Maybe it’s just me, but this past year seems to hold so many milestones in women’s sports: Rhonda Rousey, Holly Holm and the rise of women in the MMA, Serena Williams’ incredible achievements, the US Women’s National Team and the World Cup and so many more victories for women’s sports. Yet none of these moment could have happened without the bravery, determination and just plain stubbornness of the many women in history who fought for their place in the sports world.
So in honor of the end of March and Women’s History Month, we wanted to take a look back at some of the top barrier-breaking moments in the history of women’s sports.
1926 – Swimmer Gertrude Ederle competed in the 1924 Olympics with great success, but she is best remembered for her 1926 swim of the English Channel. Five men completed the 21-mile long swim before her, but Ederle made history, not just as the first woman to accomplish this feat, but also by beating the previous time by two hours! Her record time across the English Channel remained untouched until 1950.
1931 – Jackie Mitchell started pitching at the young age of 5 with the help of her next door neighbor, Dazzy Vance who went on to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. She played with women’s teams until she signed with the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1931. During an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Mitchell was called in from the bench to pitch part way through the game; she proceeded to strike out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in front of a cheering crowd. In response to this victory by a woman, the Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract with the Lookouts. Despite this setback, she was always remembered as “The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth.”
1949 – Mildred Babe Didrikson was the very definition of an all-around athlete. She played basketball, as well as competed in the 1932 Olympics in track and field where she medaled in three events. Didrikson then turned her attention to golf, where she had great success both as an amateur and pro golfer. In 1949, Didrikson established the Ladies Professional Golf Association in order to boost the number of opportunities for women in golf..
1956 – Like many other athletes in this era, Althea Gibson was a multi-sport barrier breaker. She began her professional sports career in tennis, where she faced rampant discrimination and segregation. After finally being admitted to the major tournaments, she went on to become the first black player to compete at Wimbledon and continued to dominate on the court. Her crowning achievement came in 1956, when she won the French Open. Gibson went on to become the first black woman to compete on a pro golf tour, but she was best remembered for paving the way in tennis.
1960 – Wilma Rudolph battled polio as a young girl, and as a result, had to wear a leg brace. Physical therapy led not only to the removal of the leg brace, but to a full recovery and her career as a track and field star. Rudolph first competed in the 1956 Olympics at the young age of 16; then, in 1960 she became the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympic games, rocketing her to fame.
1984 – Joan Benoit made history when she became the first winner of the women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics. Benoit was already a very successful marathon runner, having won the Boston Marathon twice before her Olympic victory. But in 1984, when the Olympics first introduced the women’s marathon as an official event, Benoit was only 17 days out from knee surgery. Despite this setback, she won the marathon and became the face of women’s distance running for the next several decades. If you want to learn more about Joan Benoit, you can read our previous blog post on an event that she spoke at this past year!
1987 – Jackie Joyner-Kersee was an incredible track and field athlete, known for dominating at multiple events, including the heptathlon and long jump. She had a long career, participating in 4 separate Olympic Games, where she won 3 Gold, 1 Silver and 1 bronze medal. In recognition of her prowess, Sports Illustrated feature her on one of their 1987 covers. She was the first woman to make the cover, and the title simply read “Super Woman”.
Who are your favorite historical female athletes? We were only able to scratch the surface for this blog post; there are many more moments in women’s sports history that still reverberate today. We’d love to hear about the incredible athletes and barrier-breakers that are inspiring you! And happy Women’s History Month!