – the first female fighter to do so. Three months later, she became the first female fighter to headline a UFC event.
Even prior to this though, Rousey became the first American woman to earn an Olympic gold medal in judo, taking home the bronze in 2008. She later set the record for the most UFC title defences by a woman at six and then she became the first female fighter to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2018.
It is surprising really that female jockeys are not more prominent than they are given that jockeys need to be lightweight and small, something that lends itself to female physiology more so than male. Horse racing is, however, a male dominated sport and that has prevented many leading female jockeys getting the top rides and therefore the success they merit.
There have been several pioneering female jockeys but none in the modern era have broken down barriers more than Ireland’s Rachael Blackmore. Despite not coming from a horse racing family (rare in the sport) she was able to reach the top regardless.
In 2019 she rode her first winner at world’s leading jump racing festival at Cheltenham and also won her first grade 1 race at the meeting. It was, however, 2021 where she truly broke through the glass ceiling becoming the first woman in history to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, the first woman to win top jockey at Cheltenham and the first woman to ride the winner of the Grand National, Minella Times.