Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes: Part I

Inspired in part by ESPN’s 1999 SportCentury, which in its ranking of the top 100 North American athletes of the twentieth century included only 8 women, we asked contributors to help recognize the important–and often overlooked–contributions of women in sport history. Readers and scholars were asked to provide “top ten” lists of historically significant women in sport, broadly defined. We purposefully left the parameters vague in order to provide contributors with a blank canvas that could help broaden the conversation about which athletes are usually named “the greatest” in sport. The below compilation shows that there are numerous historically significant women in sport worthy of recognition.

In total, we collected 73 entries, including 70 athletes/coaches and 3 teams. These contributions came from scholars, casual readers, and one sport history classroom. This produced myriad descriptions of prominent female athletes from around the world and from many different sports.

Today’s post recognizes 50 athletes, coaches, and teams (in alphabetical order) that readers of the Sport in American History Blog named as historically significant. Although the identified individuals and squads only received one vote each, they nonetheless illustrate the many accomplishments of women in sport. Part II, available Thursday, November 9, presents women 11 through 23, and Part III, available Thursday, November 16, presents women 1 through 10.


1976 Yale Crew Team

The team that brought Title IX to the forefront of the discussion and equal treatment for female athletics.

Sean Collins


1999 US Women’s National Soccer Team

I can’t single out an individual on this team which proved you could market and sell women’s team sports in America when they won an Olympic gold in the Rose Bowl.

Sarah K. Fields


Tennessee State Tigerbelles Track and Field


Wyomia Tyus

This program produced more than 20 Olympic medals (13 golds) and 40 Olympians, starting with the first African-American woman to win an Olympic Medal (1948 Audrey Patterson) and including Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, and Willey White.

Sarah K. Fields


Sybil Bauer (Swimming)

In 1922, she became the first woman to set a world record (men & women) in a swimming event, the 400. She did it again in 1924. Despite the fact that she was a world record holder, she was not allowed to swim against men at the Paris Games. She died from cancer in 1927, holding world and/or national records in every distance of her signature stroke.

Matthew Hodler


Senda Berenson (Basketball)

She attended Boston Normal School of Gymnastics and adapted men’s basketball rules for women in 1899. Bereson also wrote the first basketball guide for women, and introduced the modified rules for women’s basketball to Smith College.

Susan J. Bandy


3-KoenFanny Blankers-Koen (Track and Field)

At a time when many people dismissed women athletes, this 30-year-old Dutch housewife and mother won four gold medals in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. She was the most successful athlete at the games, male or female. Beyond her Olympics experience, she won five European titles, 58 Dutch titles, and set or tied 12 world records. In 1999, she was voted “Female Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federation.  Koen’s Olympic achievement played a significant role discrediting worldwide the long held beliefs that age and motherhood were barriers to women athletic success.


Robert Pruter


Margaret Court (Tennis)

She still holds the record for the most number of Grand Slam singles titles for a male or female. However, she has also caused controversy in Australia in recent times due to her public opposition to homosexuality and, in particular, same-sex marriage.

Anthony Brady


Betty Cuthbert (Track and Field)

Still to this day, the recently departed Cuthbert remains the oldest sprinter to win the 100 metres, 200 metres and 400 metres at the Olympic Games, the former two (100 and 200) she won at her home Olympic Games in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia, and the 400 she won 8 years later in Tokyo.

Anthony Brady


Chris Evert (Tennis)

Winner of 18 Grand Slam singles championships and three doubles titles. Overall she won 157 singles championships and 32 doubles titles. Her rivalry with Martina Navratilova saw 60 title matches in fifteen years, 18 Grand Slam single titles each, and a remarkable friendship that erupted in the heat of competition to drive and define women’s tennis over the course of two decades.

Nathan M. Corzine


Mabel Fairbanks (Figure Skating)

The first female skater of color to make a wide impact in the sport, Mabel faced racism head on and went on to become a successful coach in California.

Ryan Stevens


Peggy Fleming (Figure Skating)

Peggy Fleming was the dominant skater in the world, winning five U.S. titles from 1964-1968, three World titles in 1966, 1967, and 1968, and the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, the only American gold medal in those games. Seen by many as an artist as much as an athlete, although only 19 when she won her Olympic Gold medal, Fleming dominated the skating world but given the amateur requirements of the day, she retired from competition and turned professional after her gold medal triumph.

Bill Pruden


Heather Furr (Football)

After playing DB for the Saskatoon Valkyries of the Canadian Lingerie Football League in 2012, where she helped her team to an undefeated regular season, she moved to the Chicago Bliss of the rebranded Legend’s Football League.  As QB she led her team to three league championship games, winning in 2013, when she was league MVP, and in 2014.  She became an internet sensation when, after running for a touchdown, she grabbed a beer from a fan, and chugged it at midfield.

Russ Crawford


Zina Garrison (Tennis)

Garrison’s statistics may not exude greatness but part of that was due to the limited backing she received as a professional tennis player.  As a black woman, she was a trailblazer in a sport that had been rather lily-white, and reached the position of world-ranked number four player in 1989.  Her most notable achievement came in reaching the 1990 Wimbledon final, the grand stage in tennis.

Huston Ladner


Sami Grisafe (Football)

Played and lettered in high school football in CA.  As the quarterback of the Chicago Force, she led her team to the 2013 Women’s Football Alliance championship.  As the quarterback of the USA National Team, she has won three IFAF Women’s World Football Championships, and was named the MVP of that championship in 2013.

Russ Crawford



1984 Dorothy Hamill Stamp.

Dorothy Hamill (Figure Skating)

One of the most beloved skaters of the 1970’s, Dorothy Hamill won Olympic gold at the 1976 Winter Olympics, became famous for her Dorothy Hamill ‘wedge’ haircut (it became a legit fad) and became a household name.

Ryan Stevens



Katie Hnida (Football)

Katie Hnida challenged a male hegemonic world, college football.  Hnida became the first female player to score points in a FBS collegiate game but perhaps her bigger contribution was bringing a spotlight to the systemic sexism inherent in football.

Huston Ladner


Gladys Hogg (Ice Dancing)

A celebrated ice dance coach from Great Britain whose students dominated ice dancing during its early years. Miss Hogg was really the first female coach to reach the same level of success as any male in the sport. She was also a fencing instructor, a tough cookie and a very, very smart woman.

Ryan Stevens


Cara Honeychurch (Tenpin Bowler)

The sport of tenpin bowling has been unfairly maligned and underappreciated for many years now. Often people view it as “not a serious sport” and downplay the feats achieved by its participants as not as worthy of accolades when compared to other disciplines. But this is selling tenpin bowlers well short. Honeychurch may be very tiny in stature but the game she bowls on the lanes is bigger than Ben Hur. She dominated the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, the only time the sport of tenpin bowling has featured at either a Commonwealth Games or Olympic Games. Honeychurch was the second woman to bowl a perfect game (300) on American Television and was elected to the International Bowling Hall of Fame back in 1998. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, she is proof size doesn’t matter when it comes to dominating the tenpin bowling lanes.

Anthony Brady


Midori Ito (Figure Skating)

The first woman in history to land the triple Axel, Midori won the 1989 World title and the Olympic silver medal in 1992. She was the first Japanese skater to win a World title and was technically light years ahead of her time. Still – in 2017 – less than a dozen women have landed the triple Axel.

Ryan Stevens


Linda Jefferson (Football)

Played for the Toledo Troopers of the National Women’s Football League from 1972-1976.  She rushed for over a thousand yards each season and led the Troopers to an undefeated record during her first four seasons. Jefferson was named Athlete of the Year by womenSports Magazine in 1975, and is one of four women to be inducted into the American Football Association’s Hall of Fame.

Russ Crawford


Belita Jepson-Turner (Figure Skating)

Even today, skating fans are still in awe of this British skater’s star quality. After competing at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, Belita came to America, where she became a film noir skating star. She also danced with Anton Dolin of the Dolin-Markova Ballet and starred in a series of ice pantomimes in England.


Mamie “Peanut” Johnson (Baseball)

One of three women (including the great Toni Stone), and the first female pitcher, to play in the Negro Leagues.  Mamie crafted an outstanding 33-8 record while playing for the Indianapolis Clowns alongside, for two seasons, future Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. She also hit over .250 in each season that she played. Johnson is a brilliant representative of a long tradition of great female arms from Jackie Mitchell (who once struck out Ruth and Gehrig) to Ila Borders and recent phenom Mo’ne Davis.

Nathan M. Corzine


Marion Jones (Track and Field, Basketball)

I adopted an unconventional, and possibly controversial, definition of influence in order to include Jones. I believe Jones, an elite basketball player and word-class track and field 5-Jonestalent, embodies the combination of possibility and limitation that characterizes many of the greatest women athletes. Her rise positioned her as the modern-day Wilma Rudolph, a successful black woman athlete who symbolized the spirit of progress the US hoped to carry into the twenty-first-century. Her fall, however, evinces the enduring inequities that women athletes, especially black women athletes, encounter. Expectations of race, gender, and sexuality resulted in Jones facing inequitable punishment for her use of performance-enhancing drugs, which, in turn, has rendered her insignificant to the history of women’s sport. I selected Jones in order to challenge her fate, especially since performance-enhancing drug usage is constitutive to the history of contemporary sport, even as the way to make sense of them and the athletes who used them remains unresolved. Rather than erasing her accomplishments and the complexities they raise, appreciating Jones’s greatness (as well as that of Florence Griffith Joyner), can encourage a reckoning with how to account for greatness in women’s sport history.

Cat Ariail


Samantha Kerr (Soccer)

Arguably the best player in the world currently. Helped propel the Matildas (the Australian national women’s soccer team) to their first-ever victory over the United States in the inaugural Tournament of Nations. She is currently the all-time leading goalscorer in the American National Women’s Soccer League.

Anthony Brady


6-LillyKristine Lilly (Soccer)

Mid-fielder Kristine Lilly, an NCAA, World Cup, and Olympic Champion, had a soccer career that others could only dream of.   A four time first team All American and member of four NCAA Championship Teams, she first joined the US national team when she was in high school and ultimately was a member of the US teams that won World Cups in 1991 and 1999 as well as bronze medals in 1995. 2003, and 2007, making her the only woman to play on 5 World Cup finals teams. She also won Olympics gold in 1996 and 2004 and silver in 2000. Over the course of a career that spanned 23 years, from 1987 to 2010, she became the all-time leader in international games played, as well as the third highest goal scorer in the history of the US women’s national team.

Bill Pruden


Elizabeth Manley (Figure Skating)

Dubbed ‘Canada’s Sweetheart’ after giving the (completely unexpected) performance of her life at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Liz won an Olympic silver medal after battling depression and suffering from a condition which caused her hair to fall out. She went on to star in the Ice Capades, compete professionally and become an advocate for mental health issues in sport.

Ryan Stevens


Pat McCormick (Diving)7-McCormick

Pat McCormick is the only woman in history to have achieved the diving double double–winning the Gold Medal in both the one and three meter competition at consecutive Olympics, in her case in 1952 and 1956.  In 1956 McCormick was the recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award, given annually to for best amateur athlete in the US.  She was only the second woman to win the award.

Bill Pruden


Alice Milliat (Track and Field)

She helped form the Federation Francaise Sportive Feminine and in 1921 organized the Women’s Olympic Games. Milliat pressured the International Olympic Committee to include track and field events for women, which led to the inclusion of five events for women in the 1928 Olympic Games.

Susan J. Bandy


Sabrine Mziguir (Football)

She created the first women’s football team in Morocco.  She began by playing with males in Rabat, and then found enough women to create a team – the Rabat Black Mambas Divas.  They played the Transforma Pink Warriors of Cairo, Egypt in the first ever women’s football game in Africa.

Russ Crawford


Charlotte Oelschlägel (Figure Skating)

The star of a series of Eisballets in Berlin in the early twentieth century, Oelschlägel was “discovered” by impresario Charles Dillingham and brought to America, where she starred in shows at the Hippodrome theatre in New York City. She starred in the silent film “The Frozen Warning” and is generally regarded as one of the sport’s first female professional stars.


8-PakSe Ri Pak (Golf)

Pak, from South Korea, who entered the LPGA in 1998, was the first Korean golfer to be named to the LPGA Hall of Fame, but her historical significance for women is much larger.   Pak inspired a whole generation of Korean girls and women to take up golf, so that the biggest women’s sport in South Korea is now golf, larger than most all men’s sports in the country. South Korean women now dominate the LPGA tour, where in the last two years they have won 21 tournaments, compared to the USA’s 7.  Pak indirectly raised the level of women’s golf internationally as golfers from other countries worked to improve their game to compete with the Koreans, and indirectly turned the LPGA from an American-centric sports organization into an international one, with tournaments now in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.  The historical changes that Pak had wrought on women’s golf are immense.

Robert Pruter


Danica Patrick (NASCAR)

Patrick was a true pioneer in sports for women as the first successful woman race car driver. Her pioneering achievements include the first woman to ever win an Indy Car race (in Japan), the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, and the first woman to be voted rookie of the year (in 2005).  She has competed successfully in both Indy Cars and NASCAR.

Robert Pruter


Erin Phillips (Basketball and Australian Rules Football)

A champion basketballer who has had a long career in the WNBA and at representative level for Australia. Her sports career took another turn at the start of 2017 as Phillips starred in the inaugural season of the professional women’s Australian Rules football league the AFLW (Australian Football League Women’s) for the inaugural premiers the Adelaide Crows. Phillips was also the very first AFLW MVP award winner in arguably the most stellar year of her sporting career.

Anthony Brady


Samantha Rapoport (Football)

Played QB for the Canadian Women’s Flag Football team and the Montreal Blitz of the WFA.  When she hung up her cleats, she worked for the NFL, USA Football, where she helped create the U.S. Women’s Flag National Team.  She is currently the Director of Football Development for the NFL.  In that position, she helped create the Women’s Career in Football Forum that has helped place women in coaching positions in the league.

Russ Crawford



Wheaties Box

Mary Lou Retton (Gymnastics)

Helped popularize gymnastics in the United States during an era of Soviet dominance.

Neil Savage


Hope Solo (Soccer)

Hope Solo likely appears as an anomaly on this list. While arguably the greatest women’s goalkeeper of all-time, Solo has gained more notoriety for controversies, both legitimate and contrived. However, it is for Solo’s “bad girl” identity that she deserves recognition. Like Marion Jones, Solo raises uncomfortable yet productive questions about how to historicize women’s sport. Traditionally, unimpeachable morality has served as a prerequisite for a woman athlete’s greatness. Solo contests this largely unquestioned paradigm. She is the avatar for the unapologetic woman athlete; the woman athlete who does not deftly navigate gendered expectations but who runs over them with blunt force. Solo, like Tonya Harding and Britney Griner, is great for the history of women’s sport because she is problematic.

Cat Ariail


Annika Sorenstam (Golf)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, for a short time, it looked like Australian golfer Karrie Webb would be the dominant player on the women’s LPGA Tour for the next 10 or 20 years. It appeared Webb would be to the women’s tour what Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was shaping up as on the men’s PGA Tour. But Sorenstam changed all that and soon overtook Webb as the latest Tour de Force in women’s golf. Between about 2001 until her retirement from professional golf in 2008 Sorenstam was the most dominant figure women’s golf had ever seen. She combined that dominance with a class and grace that will forever make her a popular figure on the after dinner speaking circuit. Just the perfect role model for young sportswomen the world over.

Anthony Brady


Madge Syers (Figure Skating)

The first woman to compete at the World Championships, Madge competed against men because at the time, the ISU hadn’t even conceived that a woman would enter an international skating competition. Her participation led officials to develop a separate category for women… which she won. She also became the first woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal, at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.

Ryan Stevens



Diana Taurasi (Basketball)

Even as I questioned the cultural reach of Taurasi, I include her on my list because she is most responsible for breaking the women’s basketball mold, bringing a Babe Didrikson-like cockiness and Martina Navratilovian dominance to women’s game. Albeit without much national fanfare, she has made an impact by operating outside the ideal women’s basketball player identity imagined by the WNBA, which presented athletes as daughters, sisters, and mothers. Taurasi is simply a baller. She has made more mainstream the identity first introduced by the likes of Cheryl Miller and Nancy Lieberman. Those two, however, were too ahead to their time, lacking access to a women’s basketball infrastructure that would have allowed Miller’s otherworldly athleticism and Lieberman’s schoolyard skills to redefine the women’s game. Of course, Taurasi still has had to navigate the lingering inequalities, particularly economic inequalities, that structure women’s basketball. Yet she has maintained an independent stance that, although she has largely remained apolitical, has opened the space for the political activism increasingly defines the contemporary WNBA.

Cat Ariail


Jenny Thompson (Swimming)

The most successful female swimmer ever. 12 Olympic medals and 8 golds from 1992 to 2004.

Sean Collins


Dara Torres (Swimming)

For both her skill and longevity in the sport—she transitioned through multiple eras of swimming and proved that women don’t have to slow down after they become mothers, which I feel is an all too common stereotype.

Neil Savage


Maribel Vinson-Owen (Figure Skating)

An Olympic Bronze Medallist and 9X U.S. Women’s Champion, Maribel went on to become the tough-talking Boston coach of countless American champions in figure skating. She penned several books on the sport and tragically died in the 1961 Sabena Crash that claimed the lives of the entire U.S. Figure Skating Team.

Ryan Stevens


Lindsey Vonn (Skiing)

Lindsey Vonn’s record reflects an impressive durability and versatility.  She is one of only two skiers that have won four World Cup overall championships, achieving that status in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012. She was the Gold medalist in the downhill at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and that same year, she achieved a record eight World Cup season titles in the downhill, five in the in super-G and three consecutive titles in the combined.  In 2016, she won her 20th World Cup crystal globe title – an all-time record among men or women.  In addition, she is one of only six women who have won World Cup races in all five disciplines of alpine skiing and her total number World Cup victories establish her as the all-time record holder.

Bill Pruden


Stella Walsh (Track and Field)11-Walsh

Stella Walsh was a Polish track and field athlete who she set over 100 national and world records, including 51 Polish records, 18 world records, and 8 European records.  After World War II, she won US national championships in the 100 meters (1943, 1944, 1948), 200 meters (1939,194040, 1942-48), discus throw (1941, 1942), and the long jump (1938–46, 1948, and 1951). She also established training programs for women in Cleveland, Ohio, after her retirement.

Susan J. Bandy


Abby Wambach (Soccer)

Abby Wambach has influenced both American and international soccer during her long career. Playing for the US National team from 2003-2015, she competed in four World Cup tournaments and two Olympic tournaments, winning one World Cup title and 2 gold medals. She was named FIFA player of the year in 2012 and holds the current international record for goals scored (for both women and men). As an LGBT athlete, Wambach also serves as an advocate and role model for the LGBT community.

PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class



Ora Washington Historical Marker, Philadelphia, PA.

Ora Washington (Tennis)

She possessed a combination of ability and versatility rare for her era. Along with the burgeoning women’s track and field program at Tuskegee, Washington also is most responsible for motivating the black American sport culture to adopt a more accepting attitude toward women’s participation in sport, as her athletic achievement galvanized depression-era black Philadelphia.

Cat Ariail



Jen Welter (Football)

The first woman to play in a professional football game with the Texas Revolution in 2014.  She was also the first woman to coach in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals during the 2015 preseason.  As a member of Team USA, she won two gold medals in the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Football Championships in 2010 and 2013.  During the 2017 WWC, she was the head coach of the Australian National Team.

Russ Crawford


Katarina Witt (Figure Skating)

She won two Olympic gold medals (1984 and 1988 Olympics) and is a four-time World champion. Witt won six consecutive European Championships, an accomplishment matched only by Sonja Henie

Sean Collins


Nera White (Basketball)

Of all women athletes who competed before the advent of video, I most wish to footage existed of Nera White. I imagine her as exhibiting Britney Griner-like skills more than six decades before Griner’s arrival on the women’s basketball scene. And while the demands of social demands of gender and sexuality reportedly tormented White, unfortunately making her bitter, her persistence in participating, despite the discriminations she encountered, deserves appreciation.

Cat Ariail


Whitney Zelee (Football)

As a RB for the Boston Militia/Boston Renegades, she rushed for 2,128 yards in eight games during the 2013 season.  She has helped her team win two WFA championships, and was the MVP for the championship game in 2011 and 2014.

Russ Crawford


PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class

Cat Ariail, University of Miami

Susan J. Bandy, Ohio State University

Anthony J. Brady

Sean Collins, Lynchburg College

Russ Crawford, Ohio Northern University

Nathan M. Corzine, Coastal Carolina Community College

Sarah K. Fields, CU Denver

Matthew Hodler, Miami University

Huston Ladner, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Andrew D. Linden, Adrian College

Lindsay Parks Pieper, Lynchburg College

Bill Pruden, Ravenscroft School

Robert Pruter, Independent Scholar

Neil Savage, Towersource

Ryan Stevens, Skate Guard

4 thoughts on “Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes: Part I

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes: Part II | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes: Recap | Sport in American History

  3. Pingback: Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes | Sport in American History

  4. Pingback: Great Women Athletes – Run, LB, Run!

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