Celebrating women in sports history, taking a look at how far women’s sport has come over the years, and some of the famous female athletes who have excelled and inspired future generations.
International Women’s Day (8th March 2021) is a day celebrated all around the globe, and it recognises the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It also celebrates female athletes and helps fight for equality in pay, sponsorship and visibility in sport. International Women’s Day (IWD) has occurred for well over a century, with the first IWD gathering in 1911, supported by over a million people.
Women have excelled in many fields and professions over the years, and one area in particular is sport. We’re going to take a look at the key dates for women in sport, and celebrate some of the famous names who have made history. Some burst onto the scene by being the first to compete in their field, while others smashed records and raised the bar for the next generation.
Early history of women in sport
Many think women and sport is a fairly recent partnership, but illustrations on Egyptian temple walls showed women exercising and playing ball games as far back as 2000 BCE. The Ancient Greek’s produced many celebrated athletes, including Spartan charioteer Euryleonis, and closer to home, Mary, Queen of Scots became the first recorded woman to play golf in 1567. Here are some other ‘firsts’ and great achievements for women in sports history:
- Cricket: The first recorded women’s cricket match took place in Surrey in 1745 between “eleven maids of Bramley and eleven maids of Hambledon, all dressed in white”. And by the second half of the 18th century, women’s cricket matches became common in the South East of England.
- Boxing: Elizabeth Wilksinson was an English bare-knuckle boxing champion, and considered by many to be the first female boxer. She won her first public bout in 1722 after challenging a local woman to a fight.
- Football: An annual women's association football competition was held in Mid-Lothian, Scotland in the 1790s, with the most well-documented early European team, the British Ladies' Football Club, founded by activist Nettie Honeyball in England in 1894, paving the way for women's football.
- Tennis: The US Open was the first Grand Slam tennis tournament to offer equal prize money for women and men in 1973. And in the same year, Billie Jean King won the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match against former World No.1 Bobby Riggs.
- Rowing: English rower Ann Glanville achieved national fame in 1842, becoming known as the champion female rower of the world. Her all-female crew would often beat some of the best male teams of the time. Then 1927 saw the first Women's Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge.
- Baseball: An all African-American baseball team, The Dolly Vardens from Philadelphia, became the first women’s professional sports team in 1867. And in 1949, Marcenia Lyle Alberga made history by being the first woman to play a full season in a professional men's baseball league in America.
- Running: French athlete, Marie-Louise Ledru, was the first woman to run a marathon distance of 26.2 miles in 1918. Violet Piercy from England set the women's world best time in the marathon in 1926, with a time of 3:40:22. And in 1967, Anne Smith of Great Britain broke two world records in one race (1500m and mile); which were the first female world records in those distances to be officially recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
When did women’s professional sports begin?
Professional athletes are considered those who are paid enough to earn a living. Though throughout the world, many top female athletes are not paid, and work full-time or part-time alongside their training and competition schedules. Women’s professional sports organisations have been set up to change this, where investors are able to buy teams, and businesses sponsor teams or individuals in exchange for publicity and promotion of their products.
From around the 1800s, women were seen as delicate or weak, whose purpose should solely be directed towards bearing and raising children. And girls seen as “pretty” were discouraged from participating in sport as it was thought that this would make them less desirable to men. This opinion is difficult to comprehend in 2021, with so many elite female athletes smashing records left, right, and centre. And although some women have been able to play their sport professionally for many years, you might be surprised to learn that for a time, some of the UK’s most popular sports banned women from playing at all, with women only being able to play professionally in recent years. Let’s take a look at a brief history of a few of those sports.
History of women’s golf
Professional status - 1934
Perhaps one of the earliest sports to allow women to play professionally, the modern game of golf originated in 15th century Scotland, with Mary, Queen of Scots, being noted as the first female to play golf. During her reign, the famous St Andrews Links golf course was built. But it wasn’t until 1811 that the first recorded golf tournament for women only took place, in Musselburgh, East Lothian, for fishermen's wives. In 1843 the St Andrews Golf Club was formed in Scotland, and in 1867 the very first women’s golf club was formed. The club grew to 500 members after its first 19 years, and golf started to become popular with women in England too. Although golf began as an elitist and male dominated sport, there was a growing acceptance of women in golf by the turn of the century. In 1893, leading female golfer, Issette Miller, helped influence the game, and she is known for inventing the very first golf handicapping system.
In 1934, American Helen Hicks was among the first women to become a professional golfer. She signed with Wilson-Western Sporting Goods Company becoming one of the first women to sign with a sporting goods company, and she went on to win two major golf tournaments. And former Olympian Babe Zaharias was the first to attempt to play in a professional men’s tournament in 1938, which wouldn’t be tried again for almost another 60 years. She unfortunately failed to make the cut, but she succeeded in making golf history, and went on to become one of America's first female major players in the 40s and 50s.
In the 1960s, American female golfers Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth dominated the green. There was a televised exhibition match between the pair and two of the top male golfers of the time, with the women defeating the male golfers. This helped spark the popularity of women’s golf all over the country. Kathy Whitworth went on to become the first female golfer to reach $1 million in career earnings in 1981. Although golf is still a largely male dominated sport, women now play golf professionally all over the world.
History of women’s tennis
Professional status - 1970
Tennis as we know it today began in the mid-19th century in Britain. It was referred to at the time as "lawn tennis" and it was popular with women from the very beginning. Wimbledon, today one of the biggest tournaments in tennis, started out as a fundraising event in 1877. The first Ladies' Championship at the tournament was held in 1884, and in the extreme heat, one of the women fainted during the second set, which sparked the opinion that women were too weak and fragile to play five set matches (rather than putting it down to the fact they were expected to play in long skirts and corsets).
Tennis continued to grow in popularity in the early 20th century, and tournaments were being organised all over the world, making tennis a truly international sport. And before long, professional players—both men and women—were going on international tours, too. In 1968, tennis’s Open Era began, which opened the Grand Slam tournaments up to both professionals and amateurs. It was a major change for the sport, and it brought new opportunities for women, though there was a huge gap between how much women earned in prize money compared to the men. Billie Jean King and her group of 8 other renegades were revolutionary women in sports history by 1970s standards. And in September of that year, the birth of women's professional tennis was launched when the players signed $1 million contracts with World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman. Then in 1973, the US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to give male and female winners equal prize money (Wimbledon became the last in 2007).
Today, tennis is a major international sport, and a multi-billion pound industry. And it’s one of the few sports in which women are as popular and as famous (if not more so) as male players.
History of women’s football
Professional status - 1993
Women have been playing football for hundreds of years, although it was the 1890s where things really started to kick off. There were several women’s clubs around at the time, attracting thousands of spectators. Dick Kerr’s Ladies was one of the earliest known women's association football teams in England, made up of 11 factory workers in Preston, and earning lots of money for charity. With men going off to fight in WW1, women ruled the pitch, drawing in crowds of more than 50,000 inside the ground by 1920, with thousands more gathering outside. But as men started to return from the war, factories began to close, and women were quietly shunted back into domestic life. Shockingly, The FA banned women’s football from its clubs’ grounds in 1921, branding it ‘quite unsuitable for females’. Fortunately, this view started to change towards the end of the 1960s.
The Women’s FA (WFA) was formed in 1969, and within three years, the first Women’s FA Cup Final and England Women’s international had been played. In 1993, a Women’s Football Committee was established to run the women’s game in England. The FA outlined its plans to develop the women’s game from grassroots to elite level in 1997 and in the following year appointed Hope Powell as Women’s National Coach.
By 2002, football had become the top participation sport for women and girls in England. And the profile of the women’s game was further boosted by the hosting of major tournaments in 2005 and 2012, and England’s achievement in reaching a European Final and two World Cup quarter finals. 2011 also saw the launch of The FA Women's Super League, with the creation of a second division three years later. The season changed to coincide with the traditional football calendar, and it became a fully professional league for the first time for the 2018-19 season.
When did women first compete in the Olympics?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded more than a century ago, and two years later in 1896, the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, Greece. At the time, the Games were exclusively for men, and women were not allowed to participate until 1900. Here’s a timeline outlining the history of women in the Olympics, from women’s first participation, to the 1,204 female athletes who competed in the 2018 Games.
- 1900: Hosted in Paris, this was the first Games to feature female athletes. 22 women competed, and tennis and golf were the only sports where women could compete in individual disciplines. Brit Charlotte Cooper became the first female individual champion by winning the women's singles tennis competition. Women also competed in sailing and croquet.
- 1904–1916: In 1904, women’s archery was added to the list of events for the first time. The London 1908 Olympic Games had 37 female athletes who competed in archery, tennis and figure skating. Stockholm 1912 featured 47 women and saw swimming and diving added, though figure skating and archery were removed. The 1916 Summer Olympics were due to be held in Berlin, but were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I.
- 1920–1928: By 1920, 65 women were competing at the Games, and archery was added back into the programme. Paris 1924 saw a record 136 female athletes, and fencing was added to the programme, though archery was removed, again! 1924 saw the first Winter Olympic Games, although women only competed in the figure skating event. And in 1928, 15 year old Sonja Henie won an amazing three Olympic gold medals. The Summer Games of the same year saw the debut of women's athletics and gymnastics, and tennis was removed from the programme.
- 1932–1944: The javelin throw was added for the 1932 Summer Olympics, and at the 1936 Winter Games, women competed in the alpine skiing combined event for the first time. Then all Summer and Winter Olympic Games between 1940 and 1944 were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II.
- 1948–1956: At the 1948 Winter Olympics, women made their debut in the downhill skiing and slalom disciplines, and at the London 1948 Summer Olympics, women competed in canoeing for the first time. The 1952 Winter Olympics saw women compete in cross-country skiing, and at the Summer Games of the same year, women were allowed to compete in equestrian for the first time, with women competing against men. At the 1956 Winter Olympics the 3 × 5km relay cross-country event was added to the programme.
- 1960–1968: The 1960 Winter Olympics saw the debut of speed skating for women. At the 1964 Winter Olympics, the women's 5km cross-country skiing event debuted, and at the Summer Games of the same year, volleyball made its first appearance, with the host country Japan taking the gold. At the 1968 Winter Olympics, women's luge appeared for the first time, and at the Summer Games, women made their shooting debut, competing in all seven disciplines alongside the men.
- 1972–1980: The 1972 Summer Olympics saw archery reintroduced for the first time since 1920. At the 1976 Winter Games, ice dancing was added to the programme, and women debuted in three new events in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games: basketball, handball and rowing. And women’s field hockey was played for the first time at the 1980 Summer Games.
- 1984–1992: The women’s 20km cross-country skiing event was added to the programme for the 1984 Winter Games, and multiple new events for women were competed in at the Summer Games of the same year: synchronized swimming, cycling, rhythmic gymnastics and the marathon. These were also the first Games where women competed only against other women in shooting. At the 1988 Summer Olympics, table tennis appeared for the first time for both men and women, and a female specific sailing event also debuted, as did a women’s track cycling event, the sprint. At the 1992 Winter Olympics, women competed in the biathlon for the first time (individual, sprint and relay disciplines), and freestyle skiing and short track speed skating also made their debut. At the 1992 Summer Olympics, badminton appeared on the programme for the first time, and women also competed in judo.
- 1994–2002: At the 1994 Winter Olympic Games, the aerials discipline of freestyle skiing officially debuted, and women’s football and softball made their first appearances at the 1996 Summer Games. At the 1998 Winter Olympics, ice hockey and curling debuted for women, and numerous new events made their premieres at the 2000 Summer Olympics: weightlifting, modern pentathlon, taekwondo, triathlon and trampolining. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, women's bobsleigh made its first appearance.
- 2004–2012: At the 2004 Summer Olympics, women appeared in wrestling for the first time, and also in the sabre discipline of fencing. In this Games, women from Afghanistan also competed for the first time in their history. At the 2008 Summer Olympics, women competed in the 3000m steeplechase and the 10km marathon swim for the first time. Baseball and boxing remained the only sports not open to women at these Games. Ski cross debuted at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the 2012 Summer Olympics saw women’s boxing make its debut. This, combined with the decision by the IOC to drop baseball from the programme for 2012, meant that women competed in every sport at a Summer Games for the first time.
- 2014–2018: At the 2014 Winter Olympics, women's ski jumping made its first appearance. The 2016 Summer Olympics saw the first rugby sevens competition, and golf was reintroduced to the programme for women for the first time since 1900. The 2018 Winter Olympics saw the addition of big air snowboarding, mixed doubles curling, mass start speed skating, and mixed team alpine skiing.
Over the last 30 years, the IOC has played an important role in establishing a positive trend to enhance women’s participation in sport, encouraging International Federations to enhance the presence of women in sport at all levels.
Who are some of the most famous female athletes in history?
The following historic female athletes are celebrated for their outstanding contributions to sport, from breaking moulds to breaking records. These sports women have all excelled and inspired through history, and some are still paving the way for women and athletes all other the world.
- Babe Didrikson Zaharias: American multi-sport athlete, voted the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press.
- Gertrude Ederle: This 20 year old American was the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926, beating the men's record by more than two hours.
- Billie Jean King: One of the greatest tennis players of all time, she won 39 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles competitions. Today, she is still a primary advocate for women and LGBTQ equality.
- Fanny Blankers-Koen: This Dutch mother-of-two became the first female athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, in London in 1948. The sprinter set 20 world records during her career.
- Madge Syers: This London-born skater was the first woman to compete at the Ice Skating World Championships, where she beat two men to take the silver medal in 1902. She then went on to win the first Olympic gold in the event in 1908.
- Nadia Comaneci: The first gymnast to achieve a 'perfect' 10 at the Olympics in 1976, she went on to achieve six more on her way to three golds and a bronze at the Games.
- Kathrine Switzer: The first woman to run in an official marathon in 1967, she disguised her identity on her application in order to receive a race number. A race official attempted to wrestle the number off her but he was tackled by Switzer's boyfriend, and she went on to finish the race.
- Althea Gibson: She won the French Open in 1956, followed by Wimbledon and the US Open the following year, becoming the first black Grand Slam winner in tennis. She made more history in the 1960s by becoming the first African-American competitor on the women's pro golf tour.
- Beryl Burton: This Leeds-born cyclist won more than 90 domestic championships, and seven world titles. She also broke the women's and men's 12-hour time trial record in 1967, recording 277.25 miles.
- Junko Tabei: The Japanese mountaineer became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1975. She was also the first female to climb the highest peak on all seven continents.
- Ronda Rousey: A judoka and mixed martial artist, she turned to wrestling and became a trailblazer in UFC. She set the record for most title defences by a woman and became the first female in the UFC hall of fame.
- Williams sisters: Between them Venus and Serena Williams have won 30 Grand Slam titles. Venus still tours on the WTA circuit and has seven major titles, while younger sister Serena has 23 and is considered one of the greatest players of her generation.
- Nicola Adams: The first woman to win an Olympic boxing title at London 2012. She also became flyweight champion at world, European and Olympic level in 2016, and turned professional a year later.
These are just a few of the women who have made history in the world of sport, so do let us know who your top women athletes of all time are in the ‘comments section’.
The future for women’s sport is bright, and there are so many more opportunities now for young women in sport compared to even just five years ago. So why not take up a new sport, or perhaps revisit one you did as a child? Who knows who you might inspire in the future.