Explore women's achievement in the sports and the Olympic Games.
Women's Olympic ambitions naturally aligned with their interest in sports and competition.
However, the pathway to participation proved to be more a marathon than a sprint.
People at every social level formed teams, joined leagues, and learned the rules of the games.
Though not officially sanctioned, women participated in the second and third games in 1900 and 1904. It was not until 1908 in London that female athletes were specifically included. Margaret Abbot took first in women's golf in Paris in 1900, making her the first female American Olympic champion.
Matilda “Lida” Howell won three archery gold medals at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. Howell captured 17 US national archery championships between 1883 and 1907.
The IOC slowly increased the number of women’s athletic events. American women entered Olympic swimming and diving events in 1920.
Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson of Riverdale, Illinois won the 100 meters in 1928 in Amsterdam, the first Olympic games to include women’s track and field events.
While elite, predominantly white universities eliminated women's athletic programs, many historically black colleges retained them. The most prolific program arose at Tennessee State University where Ed Temple served as head women's track coach from 1950 to 1994. During his tenure, forty members of his famed Tigerbelle teams represented Tennessee State in Olympic competition, winning a total of 23 medals (13 Gold, 6 Silver, and 4 Bronze). Temple coached famed Olympian Wilma Rudolph to three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
On June 23, 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid. Title IX alone did not immediately create access to sports for girls. Many fought to ensure its implementation.
US Representative Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) was a principal author of the Education Amendments of 1972—later renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. A former high school basketball player who was restricted to half-court play under the girls’ rules, Mink made fighting gender discrimination a hallmark of her Congressional career.
Increasing numbers of girls and women in organized sports and an emphasis on women’s athletic achievements demonstrate that slowly but surely, women are getting back in the game.
As of 2018, there are only three Olympic sports that are not open to both men and women. These sports are Nordic combined, rhythmic gymnastics, and synchronized swimming. Nordic combined will be open to both men and women at the 2022 winter games in Beijing but there are no plans to integrate rhythmic gymnastics or synchronized swimming.
National Women's History Museum
Director of Program: Elizabeth L. Maurer
Content Development Intern: Abigail Thompson
Updated and Edited by Kenna Howat, Program Assistant