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 three-part series 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.
Part I recognized 50 athletes, coaches, and teams (unranked, in alphabetical order) that readers of the Sport in American History Blog named as historically significant. Today’s post presents women ranked 11 through 23. Rankings were calculated based upon the position contributors placed athletes in their top ten lists, as well as the total number of votes each athlete received. Part III, available Thursday, November 16, presents women 1 through 10.
This was ridiculously difficult. Of course, it was difficult for a very good reason: there are just too many great and historically significant female athletes to consider. That said, I managed to narrow the field down to a ten-woman list. This particular set of selections comes with a caveat. It quite obviously reflects an Americanist lens, so while I toyed with the idea of including a more global selection, I felt it would be safest to stay within the more confined geography of my knowledge. In making these selections I tried to observe a few basic criteria. Firstly, I didn’t want any single sport to dominate the list. . . . I also asked a few basic questions: Were these athletes trail-blazers or pioneers? Did they change not only sports but society as well? Were they integral in advancing the cause of women’s rights or female athletes opportunities and visibility?
I made my list worldwide in scope. My list also puts great emphasis on the “historical,” which we have to look at in terms of what impact these athletes have made in history as a whole, and in that way their significance is not only the athletic achievements but also the societal imprint.
The challenge [of ranking athletes] was made even harder by the fact that in such a period of change, many athletes had impacts and significance beyond their athletic performances as they were oftentimes pioneers and trailblazers, individuals whose athletic efforts not only earned our respect and admiration, but also helped break down existing barriers thereby opening still more doors for the athletes who followed. Consequently, in assessing their lives and careers, the question of their impact was sometimes can be as much a part of their legacy as major championships or Olympic gold medals. In the end, I, at least, have tried to base my choices on the athlete’s performance in her sport—her dominance versus the others with whom she competed–as well as in the context of the competitive nature of the sport so that those who played sports that are played world-wide have carried bit more weight as opposed to sports like softball and lacrosse that remain more American oriented sports—choosing not to measure their significance in any external impact she may have had—be it as a charismatic figure who brought new attention to her sport or a figure whose race or sexual preference may have altered previous public perception—but rather as athletes whose level of performance were highly significant in the resounding message they sent about what women could accomplish.
23. Manon Rheaume
She was the first woman to play in one of the “Big Four” North American sports when she suited up and took the net for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992. She is both a model of perseverance – “I’d rather play hockey than do anything else,” she once said – as well as an object lesson in how even pioneers are sometimes publicity stunts. She was never going to last in the NHL, but Lightning general manager Phil Esposito saw her as a brief, useful, attraction. Consider his reaction upon first meeting Rheaume: “Oh my God, she’s gorgeous. Who is that girl?’” Despite the sexism and opportunism reflected in her NHL debut, Rheaume did play. And for one period she played well, every bit the equal of the men on the ice with her.
–Nathan M. Corzine
Rheaume helped to usher in the era of women’s hockey as a goaltender. She became the first woman to try out for an NHL team, signing a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning and playing in preseason games in 1992 and 1993. After retiring as a player she moved into various coaching roles.
22. Lisa Leslie
Leslie played for the U.S. women’s national team, winning a gold medals in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008. She also played for the Los Angeles Sparks, starting in the inaugural year of the WNBA, eventually winning two championships. As one of the most prominent basketball players during the early years of the WNBA, Leslie helped to establish and legitimize the league.
-PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class
She was the face of an entire league for over a decade, and the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game.
21. Janet Guthrie
The first woman to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. Guthrie drove in over 33 races during her NASCAR career, placing ninth at the Brickyard in 1978 – the best finish by a woman driver at that locale until Danica Patrick’s fourth-place finish in 2004. Guthrie was a steady and skilled driver, and her sixth-place finish at the Bristol track is still the best result for any woman racer at an elite NASCAR event.
-Nathan M. Corzine
Guthrie is the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500. Both series of racing frowned upon female participation, making her ability to even race significant. In motorsport, the financial backing for drivers is everything, and the fact that she had little meant she was compromised to do more with less.
20. Suzanne Lenglen
Lenglen is a hugely historically significant women’s sports figure, as the first woman to achieve international fame as an athlete, dominating women’s tennis through much of the 1920s—winning 181 consecutive matches—pioneering the concept of a woman athlete as a celebrity during Golden Age of Sport.
Lenglen was a French tennis player who dominated women’s tennis from 1914 to 1926, winning 31 Championship titles. She is considered the first female tennis celebrity who changed both the style of play and clothing options for women.
-Susan J. Bandy
19. Nancy Lopez
Lopez burst on the professional golf scene in 1978 and the game has never been the same. At the same time, while her impact on the game cannot be denied, neither can her accomplishments on the course. In 1978, she won the Rookie and Player of the Year awards as well as being the money winning leader and the Vare Trophy for low stroke average. The former All American and college Player of the Year at the University of Tulsa, Lopez would also win the Money Title and the Vare Trophy in 1979 and 1985 and she not only won the Player of the Year Award in those years but in 1988 as well. A three-time champion in the majors of the era, Lopez was also the runner up in the U.S. Open on four occasions. Nancy Lopez, whose career was interrupted when she took time off to have her children was inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame in 1987.
Lopez’s Latina heritage helped to disrupt stereotypes and broaden the sport’s appeal. The narratives of her career and how they relate to meanings of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality are the subject of great scholarly work of Kathy Jamieson and Delia Douglas.
18. Cheryl Miller
When you talk about sport in the U.S., the big four sports are underrepresented for women, with basketball leading the way. Besides Pat Summitt, who is the face of women’s basketball? Miller, former regular TV analyst and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and FIBA Hall of Fame.
Miller was a fantastic collegiate athlete and Olympian, and she stands out as one of the earliest, best female national broadcasters.
T16. Kathrine Switzer
Switzer’s marathon performance makes her historically significant. As the first woman to officially register and run the Boston Marathon, Switzer helped to open up opportunities in distance running for women. After her experience running the Boston Marathon, Switzer kept competing, but also made a concerted effort to work toward social change for women’s equality.
-PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class
Switzer’s 1967 Boston Marathon participation is noteworthy for several reasons. She not only competed during a time when many people erroneously feared that female participation in distance running events harmed their health (women would not officially be allowed to run the Boston Marathon for another five years), but she also finished the race after being physically accosted by a race official on the course. Switzer’s performance helped open the door for other women marathoners.
-Lindsay Parks Pieper
T16. Katie Ledecky
In just a little over six years, Ledecky has reconfigured the way people view women’s swimming, giving new meaning to the concept of dominance, while rewriting the freestyle section of the record books. After two Olympics and at the age of 20, she is a five-time Olympic gold medalist and 14-time world champion, the most in history for a female swimmer. She is the current world-record holder in all free style events from the 400 meter to the mile. She has broken over a dozen world records, and has won 10 individual gold medals at the World Aquatics Championships and 14 combined individual titles at the Olympics and World Aquatics Championships, both records for women’s swimming. She was Swimming World’s World Swimmer of the Year and the American Swimmer of the Year awards in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Still just a sophomore at Stanford, Ledecky is the arguably the most dominant athlete who is currently competing. In 2012, she won her first gold: in the 800-meter freestyle at London. At the 2013 World Championships, she won four golds (in four events) and at the 2015 Kazan World Champs, she five gold medals and broke three world records (400-m, 800-m, and 1500m) on her way to being named the women’s swimmer of the meet. At Rio in 2016, she won gold in the 200-meter, 400-meter, and 800-meter freestyle events (plus a gold in the 4x200m relay and a silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay). She holds the World Record in the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle (an event that the IOC will finally allow women to swim, possibly due to Ledecky’s dominance and popularity). This summer, in Budapest, she added another five gold medals and a silver. Overall, Ledecky has already broken world records 13 times and American records 30 times
15. Nadia Comaneci
The first gymnast to score a perfect 10 and she achieved it aged just 14 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. A stunning effort. She continued on to have a great career at international level and her records will go down in history forever.
-Anthony J. Brady
When I think of women’s athletes, especially in the Olympics, this is always the first person to pop into my head. Although it may partly stem from the focus we put on gymnastics when discussing women’s sports, but her success and performance is still legendary. Her performance continues to be recognized as one of the greatest athletic feats of all time; the scoreboard manufacturer didn’t think what she did was possible (1.00 = 10).
14. Sonja Henie
Henie is probably historically the most famous female figure skater of all time, having won three consecutive Olympic Games singles gold (1928, 1932, 1936), and ten consecutive world titles. After turning professional, she helped raise the visibility of the sport all year round with her ten films and many ice show tours. For a couple of decades she was the face of women’s figure skating.
3X Olympic Champion, 10X World Champion, 6X European Champion. Sonja won more Olympic and World medals than any other female skater in history and then went on to become a bona fide Hollywood star. She starred in many high-budget 20th Century Fox films of the 1930s and1940s, headlined her own ice revue, and drew millions of young women to the ice during wartime.
13. Jackie Joyner Kersee
Possibly the best all-around American athlete since Babe Didrikson. Competed in both the heptathlon and long jump at four straight Olympics (1984-1996). In 1984, she won silver in the heptathlon. In 1988, she won the gold in heptathlon and the long jump. The next Olympics, in Barcelona, she defended her heptathlon gold and won bronze in the long jump. At Atlanta, she won bronze in long jump. She was also an outstanding basketball player while in college at UCLA, still ranking in the top 25 of all-time scoring.
Joyner-Kersee was the dominant female track and field performer in the world during the 1980s and into the 1990s. With two gold and one silver medal in the heptathlon, as well as a gold and two bronze medal in the long jump, she earned medals in four different Olympics, leaving a legacy of versatility and long term excellence as well as a record in the heptathlon that continues to endure. In addition, she was a four year starter on the UCLA basketball team in the early 1980s, and in 1998, was selected as one of UCLA’s fifteen greatest women basketball players. In 2001, in a poll conducted by the NCAA, she was named the “Top Woman Collegiate Athlete of the Past 25 Years.” In 1986 she was the recipient of the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States.
12. Venus Williams
Williams is known not only for her tennis prowess but also her fight for equality. Williams, who has won Wimbledon, the US Open, and Olympic gold medals, was instrumental in helping women receive equal pay at Wimbledon. Williams was also the first African American woman to reach the world number 1 in the Open Era.
-PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class
Great tennis player who finished Billie Jean King’s quest for equal pay in major tennis.
-Sarah K. Fields
11. Pat Summitt
As the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols from1974 to 2012, Summitt accrued an impressive 1,098 wins (the most in NCAA basketball history), 8 NCAA championships, and was the first NCAA basketball coach to win 1,000 games. Along with her tremendous coaching statistics, Summitt transformed the sport and generated unprecedented interest in women’s basketball. Under her reign, the Lady Vols had sellout crowds, live prime time broadcasts, historic television viewership, and a large fan base. Summitt’s work in generating interest in women’s basketball helped with the formation of the ABL and WNBA.
-Lindsay Parks Pieper
One of the best coaches of any sport, period. Built a program and a value system, and is a name synonymous with women’s collegiate basketball.
Contributors to this post included: 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;
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