Top 10 Moments for Women in Sports
By Tuti Scott
Sport is the setting for incredible feats of athletic ability, stamina, and bravery. Revisit some of the incredible historical moments that have showcased the prowess and strength of women and made a mark on the world–often by simply donning a uniform and competing in a traditionally “male” sport. The top 10 list below shows how history repeats itself and offers insight into how sports is a microcosm and platform for the advancement of women’s rights.
1. 1926 – Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim the English Channel.
Her time of 14 hours and 31 minutes broke the men’s record at the time. Ederle was the pioneer who surely looked down with admiration when Diana Nyad completed her swim from Cuba to Florida in 2013 after five attempts. She reminded us all to never, ever give up on your dreams.
2. 1943 – The All American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed.
At its peak in 1948, it consisted of 10 teams and drew nearly a million fans. The league was formed during World War II because the men were fighting abroad and “America’s game” had been shut down. Women were allowed onto the hallowed fields of green, but once the war was over, the traditionally men’s sport regrouped. Even though there hasn’t been a women’s professional baseball league for 70 years, women still compete in the World Cup of Baseball, which happens every other year.
3. 1957 – Althea Gibson becomes the first African American tennis player to win Wimbledon and Forest Hills.
Arthur Ashe thanked Althea Gibson for breaking down the race and class barrier of tennis. Gibson’s grace and skill brought her to the world stage of tennis and provided powerful images that contrasted with the reality of blacks living in segregation across the US. Fast forward to today and we have the Williams sisters’ athleticism, entrepreneurial success, and activism for equal pay.
4. 1973 – Fifty million television viewers watch Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.
King often reminds us all that in 1973 women were not allowed to have credit cards without a man signing the paperwork. Beating a man at any game was a foray into equity that most women couldn’t imagine at the time. King’s ability to use the media and market the “battle of the sexes” as a platform for women’s advancement was a first and still reigns as the best.
5. 1977- Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
Women weren’t encouraged to drive on their own in the 70’s much less compete at 200 mph on an oval race track. Securing funding and acceptance in the macho sport arena continues to be challenging. Danica Patrick is a current role model in the sponsorship game and visibly leads a strong pack of female racers making their mark.
6. 1972 – Title IX was signed by President Nixon.
Title IX is the federal law that opened the door of opportunity for girls and women to participate in sports by prohibiting gender discrimination in schools and colleges that receive federal funding. Even though everyone thinks of it as the “sports law,” it also put women in graduate and undergraduate business, engineering, medical, and law programs, and today focuses on women’s safety on campuses and equitable recruitment and exposure to the STEM fields.
7. 1984 – Mary Lou Retton scores a perfect 10 on the vault at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles to capture the first gold medal ever by an American woman in the all-round event.
Retton brought strength, exuberance, and a fierce competitive spirit to the sport of gymnastics, finally giving it mass appeal to people in the US. In the 80’s women had few physical role models, but the 1984 Olympics held in the US brought Jackie Joyner Kersee, Joan Benoit, and Mary Lou into our homes alongside the Jane Fonda aerobics fitness tapes.
8. 1996 – Soccer and Softball make their debuts in the Olympic Games.
The US women dominate the team competitions by winning the gold medals in basketball, gymnastics, soccer, softball, and synchronized swimming. With these medals and 25 years of the benefits of Title IX, team sports for girls became ingrained in the US culture.
9. 1999 – The US women’s soccer team wins the World Cup.
The match was played in front of more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, had an American television audience estimated at 40 million, and a worldwide television audience of one billion. It’s still the most watched women’s sporting event in US history.
10. 2003 – Annika Sörenstam became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event since 1945.
Sörenstam played in the PGA Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas. Even though she’s now retired, Sörenstam has won 90 international tournaments, making her the female golfer with the most wins to her name and one of the most successful female golfers in history.