A Very Quick History of the Advancement of Women in Sports

In Women in Sports, a sequel to Women in Science, Rachel Ignotosky showcases fifty rock star female athletes throughout history. Women have always been labeled as the “weaker sex,” but in Women in Sports, these ladies clearly didn’t get the memo because they are anything but that. They are strong, fearless, determined, and filled with an enthusiasm to lead and change the world. Inspiration can be taken from any or all of these athletes’ uphill battles with society and successes with defying the rules. These chicks are gutsy and their stories need to be remembered. They kicked butt and took names, showing how empowering it is to be female – even when the majority might not have been in their corner.

Here are ten awesome athletes who exposed to the world what women can do, creating more opportunities for future generations.

1940s: When Toni Stone made it to the MLB she still received sexist callouts. Even her teammates said things to her like, “Go home and fix your husband some biscuits.” She was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993.

1950s: The U.S. Polo Association (USPA) did not allow female players to compete. That didn’t stop Sue Salley Hale. She bound her breasts, tucked away her long hair, and applied a fake mustache, becoming the mysterious Mr. A. Jones for twenty years. She then used this as leverage to change the USPA’s rules on excluding women; her actions made polo a co-ed sport.

1968: The United States Tennis Association (USTA) began to award prize money for their events, but men’s prizes were twice as much money as women’s. Billie Jean King received 750 euros for her Wimbledon win when she could have gotten 2,000 – had she been a man. King was vocal about this issue and in 1973 equal prize money was established. She went on to win thirty-nine Grand Slam titles and continues to fight for equal treatment for women in sports and the workforce.

1970s: Keiko Fukuda became the first woman to reach sixth dan (sixth-level black belt). She spent twenty years as a fifth dan because women were not allowed to progress further. At the age of ninety-eight, she received the highest level in judo: tenth.

1980s: Bev Francis sparked a national conversation about how muscles should be a larger part of female bodybuilding. Even though Francis was recognized as the most muscular woman the world had ever seen, she never won a Ms. Olympia competition because she wasn’t feminine-looking enough. Despite her loss, she retired from competing with six gold medals from The International Powerlifting Federation Championship along with setting the world record for women’s bench press at 335 pounds!

1986: Despite Deng Yaping’s undeniable skill in ping pong, the athletic community of China did not take her seriously because of her size (she was four-foot-eleven). She was arbitrarily disqualified from China’s national team. She went on to win four Olympic medals.

1992: Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play in the NHL. There was never a day that she didn’t feel she needed to prove herself because the male players would never go easy on her. Some would slap pucks at her as hard as possible, embarrassed they couldn’t get a shot past her. Manon is now the founder of the Manon Rhéaume Foundation to help girls with athletic scholarships.

1996: The women’s boxing ban was finally lifted in 1996. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that the British Boxing Board of Control would give out fighting licenses to women because they thought PMS would make women too emotionally unstable. But Nicola Adams brought the largest number of spectators to the Olympic’s first boxing event in 2012, winning a medal and showing female strength. She continues to dominate the boxing arena.

2005: The Indy 500 had been in operation since 1911, yet it wasn’t until this point that Danica Patrick became the fourth woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500. Patrick persisted and won in 2010. She is still the only woman to ever win an IndyCar Race.

2006: After nine years working as an NBA referee, Violet Palmer became the first women to officiate an NBA playoff game. She retired as one of the most respected voices on the court among her peers and players.