Game Changers

Women & Sports

By National Women’s History Museum

"Sports are integral to American national identity whether as metaphor, cultural past time,
or economic driver. Though Americans take sports seriously, women and men have had very different
experiences with sports participation. Competition—the core element of the
national obsession with sports—has been problematic for America to accept
when applied towards women.

This exhibit explores the cultural, economic, social, and
political barriers women have overcome to play sports and the challenges remaining

Peddie Institute baseball team, J.C. Sunderlin, 1891-05, From the collection of: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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Preparatory school baseball team, 1891.

Outdoor recreation and organized sports rose in popularity following the Civil War. The movement from a farm towards an industrial economy created new opportunities for leisure, even among the working class. Both men and women embraced organized sports as participants and spectators.

A Bicycle Ride, 1895, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Women enjoying a bicycle ride, 1895.

bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect, and self-reliance.”

~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton"

Bicycles came to symbolize the quintessential “New Woman” of the late 19th century.  The new woman was young, college educated, active in sports, interested in pursuing a career, and looking for a marriage based on equality.

"What does it mean to be an athlete?"

Elite, eastern women's colleges readily adopted sports programs in the last quarter of the 19th century. Vassar had three baseball teams by 1875: the Sure-Pops, Daisy-Clippers, and Royals. Students also joined archery, rowing, tennis, and track as well as basketball teams.

Smith College started a basketball team in 1891, only a few months after the game's invention. Though the rules were adapted to prevent young women's over-exertion, students enthusiastically embraced the game.

Public attitudes towards collegiate women's sports were conflicted. While elements of popular culture embraced the new confident, athletic woman, many were disturbed by the sight of women sweating, running, and competing.

College Basketball, Library of Congress, 1896, From the collection of: National Women’s History Museum
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The first intercollegiate women's basketball game was played in Berkeley between the University of California and Stanford, April 4, 1896. Male spectators were banned.

Attitudes towards socially elite women and sports changed in the 1920s and 1930s. While their masculine contemporaries were actively encouraged to vigorously pursue sports competition as a training ground for business success, women were discouraged and even blocked from competition for fear that it would make them less feminine.

Michael Rougier, 1927, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Young Ronald Reagan pictured with his high school football team, 1927.

Wimbledon, John Phillips, 1938, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Helen Wills Moody at Wimbledon, 1938.

Helen Wills Moody won eight Wimbledon women's singles championship titles between 1927 and 1938. America's premier champion did not lose a set in singles from 1926 to 1932. Praised for her poise and ability, she achieved national acclaim as a talented sportswoman. However, many fans and sports writers were put off by her on-court intensity. Criticized as merciless towards lesser opponents,  Moody--nicknamed “Little Miss Poker Face” by the media--retired as a respected but not beloved athlete.

Many girls were admonished to avoid “unladylike” competitive and contact sports. Instead they were directed towards healthful exercise activities, like calisthenics.

Martha Holmes, 1946-12, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Teenage girls in gymnastics class, 1946.

Softball, George Skadding, 1949-07-07, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Softball, 1949.

Working-class women and women of color were not held to the same social standard as socially elite, white women. Businesses and factories formed employee club teams to play in highly competitive amateur leagues, which included both women's and men's teams.  Teams wore the sponsor's name on their uniforms. While the teams existed to market company products and brands, they nevertheless afforded many working class women unprecedented access to sports participation.

Martha Holmes, 1947-05, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, 1947.

Dallas-based Employers Casualty Company hired star, high school athlete Mildred “Babe” Didrickson in 1930 as a $75 per month clerical worker. Her real role with the insurance company was as a forward on the company's basketball team, which she led to a national championship. After winning two track gold medals at the 1932 Olympics, with ECC's sponsorship, Didrickson switched to golf where she dominated as a major star.

Dikrickson was criticized for appearing too masculine. She changed her appearance to mollify critics, wearing more feminine clothing.

"What does equality look like?"

African-American communities were more supportive of black women and competitive sports. Many African-American colleges and universities encouraged athletics as a pathway to improve community health and build leadership. A 1939 survey reported that only 25% of black colleges objected to intercollegiate women's sports, compared to a survey of predominately white institutions that reported 83% opposed women's varsity athletics.

Wilma Rudolph, Mark Kauffman, 1960-09-19, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Wilma Rudolph as she wins one of three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics.

Wilma Rudolph won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympic games. But it was at the 1960 Rome games that she emerged as an international, sports superstar. Her inspiring personal story as a little girl who overcame polio to win the gold touched people around the world. Rudolph's Olympics were the first to be broadcast on television, leading to new perceptions of women and sports.

Ed Temple, Rudolph's track coach at Tennessee State University, produced forty Olympians over his 43-year career. They won twenty six medals, seventeen gold.

Summer Olympics 1972, John Dominis, 1972-08, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Mabel Fergerson at 1972 Summer Olympics.

On June 23, 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments. The statute prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid. Since then, high school girls' participation in organized sports has increased ten times, and women's involvement in collegiate sports has increased six-fold. However, girls still face challenges, because passage of Title IX alone did not immediately create access to sports for girls. Many had to fight to ensure its implementation.

"“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

~ Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972"

Background & fight for Title IX, National Women's History Museum, 2014-02, From the collection of: National Women’s History Museum
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Dr. Bonnie Morris, Mariah Burton Nelson, and Jill Agostino discuss the history of Title IX and the fight for its implementation.

Female role models have inspired young women to pursue sports equity.

"“Throughout the 1960s, less than 20%  of the country's universities offered women's intercollegiate competition. Even by the early 1970s, studies show that only 7.4%  of girls participated in high school athletics.”

~ Kathleen McElroy, “Somewhere to Run”"

Richard Meek, 1967-09, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Billie Jean King, 1967.

"“King not only won admittance to the Hall of Fame; she almost single-handedly altered the nature of sports forever, creating a viable future for active girls and women in every sport.”

~ Grace Lichtenstein, “Net Profits”"

Billie Jean King was a fierce competitor. She lobbied for equal prize money, helped to start the women's tennis tour, and defeated a former male champion in the Battle of the Sexes. She inspired women in many sports, not just tennis, to pursue competition.

Billie Jean King's win in the "Battle of the Sexes", National Women's History Museum, 2014-02, From the collection of: National Women’s History Museum
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Mariah Burton Nelson shares how Billie Jean King's win in the "Battle of the Sexes" influenced her.

"In 2014, 41 years after Title IX's passage, girls have 1.3 million fewer chances to play sports in high school than boys.

~ National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education"

High School Athletics Participation 1971-2013, Women's Sports Foundation, 2013, From the collection of: National Women’s History Museum
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High School Athletics Participation, 1971-2013. Women's Sports Foundation.

Title IX was a watershed moment in American history that opened the doors to women's participation in school-sponsored, competitive sports. Suddenly, women's athletic programs sprang up, providing opportunities to join teams, travel, and compete, with all the corresponding benefits. The law ensured  that girls and women would have uniforms and equipment, facilities, and skilled coaches.

Title IX and increased girl's athletic participation led to:

* 20% of the rise of female educational attainment for the generation that followed the new law.

* 10% increase in the number of women working full time.

* 12% spike in female participation in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly high skill occupations.

~ Findings by Dr. Betsey Stevenson, University of Michigan, via Women in Sports Foundation

Although women and girls have made enormous achievements in breaking down social, political, and cultural barriers to equality and full participation in sports, work remains. According to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, in addition to having fewer participation opportunities, girls often endure inferior treatment in areas such as equipment, facilities, coaching, scheduling, and publicity. American society continues to struggle with what it means to be an athlete and how to apply that definition to women and girls.

Time Covers - The 20S, 1929-07, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Tennis champion Helen Wills Moody, 1929.

2001-09-03, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, 2001.

Recommended Readings

Cahn, S. K. 1994. Coming on strong: Gender and sexuality in twentieth-century women's sport. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Gorn, Elliott J., and Warren Goldstein. 2004. A brief history of American sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Guttmann, Allen. 1991. Women's sports: a history. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hargreaves, Jennifer . 2002. Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women's Sport. Routledge.

Hogshead-Makar, Nancy and Andrew Zimbalist. 2007. Equal Play: Title IX and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Messner, Michael A. 2003. Taking the field: women, men, and sports. Minneapolis [u.a.]: Univ. of Minnesota Pr.

Smith, Lissa. 2001. Nike is a goddess: the history of women in sports. New York: Grove Atlantic.

Women in Sports Foundation, web site,

Credits: Story

—Elizabeth L. Maurer, Director of Program

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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