To Be a Female Athlete: The History of Defiance (Part 1: 1800-1969)


With the recent success of Women’s Marches all over the country this year, I began to self-reflect what it means to be a female athlete. What role do athletes play in the fight for gender equality? I would argue that female athletes epitomize the fight for equal consideration. Women’s sports are an ultimate case study of both progress and a barometer on how far we have to go.

Part 1: The History of Defiance from 1800-1969

The movement of feminism is as complex and varied as the female gender itself. I believe that we are all well aware of “traditional” female roles in this country by now. Traditional female roles have defined women as caretakers, mothers, servants, and in a submissive role to their male counterparts. The oppressive standards women have had to face are so historically ingrained that we are still fighting them off today.


In Victorian England, a women’s place was the home. Especially in aristocratic families, women were groomed from a young age to only study enough to be able to carry on conversation with potential male suitors, but there was line in which one could be too educated and therefore scare off men. Jane Austin wrote a great many books on this premise.

Women were not supposed to talk about politics, religion, philosophy, or anything of depth, beyond a child like understanding, in order to gain the trust and amusement of their suitors. I have seen women still take a page from this book today. How many times have you seen women dumb themselves down in order to play a submissive role to males? I implore you to take a trip to Hooters if you need an example.

The Industrial Revolution changed the world forever. Culturally in the west, it conflicted with conservatism. It was the time period of innovation. New inventions and machines were created to make work easier and more productive. This freed up labor hours to be placed in other avenues of creation. People moved away from the country and agriculture and towards cities for manufacturing. This slowly began creating a stronger middle class. Cities exploded in population but production came with a dark side as over population led to deplorable conditions, disease, and death.

The conditions of the new factories were not much better than home life, as labor laws were not in place yet. Long hours, few breaks, unsafe conditions, child labor, and low pay served to treat workers with an extraordinarily tough life. Eventually however, these conditions served as the birthplace of a different kind of revolution. The revolution of labor rights.

That conflict between Industrial progression and Victorian ideals produced the Edwardian period of social change. People who had been oppressed and marginalized found more freedom to act on their ideas. They gained confidence in numbers and political about their aims. The tiny pin light of possibility led to the cradle of the suffrage movement in England.

Meanwhile, in America, these changes were having an effect as well. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton founded the Women’s Loyal National League in 1852, which was created to help abolish slavery. This later transformed into fights for both women’s rights and the rights of African-Americans.

The later part of the 1800s was the birthplace for sports, although many of them with modified rules, for women. This modifying theme occurred because it was thought that women could not handle the strain that their male counterparts could. For example, in 1863, the sport of  soccer created standardized rules to prohibit violence to make it more acceptable for women to play.

Softball was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1887. It was created on accident when Yale and Harvard had finished playing a football game. Bets were settled after the game and a frustrated Yale student threw a boxing glove at a Harvard student, who took a stick and swung at the glove. It quickly became a game to stay in shape for baseball in the winter months because you could play it indoors.



Women’s basketball was introduced by Senda Berenson at Smith College in 1892. She wanted to promote physical fitness for her students but she was concerned for their well-being including “nervous fatigue” and therefore modified the rules.

The “nervous fatigue” she was worried about relates to a previous condition women were labeled with as “hysteria”. Hysteria was basically a term created by men when they didn’t know how to handle a woman who was emotional.


The modified rules were basically a cross between basketball, soccer, and ultimate Frisbee of today. There were 9 players on each side. To avoid overexertion, you were a guard, forward, or center but had to stay in your area. You could only dribble 3 times and hold the ball for only 3 seconds. Uniforms were basically their school uniforms.


In 1894, Nettie Honeyball of England, led the first British Ladies’ Football Club (soccer). This was frowned by British football admins due to the threat against “masculinity” of the game.

The first intercollegiate women’s basketball team was between Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, in 1896. Go Pac 12!


The period between 1900 and 1929 was a period of push back from males, administrations, and leaders against female athletes. Despite having proven they would not fall over at the sight of sweat, as there were women who played, it seemed the sight of a woman working hard was unsettling for some.  At the same time, women were finding their voice on their own, and were brilliantly using other movements as a platform to use it.

The Women’s Trade Union League formed in 1903 as an offshoot of the AFL to fight for better wages and conditions for working women. As with many other laborers a the time, conditions for the working woman were horrid and they fought against sweatshop environments.


In 1901, Spalding issued women’s basketball rules.

But then in 1908, the AAU issued a statement that they didn’t think women should play basketball publicly. They then banned women from competing completely in their events. In 1922, “the reason given for barring women was that if a woman was allowed to run more than a half-mile, they would put their reproductive health at risk.” It wasn’t until 1926 that they allowed women to play basketball, but wouldn’t allow them to run road races until the 60s.

During WWI, women’s soccer gained popularity as many of the men were at war and that left women in jobs and also recreational positions. This is a theme that was produced during both world wars. War actually provided opportunity for women in the work place and in sport that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.

In 1920, Dick, Kerr’s Ladies of Preston, England soccer team played many international matches with great success. In fact, one match brought in 53,000 spectators. Upset by the attention, the Football Association outlawed women from playing  on their fields as it was distasteful, so the women had to play on rugby fields instead.

In 1924, the International Women’s Sports Federation was founded and included basketball, which also was introduced as an exhibition event at the Olympics that year.

In 1926, the term “softball” is coined by Walter Hakanson of the YMCA. There were many names for previously as the game had variations depending one where you lived or played but softball now has a name and a purpose.

Also in 1926, women from the Frankfort Yellow Jackets football team played at halftime at NFL games. This is the beginning of women’s football. It was meant to be a halftime gimmick as the NFL was struggling to compete with college football with attention and attendance.




The 1930s proved to be a decade of great financial stress as the stock market crash of 1929 started the Great Depression. This changed how the US functioned as a society and as individuals. People had to do what they had to do to survive. In the face of crises, sport has always been a great release of stress. Sports were not a huge priority but gave relief to an otherwise horrific time US and world history.


During this decade, Isadore Channels and Ora Mae Washington were showcased as stars for traveling black women’s basketball teams. Both players were outstanding tennis stars who also dominated basketball. Ora was nicknamed “the Queen of Tennis” at the time but also lead her team to 33 straight basketball victories.


In 1933, a slow pitch softball tournament was played at the World’s Fair. The picture to the right below is a women’s team that played in the tournament. The World’s Fair in general was another focus of light in the dark of the Depression. Chicago hosted it for the 2nd time in a hundred years. Innovation and hope were themes stressed throughout. Having women softball players present, shows a brighter future for both women and those who like to play sports.




During WWII, women again experienced an opportunity for progress, as the men left for war. Rosie the Riveter came out in full force into the workplace as women entered factories to build product for the war effort and at home.

Professional male sports were long-established as popular forms of entertainment, leisure, and status to attend. The games and matches were no longer just games and matches, but rather large productions. This meant money was being made and that money was now missing due to the war.

This opened the door further for female athletes. Women’s baseball for example, was created as alternative to MLB, since a lot of baseball players were overseas fighting. The AAGPBL (All-American Girls Professional Baseball League), ran from 1943-1954 and in 1948 brought in close to 1 million spectators. This league inspired my favorite movie of all time, A League of Their Own. Seriously, I made my parents take me to it 7 times in the theater.


Also an interesting fact is that women’s basketball and softball was promoted as way to stay in shape. Japanese American that were in internment camps scheduled women’s basketball games to stay active, and to keep spirits up.





The 1950s was the Leave It to Beaver decade. America was suddenly wealthy after winning the war. Cookie cutter houses created neighborhoods. Homes had black and white televisions. Women were back in the kitchen but now their husbands could afford fancy new appliances. Women’s sports seemed to cruise below the radar during this time period. It would be the calm before the storm on the home front and athletic front.

In 1955, the first Pan-American Games included women’s basketball. The US team would go 8-0 to take Gold.





The fight for labor rights and civil liberties in the previous decades, proved to the be the river of which many additional streams of revolution followed and exploded in the 1960s in our lives. We owe many of the current freedoms we enjoy in the workplace and in society to the persistence of these grassroots groups. The history is checkered and interesting including the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa and the Mafia.

The blood, sweat, and tears of these movements produced new laws. The EEOC for example has several protected classes when it comes to fair treatment of hiring practices. You cannot exclude people due to their race, age, gender, ethnic background, or disability status. Each state then also has additional protections for certain groups. We owe these laws such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the origin of the labor groups previously mentioned.

The problem with the Civil Rights Act however, is that it did not initially address gender equality for federal funded programs. This meant that since public schools were federally funded, that schools were not required to have equal gender representation when it came to activities, namely athletics. This loophole meant that schools could easily keep athletics skewed towards males and opportunities for girls were limited if existed at all.

Women’s football got a boost in 1965, when a talent agent from Cleveland named Sid started the WPFL, with a team in Akron and one in Cleveland.




In 1969, the English Women’s FA for soccer was formed after interest during the 1966 World Cup and the FA finally removed the ban of women from using their fields. The video below shows the progress made in Italy between 50s and 60s in women’s soccer.




Historical Female Athletes

Men’s sports have always done a great job of celebrating and honoring its past stars and achievements. Women’s sports are catching up in this area. It’s important to understand how remarkable these athletes were, and many in the face of extreme adversity. These are true pioneers and it’s important that we remember them. Here is a list of just a handful that dominated.

In the next part of this series, we will look at women’s sports within the background of 1970-1999. Until then, enjoy the videos below.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, plainly known as the “Babe”, was the most celebrated and well-rounded female athlete to exist before Title IX. What makes her accomplishments so astonishing is that she did so in an era where she wasn’t supposed to.

“It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed home, got themselves prettied up, and waited for the phone to ring.” – Joe Williams, New York World Telegram

Her best sport was golf (41 LPGA wins), but she also won 2 Olympic Gold Medals in 1932 in Track, played basketball, and even baseball. This woman was Bo Jackson in a skirt. She was named the 9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by the AP. That award includes both men and women. She was also named the Woman Athlete of the 20th Century.


Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph was one of the greatest track and field athletes of all time. Not only did she break barriers for women, but also women of color. She won numerous Gold medals in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. This was amazing considering when she was a child she was diagnosed with polio.



Peggy Fleming

Peggy Fleming is arguably one of the best female figure skaters of all time. She had a unique style but produced 5 US titles, 3 World Titles, and won the only US Gold Medal in the 1968 Olympics. This caused her to become America’s darling when she came home. She now announces figure skating as an analyst.



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