We are in an unprecedented era for women’s sport. Changes are happening at a rate almost as fast as a Dina Asher-Smith sprint – in the last decade alone we’ve seen multiple sports start to professionalise and coverage of women’s sports increase rapidly.
The landscape is constantly shifting towards equality for women in sport but where have we come from? Who are the women who blazed trails so we could get to where we are today?
GMSW took a look back at some of the key events in the history of women’s sport and we asked women’s sports historian Lydia Furse about why some of these events were significant moments for the development of equality and representation.
1817: Invention of the bicycle
These days the humble bicycle is a ubiquitous form of transport, but according to Furse, its invention was a crucial moment in the history of women’s sport because “it gave women social and physical mobility”.
Suddenly, women had a way of leaving the house and moving around at their disposal. Furse says: “It allowed women to engage in sport – it was a fun leisure pursuit that you could do in groups of people.”
What’s more, Furse explains, it has been linked to the development of trousers for women. She says: “Cycling kind of started that [movement towards trousers]. It was also associated with the rational dress which was about getting rid of corsets. This allowed women a lot more freedom of movement of their body and allowed them to take on other sporting opportunities.”
Interestingly, one of the reasons for the bicycle’s successful uptake was financial. While Furse says “there’s been opposition to women doing any sorts of activity” she also says that in the case of cycling, the manufacturers didn’t want to rule out fifty per cent of their potential market by excluding women.
Furse says: “There was enough support for women to overcome any opposition to female cycling. That’s something that people don’t always make the link between, sports and women’s sports and commercialism, but actually, who’s producing and who’s controlling the market says a lot about what women can and can’t do.”
1921: FA Ban Women’s football
While the bike was an invention that liberated women, 1921 saw a moment that drastically curtailed the participation of women in sport.
During World War One, as women took up the traditionally male jobs vacant because of enlistment, so too did they start to play traditionally male sports, including football.
Having a kickabout became popular among the women working on factory floors and as the war went on, these kickabouts transformed into football teams.
The most well-known team is the Dick Kerr Ladies FC from Preston who attracted a crowd of 10,000 people to their first match in 1917.
This grew and grew and their Boxing Day match against St Helen’s Ladies in 1920 had a crowd of 53,000 people at Goodison Park and roughly 14,000 outside the grounds wanting to get in.
With the end of the war, however, came a desire to return to the peacetime status quo – women it was decided, should be back at home, not in factories and on football pitches.
On 5 December 1921, the FA said the game was “quite unsuitable for females” and that clubs should refuse women access to their pitches and facilities.
While some teams, including the Dick Kerr Ladies, continued to play for a while after the ban, it had wide-ranging repercussions on the women’s game.
The ban wasn’t lifted until 1971 and to this day women are still fighting for equality on and off the pitch.
1922- 34: Alice Milliat and the Women’s World Games
In 1900 women were first allowed to compete in the Olympics, but only in five events – tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. Out of the 997 athletes competing at the Games, held in Paris, just 22 were women.
By 1922 several more sports had been added to the programme for women – archery, skating and aquatic events. For one French woman – Alice Milliat, this wasn’t good enough.
Milliat was the president of an organisation called the Federation of French Female Supporters, and says Furse: “Milliat was herself an athlete and determined to prove that women were more capable in sport than just standing on the side-lines.”
She had been lobbying for the inclusion of athletics for women at the Olympics but was having little success and so decided to host her own games – the Women’s Olympic Games, to be held on 20 August 1922 in Paris. A crowd of roughly 15,000 attended and women from 38 countries
They then decided to host them every four years but in 1926, having seen the success of the Women’s Olympics, the IAAF decided to allow women to participate in some events at the next 1928 Olympics.
Furse says: “The success of her first Women’s Olympics was so great that the Olympic Committee made a lot of concessions about allowing women to be at more activities within the main Olympics, hoping to prevent Milliat from running a separate women’s Olympics again.
“However, the concessions that they originally promised her, they went back on a little bit, limiting the number and type of events that women were able to compete in. Milliat may have felt that this was not enough, hence she continued to organise an independent women’s sporting event.”
The last Women’s Olympics was held in 1934, having lost the momentum that characterised their initial Games.
The actions of Milliat and their impact can’t be understated. Furse says: “It’s really interesting that Alice Milliat’s actions were a turning point for women’s inclusion in the Olympics because she stood up to the Olympic Committee and demonstrated that women can compete in sport by organising her own event.”
Sadly her place in history is often missed out and she wasn’t given a role with the Olympics when the women’s programme was increased.
The lessons are still relevant today, Furse explains: “It starts this pattern where women are more than capable of doing it on their own and capable of competing in sport and making it fairly successful. But then when concessions are made to incorporate or integrate women into the existing male sporting structure, the control of women’s sports is taken away from women.”
It wasn’t until the London 2012 Olympics that women could compete in every discipline with women competing in boxing for the first time. Now every country must field both male and female athletes, but there is still some way to go in terms of equal numbers.
1948: Audrey Patterson and Alice Coachman at the London 1948 Olympics
At the London 1948 Olympics, two women made history within the space of a couple of days. Firstly, Audrey Patterson won bronze in the 200m race. She became the first black woman to win an Olympic medal.
A day later, in front of a crowd of 83,000, Alice Coachman won gold in the high jump. With her record-breaking 1.68m jump she became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
The two American women’s achievements came at a time when there was still segregation in America.
When Coachman returned to the US, she was met by President Truman, and a motorcade was held in her honour in her home of Georgia. But at the ceremony held in her honour, segregation was still enforced, and the mayor snubbed her.
Coachman said of the segregation at her homecoming: “it wasn’t any problem for me because I had won.”
“It was up to them whether they accepted it or not.”
Patterson and Coachman blazed a trail, showing the world that the colour of women’s skin should have no bearing on anything.
1966 and 1967: The first women to run the Boston Marathon
In 1966 Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb was refused entry to the Boston Marathon because women were thought “not physiologically able to run a marathon”.
Determined to compete, however, she hid near the start line disguised in a hoodie and started the race. She finished the marathon in three hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds.
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer followed suit, registering under the name “K.V. Switzer”. The photo of her in the race being chased for her race number is now iconic. She finished the race in four hours, 20 minutes.
The significance of this moment is linked to misconceptions of how far women could and should run.
When women’s athletics events had been included in the Olympics, the longest run was capped at 800 metres in the 1928 Olympics but was then scrapped until 1960.
Furse says: “At the end the women were tired, they were out of breath, and they were sweating, and God forbid that a woman should sweat. It was very much deemed that women were not capable of running those kinds of distances. People felt that that isn’t how women should compete in the sport.”
As a result, Gibb and Switzer’s participation was a symbolic undertaking. Furse explains: “It’s a big idea in the public imagination that a marathon is a huge task.
“And so it was really important that women could prove that they were capable of running the marathon. It wasn’t that Roberta Gibb or Kathrine Switzer were attempting to beat any men in the marathon, it was just proving that women were capable of running the marathon.”
In 1972, women were finally allowed to enter the Boston Marathon and now millions take on the challenge of 26.2 each year around the world.
1973: Billie Jean King & Battle of the Sexes Victory
Billie Jean King’s three-set victory against Bobby Riggs in 1973 has been much mythologised. The exhibition tennis match was watched on TV by an estimated ninety million around the world and has even been adapted for the cinema.
As Furse explains, it “wasn’t a sporting feat as much as it was all set up for the media”.
This doesn’t mean it didn’t have a significant impact: “It was an opportunity to show the wider public that maybe their perceptions on women’s sports were wrong. Billie Jean King was able to demonstrate to the public that she was capable, which questioned the presumption that all women were weaker than all men.”
Now, says Furse, “tennis is now held up as one of the sports with the greatest gender equality”.
It’s not possible to say that King’s victory caused the transformation of the sport for women but after the event changes happened quickly for women in tennis.
In 1973 King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and later that year the US Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money. The French Open was the last major to follow suit – equalising prize money in 2003.
As Furse says, win or lose King is “a strong woman and she would have done what she needed to do to fight for what she believed was right”. To this day she continues to advocate for equality for women in all sports.
1985: Formation of USWNT
They are the most dominant force in international women’s football with four Women’s World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals to their name, but the US Women’s National Team was only founded in 1985 and they lost their first game 0-1 to Italy.
It didn’t take long, however, for them to start as the meant to go on – the USWNT won the first of their World Cups in 1991, at the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Since then they have dominated on the pitch and given the world the first household names in women’s football. But their actions off it have been and could continue to be just as significant as the fight for women’s equality in sport continues.
They first spoke out about inequalities in pay ahead of the 1996 Olympics when they threatened to boycott because of bonuses offered to the men’s team.
In 2016 Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn filed a complaint against US Soccer that ultimately didn’t go anywhere.
Then in 2019 on International Women’s Day, the team filed their lawsuit against US Soccer for unequal pay with the US men’s team despite the USWNT having more success on the pitch.
Their case is still ongoing, and so it’s too early to tell how this contribution to the history of women’s sport will end but win or lose, the team shows just how formidable women in football can be.