The history of women’s sports is a story of struggle, progress, and empowerment, marked by continuous significant milestones and challenges. Women’s sport has seen exponential growth and expansion in recent years, with the turn of the 20th century bringing progressive change toward more equality and inclusion of women in sport globally. As a result, we’re seeing more and more women’s sporting heroes gaining recognition worldwide, becoming household names, and, in turn, inspiring the next generation of women in sports. But why does this matter, and what can be done to keep the momentum going? Let’s begin with how it all started.
The evolution of women in sport
Historically, women in sports date back to ancient and pre-modern (before the 19th century) times. The story of Odysseus waking to the sounds of Princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens playing ball by the river bank is told in Homer’s Odyssey, and in Ancient Greece, participation by women in foot races and some festivals was documented, but for the most part, women were forbidden from participating in Olympic events. However, change was in full swing when the 1900 Paris Olympic Games came along, with a historic 22 women competing alongside their male counterparts across sailing, croquet, equestrian tennis and lawn golf.
At a similar time, in 1900, the first female-only sporting groups were formed. These were mainly for lawn bowls or golf clubs, but this progress led to more, and by the 1930s, athletics and track and field clubs for women were also established.
The ’50s and ’60s saw even more progress, with World War II leading to increased women’s involvement in sports as they took on various roles on the home front and in the military. Post-war, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) (the first of its kind) gained popularity and inspired the film “A League of Their Own.”
However, the time that saw the most dramatic change was 1972 when Title IX, a U.S. federal law enacted, prohibited sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities, including sports. This legislation profoundly impacted women’s sports in the United States, creating a global ripple effect – with similar policies being adopted in Australia and New Zealand.
Fast forward beyond Victorian Ideals and myths of harm to reproductive organs if women participated in certain sports, and today, we’re seeing a commitment to reach full gender equality for the Olympic Games in Paris 2024.
Visibility inspires participation
Despite setbacks over the years, like a lack of funding, lack of sponsorship, and immense inequality, women continue to break down barriers and break records. Things are evolving quickly, however, and an increased visibility of women in sports inspires participation and inspires the next generation to get involved. Here’s how:
- Smashing audience ratings records
Most recently, our very own national female football team, the Matilda’s, broke Australian viewership records, peaking at a staggering 11.15 million, surpassing all previous TV viewing records in Australian history. With viewership numbers more than double a State of Origin Game or either of the NRL and AFL grand finals, the Women’s FIFA World Cup has contributed significantly to the growth, visibility, and recognition of women’s sports.
- Increase in elite competitions
Establishing professional and semi-professional leagues and competitions specifically for women has been pivotal. In Australia, the introduction of the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) and the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in cricket has provided female athletes with more opportunities to pursue viable careers in sports.
- More financial support
Increased investment from governments, sporting organisations, and corporate sponsors has played a crucial role in increasing visibility and participation. It’s enabled infrastructure development, coaching programs, and player pathways for women’s sports.
- Enhanced media coverage
Broadcast and online platforms have helped raise the profile of women’s sports both in Australia and New Zealand and globally. Major events like the Women’s T20 World Cup in cricket and the Women’s Rugby World Cup have received extensive coverage.
Influential women in sport
Icons like Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Sam Kerr are leading the way and championing women’s inclusion and equality in sports. They’re also acting as crucial role models for competitors of the future. While all women in sport are playing a role in shaping the future, in no particular order here are our top eight most influential women in sport:
- Sam Kerr
An exceptionally talented and accomplished soccer player, Sam’s impact extends well beyond the soccer pitch, inspiring countless individuals, especially girls. Consistently performing at the highest level amongst club and national teams, her success has made her one of the most well-known female soccer players globally. Off the field, Kerr has been vocal in advocating for gender equality in sports, including equal pay for female athletes, with her efforts bringing much-needed attention to the gender pay gap in sports.
- Billie Jean King
Tennis legend and former world number one BJK has long been a pioneer for equality and social justice in sport. She founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and was instrumental in establishing the Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs – symbolising the fight for equal pay in sports –and she famously won.
- Serena Williams
Widely regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and ranked world number one by the Women’s Tennis Association for 319 weeks consecutively, Serena and her sister Venus made a splash in the predominantly white tennis world with their strength, athleticism and envelope-pushing tennis wear.
- Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Heptathlete and long jumper, Joyner-Kersee is considered one of the greatest female athletes of all time. Her post-athletic career has involved tirelessly advocating for children’s education, racial equality, and women’s rights in sports and beyond.
- Kathrine Switzer
As the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967 (despite the race director’s efforts to remove her from the course), Kathrine challenged the belief that women were not suited for long-distance running. In 1977, she created the Avon International Running Circuit, a worldwide series of women’s races that paved the way for the women’s marathon to become an Olympic event in 1984.
- Danica Patrick
In the heavily male-dominated world of motorsports, Danica Patrick has been breaking stereotypes and is lauded as the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel car racing. In 2008, she famously won the Indy Japan 300, making her the first-ever female to win an IndyCar Series race.
- Simone Biles
As the first female U.S. gymnast to win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games, Simone now has seven Olympic medals under her belt and is known for her extraordinary talent and advocacy for mental health.
- Lisa Carrington
New Zealand’s most successful Olympian to date, Lisa has not only achieved remarkable success in her sport of canoeing but has also become a strong advocate for increasing the representation and coverage of women in sports.
Women in sports – why it matters
There are several significant reasons why women’s sports are essential to grow and endorse; here are just a few:
- Gender equality – rife with traditional gender stereotypes, breaking down gender barriers in sports contributes to a more equitable society. And with equality comes empowerment.
- Health and wellbeing – undeniably, one of the most important aspects is the ability of sports to boost overall health and wellbeing. Encouraging women and girls to participate helps foster a healthy lifestyle, reduces the risk of chronic illness, and positively impacts mental health.
- Inspiration and representation – athletes serve as role models and sources of inspiration for people of all genders. The presence of role models that you can identify with serves as a reminder of the importance of hard work, dedication, and perseverance.
- Economic opportunities – as women’s sports grow, so do the opportunities for female athletes to pursue viable careers in sports.
Let’s keep the momentum going!
The rise of women’s sport in Australia and New Zealand has been a remarkable and transformative journey that has gained significant momentum over the past few decades, but it’s not time to rest on our laurels just yet. To keep the momentum going, we need to advocate for more media coverage for women’s sports, advocate for equity in pay, attend, watch and follow women’s sporting events, and if you’re a business owner, consider sponsoring a women’s team or event. Only then will women’s sports take its deserved spot as an integral part of the global sports landscape.