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08-03-2022 by FSI Editors

International Women’s Day: A Look at Women’s Sports History

Beyoncé sings that girls run the world. Her lyrics echo like a battle cry in a constantly uneven playing field; a daily reminder to the world and women alike. The 8th of March similarly, is a calendar reminder to celebrate women and their achievements every day. 

Speaking of uneven playing fields, Fantasy Sports Interactive delves into the history of women in sports on all fronts: from participation and achievements, to the struggles women have been facing and overcoming historically - since restrictions and inequality have been a fact that nevertheless highlights their continuous efforts and wins.

Ancient Civilizations & Olympic Games 

The ancient Olympic Games were a series of athletic competitions among representatives of city-states and one of the Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece. They were held in honour of Zeus, and the Greeks gave them a mythological origin. Despite their seemingly “Pan-hellenic” character, only men were allowed to attend the Ancient Olympic Games, other than the priestess of Demeter. However, before the Olympic Games competitions, a separate women's athletic event was held at the stadium in Olympia, called the Heraean Games and dedicated to the goddess Hera. In ancient Greek mythology there was the belief that Heraea was founded by Hippodameia, the wife of the king who founded the Olympics.

After the classical period, there was some participation by women in men's athletic festivals. Spartan women began to practice the same athletic exercises that men did, exhibiting the qualities of Spartan soldiers. Early sources report that Spartan girls practiced running and wrestling; later texts also mention throwing the javelin and discus, boxing, and pankration, a combination of wrestling and boxing. They also learned to ride on horseback. Plato even supported women in sports by advocating running and sword-fighting for women. Notably, the cultural representations of a pronounced female physicality went beyond sport in Ancient Greece, to the powerful female representations of warriors in the warrioresses known as the Amazons.

In team sports, Chinese women of the early modern times (960 - 1644) during the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, played in professional Cuju teams. Cuju is an ancient Chinese ball game resembling modern-day football (soccer), played by kicking a ball through an opening into a net. Like in contemporary football, use of hands was not allowed. Descriptions of the game date back to the Han dynasty, and a Chinese military work from the 3rd–2nd century BC describes Cuju as an "exercise". The game was also played in Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Modern Olympics

Back to the Olympics, it seems that the original ancient events were more progressive than their modern world version, as the first Olympic games to feature female athletes was the 1900 Games in Paris.

In a total of 997 athletes, 22 women managed to compete at the 1900 Games (2.2% of all the competitors) in 5 sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf - with tennis and golf being the only sports where women could compete in individual disciplines.

The first woman to compete at the Olympic Games was Hélène de Pourtalès of Switzerland, who also became the first female Olympic champion as a member of the winning team in the first 1 to 2 ton sailing event on May 22, 1900.

Countess Hélène de Pourtalès was actually an American-born sailor who competed in the 1900 Summer Olympics representing Switzerland and became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Following the historic victory of Countess de Pourtalès in a team sport, Briton Charlotte Cooper thrived as the first female individual champion by winning the women's singles tennis competition on July 11. Before superb, 4-time gold Olympic medalist Serena Williams, came Charlotte Cooper, an English female tennis player who won five singles titles at the Wimbledon Championships and in 1900 became Olympic champion. In winning in Paris on 11 July 1900, she became the first female Olympic tennis champion as well as the first individual female Olympic champion.

The first historical milestone for women in the Olympics came in 1979, when the right of women to participate in sport  was formally included in an international convention for the first time, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In 1994, the International Working Group (IWG) on Women and Sport was  established and held its inaugural World Conference on Women and Sport in Brighton (UK). This important Conference gave rise to the Brighton Declaration, an international treaty to support the ongoing development of a fairer and more equitable system of sport and physical activity. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) supported the initiative and became a signatory to the Declaration.

According to the IOC’s official website:

The IOC is committed to gender equality in sport. The Olympic Charter, Chapitre 1, Rule 2.8, states that the IOC's role is: to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.

With the addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic programme, the 2012 Games in London were the first in which women competed in all the sports on the programme. Since 1991, any new sport seeking to join the Olympic programme must have women’s competitions.

At the 2016 Games in Rio, 45 per cent of the participants were women”.

Future Olympics

In May 2021, the IOC approved 21 Gender Equality and Inclusion Objectives for 2021-2024. These objectives build on the progress achieved as part of Olympic Agenda 2020 and the IOC Gender Equality Review Project and set out actions to help achieve Recommendation 13 of Olympic Agenda 2020+5.

The objectives centre around five focus areas:

Participation, Leadership, Safe Sport, Portrayal and Resource Allocation, and are categorised into the IOC’s three areas of responsibility:

The IOC as an organisation, The IOC as owner of the Olympic Games and the IOC as the leader of the Olympic Movement.

Introduction of women’s sports in the Olympics - Timeline
  • 1900 Tennis, Golf
  • 1904 Archery
  • 1908 Tennis*, Skating
  • 1912 Aquatics
  • 1924 Fencing
  • 1928 Athletics, Gymnastics
  • 1936 Skiing
  • 1948 Canoe
  • 1952 Equestrian
  • 1964 Volleyball, Luge
  • 1976 Rowing, Basketball
  • 1980 Hockey
  • 1984 Shooting, Cycling
  • 1988 Tennis*, Table Tennis, Sailing
  • 1992 Badminton, Judo, Biathlon
  • 1996 Football, Softball
  • 1998 Curling, Ice Hockey
  • 2000 Weightlifting, Modern Pentathlon, Taekwondo, Triathlon
  • 2002 Bobsleigh
  • 2004 Wrestling
  • 2012 Boxing
  • 2016 Golf*, Rugby
  • 2020 Baseball/Softball*, Karate, Skateboarding, Sports Climbing, Surfing

* Sports re-introduced to the Olympic Programme.

Women In Sports
The Olympics garner worldwide attention every 4 years, but what about the history of women in everyday sports? Looking back throughout (modern) history, the mainstream social experience was that the sports fandom as well as the key positions within sports organisations were dominated by men. The social narrative and the male-dominated world of sports resulted in a consistent underestimation of women’s sports both practically and financially. The case of the fight of the U.S. national women’s soccer team for equal pay, that only started in 2016 and got settled in 2022, is indicative of the gender bias in sports.
Pay inequity in sports for female athletes has been a point of contention in recent years in several sports, as women were earning lower wages as athletes in organisations such as the WNBA and USA Hockey beyond the United States Soccer Federation, and also earning less prize money in competitions such as Wimbledon and the World Surf League’s Championship Tour.
The long, good fight of the World Cup-winning United States women’s soccer team ended in February 2022 with a settlement that included a $24 million in payments to the players from the U.S. soccer, and a promise by their federation to equalise pay between the men’s and women’s national teams. As the New York Times wrote, the bulk of that figure is back pay, a tacit admission that compensation for the men’s and women’s teams had been unequal for years.

Speaking of soccer, the Deakin University library informs us that Women have been playing soccer under Football Association rules since the 1880s. The First World War saw large numbers of women join the workforce and they played soccer recreationally and competitively. A few continued to play when the men returned. After the Second World War women played intermittently but by the 1960s in Australia they were playing unofficial international matches and started a national domestic competition in 1974. They had a semi-professional national W-League and the national team, the Matildas, has a world ranking of six leading into the FIFA World Cup in France.
FIFA sanctioned the first-ever Women's World Cup in 1991 and the aforementioned USA’s soccer ladies beat Norway 2-1 to win the event. For their ground-breaking achievement, they were largely ignored by the press and public. Fast-forward to 1999, and the Women’s World Cup was held in the US, only this time, live events filled NFL stadiums with spectators and 18 million viewers tuned in to watch the final match on TV. Perhaps not surprisingly, the WUSA professional women's soccer league was founded the next year.
In the meantime, the 1996 Summer Games included women’s soccer and softball, and in 1997, women’s ice hockey was added to the Winter Games. USA women’s teams won gold medals in basketball, gymnastics, soccer, softball, and individual women won a variety of other events.

Moving on to other popular team sports, basketball was invented in 1891 by physical educator, physician, Christian chaplain and sports coach, Dr. James Naismith. He wrote the original basketball rule book and founded the University of Kansas basketball program. Soon after that, on March 22, 1893, Sanda Berenson organised the first women's college basketball game.
A little more than a year earlier, Berenson, a 25-year-old Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, read about the invention of basketball by Dr. James Naismith.
Intrigued and eager to promote physical fitness, Berenson began the sport as a class exercise at the women-only Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The first game between teams was played at the campus gymnasium on March 22, 1893, with Berenson officiating. Big games at the school in the early 1900s reportedly drew as many as 1,200 spectators.
Soon after that first game, women began playing basketball across the United States, with the first intercollegiate women’s game held April 4, 1896, pitting Stanford against the University of California.
In 1901, Berenson’s rules were first published in a women's basketball guide issued by the famous sporting goods company, Spalding. The rules were revised in 1913 and again in 1915, but major changes were not made again until the 1960s.
And in 1926, the Amateur Athletic Union backed the first national women’s basketball championship, complete with men’s rules.

As women’s basketball was being established, The Edmonton Grads, a touring Canadian women’s team based in Edmonton, Alberta, operated between 1915 and 1940. The Grads toured all over North America, and were exceptionally successful. They posted a record of 522 wins and only 20 losses over that span, as they met any team which wanted to challenge them, funding their tours from gate receipts.
Their style focused on team play, without overly emphasising the skills of individual players. The Grads also shone on several exhibition trips to Europe, and won four consecutive exhibition Olympics tournaments, in 1924, 1928, 1932, and 1936; however, women’s basketball was not an official Olympic sport until 1976.
Beyond even the notion of gender pay gap, The Grads’ players were unpaid, apparently not regarded as professionals, while social scrutiny and intrusiveness extended to them having to remain single. 
Nevertheless, Women’s industrial leagues sprang up throughout the United States, producing famous athletes, including Babe Didrikson of the Golden Cyclones, and the All American Red Heads Team, which competed against men’s teams, using men’s rules.
In 1971, women were deemed fit to play a full-court game, and in 1985, Senda Berenson became the first woman to make the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Finally, in 1996, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was founded, more than a century after that first game that Sanda Berenson organised.

And what about football? reports that “once upon a time in America, football was thought to be an exclusive domain for males. Autumn weekends were affairs when women got consigned to being “football widows,” who grieved the loss of her partner to the “netherworld” of football. The language attached to the game sounded intergalactic and the images from the game on TV projected gruff, groveling guys smacking each other around for three or so hours”.
Wikipedia informs us about what they call “women’s gridiron/American/Canadian Football”, that most leagues play by the same rules as their male counterparts, with one exception: women's leagues use a slightly smaller football. And while apparently the writer feels that a smaller ball is the primary information about women's football, they proceed to add that Women primarily play on a semi-professional or amateur level in the United States, and that very few high schools or colleges offer the sport solely for women and girls. Also noting that, on occasion, it is permissible for a female player to join the otherwise male team.
And if you don’t know how to handle that piece of information in 2022, wait until you hear that when women started playing organized football in 1926, an NFL team called the Frankford Yellow Jackets (the predecessors to the modern Philadelphia Eagles) employed a women's team for “halftime entertainment”. 
However, progress is being made: in 2021 the NFL welcomed Maya Chaka, a health and physical education teacher in the state of Virginia, to its lineup of officials. Chaka joined Sarah Thomas, an official in Super Bowl LV, as the second female official in the NFL’s 102-year history. At the time, the NFL had eight coaches and 12 scouts who are women, representing the NFL’s march to diversity and inclusion, a pipeline for women to hold NFL careers in coaching, scouting, analytics and football administration.

The sky is the limit for anything females want to do,” said Sheila Ford Hamp, the principal owner of the Detroit Lions, at the league’s fifth annual Women’s Careers in Football Forum in February.

The International Federation of American Football (IFAF), the international governing body of gridiron associations that is headquartered in Paris, has been promoting women's participation in football for over a decade now. The very first women’s IFAF championship was held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2010, featuring the teams of the United States, Canada, Germany, Austria, Finland and Sweden. The U.S. ladies won. 
Currently, an estimated 4000 women in the United States play tackle football in organised leagues, which include the 8-team United States Women’s Football League (USWFL) and the 20-team Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC), founded in 2018 in partnership with Adidas’ ‘she breaks barriers’ campaign. The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), a mammoth organisation consisting of 66 teams and three divisions spread over the United States.

More Historical Milestones of Women In Sports
- 1901 - Motorsports: Camille du Gast - one of France’s most famous female racing drivers - became the first woman to race consistently at international level.
- 1943 - Baseball: The All-American Girls Baseball League is founded by Philip K. Wrigley
- 1956 - Tennis: Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American to win a Grand Slam event title with a victory in the French Championships (French Open).
- 1975 - Hiking: Japan’s Junko Tabei becomes the first woman to summit Mt. Everest.
- 1997 - Basketball: The NBA hires two female referees, Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer, the first to work regular-season games in a major men’s pro sports league
- 2007 - Tennis: Wimbledon announces that women will receive the same prize money as men.
- 2012 - MMA: Ronda Rousey is first female fighter to be signed by the UFC; the bantamweight champion sets a record for winning the most UFC title defences — six — before losing in 2015.
- 2015 - American Football: Sarah Thomas becomes the first full-time female official in NFL history.
- 2020 - American Football: Katie Sowers, the offensive assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, will be the first female coach — and first openly gay coach — to participate in the Super Bowl.

The history of women in sports is rich, describing their collective effort and individual feats as they have been competing in events while fighting against adversity, bias, gender role stereotypes and the patriarchal social gaze.
Their wins and progress reflect society’s progress as well, turning the spotlight on all women’s everyday struggles, hard work, ongoing social battles and victories.
From the sports field to the workplace and family life, in politics, science, business, the arts, or in leadership positions, and anywhere within the social sphere, women are able - and fully entitled - to accomplish anything they set their minds to.
Happy International Women’s Day!


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