Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes

In its ranking of the top 100 North American athletes of the twentieth century, ESPN’s SportCentury included only 8 women. The recognition of only 8 female athletes (and 3 horses) demonstrates the all-too-frequent tendency to leave female sporting contributions out of the conversation.

The Sport in American History’s three part-series, Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes, shows that there are numerous historically significant women in sport worthy of recognition. We collected 73 entries from contributors, which included 70 athletes/coaches and 3 teams. Lists 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. Part II presented women ranked 23-11. Today’s post presents women ranked 10-1. 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.

The 73 entries only scratch the surface of important women in sport history. The three-part series showcases significant–and often overlooked–contributions women have made in the past. One of the main points of this exercise was to broaden the conversation about who is usually named the “greatest” in sport. Please help continue the dialog by letting us know who we missed in the comment section.

Contributor Rationale (Cat Ariail)

As I began thinking about my Top 10 Women Athletes, I established the combination of accomplishment and influence as my criteria. Serena Williams, unsurprisingly, vaulted the top of my list. As the most decorated women’s tennis player of all-time who also has introduced a bold, unapologetic brand of black female athleticism, Williams exemplifies women’s sport greatness. However, beyond Williams, I struggled to determine the women athletes who best met my criteria, often finding that accomplishment and influence did not intersect. For example, I study Wilma Rudolph, who seemingly deserves a high-ranking. But, for all her influence, Rudolph’s accomplishments have been replicated and exceed by a multitude of women track stars. For instance, at this year’s World Championships, Allyson Felix became the most decorated women’s track athlete of all-time. Yet, the conditions of sport, culture, and politics in the early twenty-first century have not coalesced in a way that has positioned Felix as an influential icon. In contrast, Rudolph scored her triple-gold triumph in a moment where the priorities of the Cold War and the civil rights movement rendered her powerful and enduring symbol of American possibility.

As the Felix example makes evident, my accomplishment qualification favors contemporary athletes. Athletes of earlier eras not only encountered social restrictions that advised against extended careers, but also lacked the advantages of modern training, nutritional, and medical technologies. The milestones achieved by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi during the 2017 WNBA season testifies to the advantages enjoyed by contemporary women athletes. But, as with Felix, Bird’s and Taurasi’s dominance of the record-books has not conferred widespread cultural influence. Within the women’s basketball, the two are all-time legends who have contributed to the re-imaging of a women’s basketball player in terms of attitude, ability, style, and swagger. But because the WNBA does not possess cultural cache, it proves difficult to determine the extent of their influence.

Qualifying cultural influence proves further problematic for it also involves imposing one’s own biases. Is a woman athlete only influential if her efforts have contributed to the erosion of barriers based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, or ability? Or, does an athlete who has perpetuated the privileges and exclusions that have prevented women’s equal engagement in sport deserve to be considered influential? Because I believe women’s sport is a space of potential social and political change, I am inclined to recognize athletes who have contributed to this project. Likewise, I reflexively prioritize the success of women in sport traditionally understood as masculine. In short, Martina not Chrissy. And, for better or worse, ballers not ballerinas.

Furthermore, even though I study women athletes in the Caribbean, I found myself automatically adopting a US-centric perspective of both accomplishment and influence, unfoundedly regarding the institutions and culture of US sport as the ultimate arbiter of accomplishment and influence. What about Homare Sawa, Caster Semenya, and Grete Waitz? How should adjust my criteria to evaluate equitably the transnational population of women’s sport icons? As will be evident, I failed to shirk my US-centricism, despite the intention to do so.

In sum, this exercise has raised more questions than answers. It has made me more aware of the contingency that structures the history of women’s sport, where the time and place in which a woman athlete competed combines with the larger sociopolitical forces of that time and place to determine the perceived importance of her athletic accomplishments and the breadth of her cultural influence. But, while seemingly pointing to the impossibility of fairly determining the Top 10 Women Athletes, I see this effort as demonstrating the various possibilities for celebrating women’s sport greatness. History does not offer answers but alternatives. Women’s sport, in particular, has served as a space that historically has offered alternative possibilities, contesting dominant conceptions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, age, and ability.  So for my Top 10, I honor the women athletes who, through their accomplishments and influence, have introduced such alternatives.

  1. Bonnie Blair
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We often ignore winter sports athletes, but I think that Blair’s results should push her onto any list of top 10 American women athletes. From 1988-1994, she had five gold medals and one bronze in speedskating – including a double-double from 1992 to 1994 in the 500m and 1000m. She also was a huge contributor to the United States’ medal counts during these relatively lean years (if medal counts matter to you). In 1988, her world-record gold in the 500m accounted for have of the US’s gold medals. In 1992, her two golds were a third of all US medals at Albertville, and her two golds in 1994 were 40% of all of the US’s in Lillehammer.

-Matthew R. Hodler

Blair’s dominance over three Olympics established her as the greatest woman speed skater in history. She became a member of the US Speedskating team after she graduated from high school and competed in the 1984 Olympics. She won her first Olympic gold medal in the 500 meters at the 1988 Winter Olympics, and then won gold medals in both the 500- and 1,000-meter speed skating events at the 1992 Olympics, an accomplishment she repeated in 1994. Her five gold medals and three consecutive ones in the 500 meters are unprecedented in American Olympic annals and make her the most decorated American woman in Winter Olympic history.

-Bill Pruden

One of the greatest female speed skaters in history, having competed in four Olympics, winning a total of six medals, five gold and one bronze (making her the most decorated female speed skater in Olympic history). She won the World Cup points championship 11 times, won the Sullivan Award (as America’s best amateur athlete) in 1992, and the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year in 1994, helping significantly to raise the interest in women’s speed skating

-Robert Pruter

  1. Gertrude Ederle

Gertrude Ederle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ederle became the first woman to cross the English Channel in 1926, even besting the men’s mark at the time. Her swimming prowess also translated to the Olympics where she accumulated one gold and two bronze medals in 1924.

-Huston Ladner

In the 1920s, she was the world’s greatest swimmer by virtue of one feat–when in 1926 she became the first woman to swim the English Channel and beat the men’s record by an extraordinary ten hours. While there are many women swimmers who achieved far greater success in the sport, Ederle’s pioneering achievement enhanced the world’s concept of what women could achieve in sport. Before Charles Lindberg’s ticker tape parade in New York City a year later, Ederle’s was by far the biggest. Her achievement helped define the 1920s as the Golden Age of Sport.

-Robert Pruter

She is most famously known for being the first woman to swim the English Channel, which she did in 1926. She was the sixth person to do so, and set the record by an hour in swimming the distance in just over 14 ½ hours. This world record feat was honored by one of the largest ticker tape parades in New York City’s history. She also won one gold and two bronze medals at the 1924 Olympics (the same one that Bauer competed at) and set numerous other records of long-distance swimming.

-Matthew C. Hodler

  1. Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova at the 2010 U.S. Open Champions Team Tennis. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I selected Navratilova over Billie Jean King not only because Navratilova’s on-court achievements well-exceeded those of King but also due to her less-recognized activist influence. While Navratilova was not unaffected by the demands of femininity, evident in her decision to go blonde and refine her wardrobe, she was critical in help making more acceptable an unapologetically muscular, athletic, and dominant version of women’s athleticism, not to mention her openness about her sexuality. Her non-Americanness identity gave her the social space needed to diverge from the conventions heterosexual, white athletic femininity, which her rival Chris Evert obeyed and entrenched. Navratilova’s ability and attitudes encouraged, albeit slowly, the opening of space for more women to to reject the strict conventions of heterosexuality and femininity.

-Cat Ariail

Navratilova is historically significant both for her on-court achievements and off-court activism. During her impressive tennis career, she amassed 18 Grand Slam titles, 31 major women’s doubles titles, and won the women’s Wimbledon singles title a record-setting nine times. Navratilova also brought increased athleticism into the sport, pushing other female competitors to train with more intensity. She was also one of the first openly gay athletes in professional sport, and has continued to work for the LGBTQ rights.

-Lindsay Parks Pieper

  1. Florence Griffith Joyner
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Labeled by some as the First Lady of American Athletics, Griffith-Joyner made her mark in the realm of track and field, specifically during the Olympics from 1984 – 1996.  She set the world record for the 100m and 200m dashes, which still stands today.

-Huston Ladner

Joyner, known colloquially as FloJo, is believed by many to be the fastest woman of all time. She set world records in both the 100m and 200m at the 1988 Olympics, which still stand to this day. In addition to her running success, she was well-known for wearing stylish track suits and sporting long, painted fingernails.

-PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class

Staggeringly, the world records she set in the 100 metres and 200 metres at the 1988 Seoul Olympics still stand today, some 29 years later. Just a mind-boggling statistic. Also Griffith Joyner brought a bit of fashion and sex appeal to women’s sport and athletics which, for a long time, many viewed female sport as being diametrically opposed to femininity and attraction. “Flo Jo” and others showed that women could dominate in the sporting field but also still act out feminine desires to look and feel pretty whilst doing it.

-Anthony J. Brady

  1. Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rita Liberti and Maureen Smith’s analysis of the memorialization of Rudolph testifies to her influence. In my own research, I argue that Rudolph became the ideal avatar of American citizenship after her 1960 Roman triumphs. Rudolph presented an image of amenable black American womanhood perfectly attuned to the politics of the Cold War and civil rights movement. The adoration she received progressively positioned a young black woman athlete as an icon of Americanness. However, Rudolph’s story also highlights the complicated history of race and gender within women’s sport. Her popularity established a nefarious model of women’s athleticism, making white-defined heteronormative femininity a prerequisite for women athletes, especially black women athletes, to gain acceptance and acclaim.

-Cat Ariail

Rudolph often stands in as representative of all great black women track athletes from 1950s & 1960s. She competed at 1956 and 1960 Olympics, winning four medals, three gold in Rome. Her narrative is great because she overcame childhood illness to succeed.

-Matthew R. Hodler

Rudolph was a pioneer – thus her inclusion over the prolific and very deserving Jackie Joyner Kersee — and advocate for women’s and civil rights, but she almost never got started. She overcame a childhood of disabilities and a bout with polio to capture three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the first woman to do so during a single Olympics. Add to this the unprecedented international coverage – raising the visibility of two causes at once, and you can begin to see why the Associated Press’s two-time female athlete of the year deserves to be on any list of this type.

-Nathan M. Corzine

  1. Mia Hamm

Mia Hamm, 1995. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For women of my generation and background, Hamm was the women’s athletic icon. Hamm introduced the “All-American,” (middle-class, white) girl-next-door female athletic persona, almost guaranteeing that young girls like myself would be celebrated instead of criticized for competing in sport. If Navratilova introduced dominant women’s athleticism, Hamm made it “safe,” establishing the expectation that American women athletes would, and should, be the best. So, like Rudolph before her, Hamm’s iconicity has had progressive and conservative effects, ostensibly signifying universal women’s athletic opportunity even as her popularity inscribed exclusions based on race, class, and sexuality.

-Cat Ariail

It is no surprise the legendary Pele included her in FIFA’s greatest living 125 Players. Hamm was foundational, a driving force in the creation of the WUSA, the face of World Cup and Olympic triumphs for women’s soccer, a global health advocate, and inspiration for an entire generation of female soccer players.

-Nathan M. Corzine

Hamm is probably best known for bringing women’s soccer to the fore in the United States.  Hamm’s career is filled with success, leading the University of North Carolina to four straight national titles, the U.S. Women’s National Team to two World Cup wins, and two Olympic goals.  When she retired, she had accumulated more international goals than any player, man or woman.

-Huston Ladner

  1. Althea Gibson
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Gibson won the championship at the French Open in 1956 – the first African American woman to win a major championship. She followed that up by winning the singles championship at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.  She also won championships in doubles and mixed doubles categories. During the Cold War, she played exhibition matches around the world under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State.

-Russ Crawford

Gibson broke the color barrier in two sports – professional tennis and golf. The first black winner at Wimbeldon and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958, she later broke the color barrier in the LPGA.  More than just a “female Jackie Robinson”, Gibson was an inspiration and the forebear of the dominant tennis force that is today’s Williams sisters.

-Sarah K. Fields

Gibson was the first African American to win Wimbledon and continued a successful tennis career. Later, she became the first African American member of the LPGA. Though she was not outspoken, her successes in tennis and golf helped pave the way for more racial equality in sport, broke racial barriers, and helped to alter ideas about black femininity.

-PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class

  1. Serena Williams
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Regarded as one of the current greatest athletes, Serena Williams hold 23 Grand Slam singles titles, including Wimbledon, the US Open, Australian Open, and French Open. She also has won Olympic gold. Like her sister, Williams’ success in tennis has broken both gender and racial barriers in the world of sport.

-PSU-Berks Women and Sport Class

Williams’s tennis career has been marked by an unparalleled durability and long term dominance. She has won a record number of Open Era grand slam singles titles as well as both singles and doubles Olympic gold medals. Over a span of almost two decades from her first US Open title in 1999 to her Australian Open win in 2017, she has won Grand Slam singles 23 total singles championship as well as 14 in doubles playing with her sister Venus. She is also only one of two players in the Open Era to have won each slam 3 or more times. Williams also won an Olympics singles gold medal as well as three doubles titles with her sister. In addition she has won over 70 WTA titles

-Bill Pruden

Williams is the most entertaining tennis player I’ve ever watched, and is quantitatively the greatest individual tennis player of all time, if you consider that she’s won more majors than any other woman in the Open era and has won four Olympic gold medals. She is arguably the most influential athlete, from a societal perspective, since Billie Jean King.

Matthew Hodler

  1. Billie Jean King
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She won twelve Grand Slam singles championships, along with sixteen doubles championships.  Her victory over Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” that occurred just before passage of Title IX, boosted the visibility of women athletes.

-Russ Crawford

Although she is not the all time best woman tennis player, her historical significance was larger than any other woman tennis player, for being the face of female advancement in society.  Her beating of Bobby Riggs was a far more symbolic achievement than athletic achievement, helped by Rigg’s presenting their contest in a male chauvinistic manner to build the gate. Her building of women’s tennis, with the all-women Virginia Slims professional tour, was presented in terms of women’s advancement as well, as well as her advocacy of more equal pay for women players. She also was an important voice is acceptance of gay athletes.

-Robert Pruter

Even if the telling has grown a bit over the years, and the mists of myth surround her match with Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome, you cannot deny the symbolic significance of the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.” She won a difficult battle under uncomfortable circumstances, a victory that has resonated through the years not just for athletes but for women everywhere. That moment looms so large that it sometimes overshadows a record 20 Wimbledon titles and the even more important lifetime of activism that overlapped and followed her brilliant career.

-Nathan M. Corzine

  1. Babe Didrikson

Babe Didrikson, 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Only the lack of opportunities available to women at the time prevented Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a talented bowler, baseball and softball player, and roller skater from doing even more than she did. Despite that, she was an All-American basketball player while leading a company sponsored AAU team to the 1931 national championship. Meanwhile, as the sole member of the company sponsored track team, she won the national AAU team track championship while earning a place on the 1932 US Olympic team. In the Olympics she won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin throw while closing her Olympic career with a silver medal in the high jump. Didrikson, who later married George Zaharias, soon picked up golf and quickly dominated the game, winning the 1946 U.S. Women’s Amateur, the 1947 British Ladies Amateur, the 1948 US Women’s Open and three Women’s Western Opens. At one point, she won 17 consecutive women’s amateur tournaments. She later turned professional and was equally successful until cancer ended her career in the early 1950s.

-Bill Pruden

Didrikson’s ahead-of-her-time ability and versatility earn her a spot on my list. However, her significant flaws also make an instructive inclusion. Even as Didrikson contested gender norms to compete and succeed in multiple sports, she also reinforced structures of exclusion. During the 1932 Olympic Games, Didrikson unleashed racist taunts at Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett, the black American members of the US women’s track and field team. Her transformation into a more feminine athletic figure as she began her golf career, albeit understandable, also perpetuated the belief that female athletes must perform femininity in order to participate in sport.

Cat Ariail

“The Babe is here.  Who’s coming in second?”

Russ Crawford


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;

3 thoughts on “Top Ten Historically Significant Women Athletes

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