With a number of women’s sports leagues, we often don’t think about women competing directly against men in the sports world. However, it has happened in the past, and it continues to happen today. Women coach men’s sports teams at the school level, and there are women in sports management positions. And, while we don’t see too many women competing directly against men, it does happen. Here are 20 inspirational female athletes who have held their own going up against men:
Up to and Including 1950
Women made solid strides in the sports world prior to 1950. Determined to get beyond the stigma against women in sports, and determined to pave the way for women’s rights in all areas of life, these female athletes showed what they were made of.
- May Kaarlus: While there had been women billiard players in the past, the sport was mostly regarded as a male past-time. Kaarlus, though, took it a step further and is considered the first woman to specialize in trick shots. In 1901, she amazes New York City, performing billiards trick shots that her male counterparts fail to master. At 16, the ambidextrous Kaarlus is a sensation in a sport that, for years after becoming popular in 15th Century France, barred women from using a regular cue.
- Madge Syers: It seems a foreign concept to us now, but in the early 1900s, professional figure skating was dominated by men. In fact, it never occurred to anyone that a woman would enter a figure skating championship — until Madge Syers did so in 1902. Since the rulebook didn’t specify gender, Syers entered the World Championships and won a silver medal. However, many thought she should have won gold, and there are reports that Ulrich Salchow, who was presented with gold, gave her his medal. The International Skating Union immediately changed the rules to ban women from competing against men after this upset, and eventually set up a venue for women to compete against each other.
- Lula Olive Gill: The first woman jockey to win a horse race in California showed that it was possible to race and win. At the time, in 1906, few women were jockeys, and they raced against men. Lula Olive Gill won a horse race, and later that same year, Ada Evans Dean rode her own horse to victory after her jockey had become ill. Indeed, Dean won twice — in spite of never having raced before.
- Eleanora Sears: This great-great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson was an all-around athlete. While she was most well-known for her prominence in women’s tennis and women’s squash, Eleanora Sears shocked her high society neighbors by participating in — and excelling at — sports considered the province of men. She played in trousers on a men’s polo team, and skippered a yacht that beat Alfred Vanderbilt’s yacht. She also participated in speedboat racing and football.
- Gertrude Ederle: Just as women were being recognized as swimmers, Gertrude Ederle decided to swim the English Channel. She had already won medals for women’s swimming in the Olympics, and beat out men and women at other swimming events. When she crossed the English Channel, only five men had done it before her. Ederle not only swam the Channel, but beat the fastest male swimmer by nearly two hours. A couple of weeks later, when Mrs. Clemington Corson swam the English Channel, she also beat the best male time, even though she didn’t swim it faster than Ederle.
- Jackie Mitchell: There were a few women in professional baseball, mostly in the minor leagues, in the early part of the 20th century. One of these was Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell Gilbert. She was a pitcher, and played for the Chattanooga Lookouts. When this minor league team played an exhibition against the New York Yankees, Mitchell struck out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. After this, Mitchell’s contract was voided (baseball being “too strenuous” for women) and the commissioner instituted a ban against women in professional baseball that lasted until 1992.
- Conchita Cintrón: Bull fighting has long been considered a male sport. However, in 1937 Conchita Cintrón began bull fighting at the age of 13. She fought for 13 years, and slew 800 bulls. She did as well — or better — than many of the men, and is considered the first woman to compete at a high level as a professional bull fighter.
- Joan Pflueger: Trap shooting was considered a mostly male sport, and Joan Pflueger often shot against men. One of her biggest feats was winning the Champion of Champions event against an all-male field when she was 18. She also won numerous honors in women’s shooting events. She has been inducted into the Florida Trapshooting Hall of Fame, and is remembered as one of the best trapshooters ever, male or female.
- Sally Stearns: The first female coxswain in a male boat in the male-dominated sport of rowing was Sally Stearns, of Rollins College. With Stearns as coxswain, the team won some crew races, and initially, they disguised her as a boy. Her presence was a shock to some, when it was revealed, but there have been female coxswains in male boats since.
Since the middle of the 20th century, women have continued to try and compete directly against men. It remains an uphill battle, but there are some solid and inspirational female athletes continuing to blaze the trail.
- Margaret Murdock: Rifle shooter Margaret Murdock won a varsity letter at Kansas State by competing on the men’s rifle team. She was the first woman on the U.S. Olympic shooting team in 1976. She won a silver medal that year, after tying with Lanny Bassham, U.S. team captain. Olympic rules forbade a shoot-off, which Bassham had requested. During the national anthem, Bassham pulled Murdock up to stand with him.
- Billie Jean King: Everyone recognizes Billie Jean King. In 1973, this women’s tennis champion played male tennis legend Bobby Riggs. Even though Riggs was 55 and his best days over, everyone expected him to beat King, since he had defeated Margaret Court earlier in the year. If you had bet on King to win in Vegas, you would have been quite wealthy, since the odds were so high against her. She won against Riggs, and opened the door for more women in professional sports.
- Danica Patrick: Even more people recognize Danica Patrick. She has been racing since age 10, when she started on the go-kart circuit. Patrick is only the fourth woman to compete in the Indy 500. She finished second at the Formula Ford Festival in 2000, and won the Twin Ring Motegi at the Indy Japan 300 in 2008. She remains the only woman to have won an IndyCar race, and gives plenty of men a run for their money in NASCAR.
- Seana Hogan: Forget the silly little 100-mile events. Seana Hogan is an ultra-cycling legend, competing at a high level. She has won numerous women’s ultra events, and her time for riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles is a record — beating the best men’s time. She was also the overall winner of the 1995 Furnace Creek 508, and routinely finishes in the top overall finishers at ultra-cycling events, including against males.
- Ellen MacArthur: In most cases, sailing is considered something dominated by men. Sailing records for going around the world are often held by men. But in 2005 Dame Ellen MacArthur beat Francis Joyon’s record, and logged the fastest time for sailing around the globe. In 2008 Joyon reclaimed the title of record-holder, but MacArthur has shown herself a sailor to be reckoned with.
- Pamela Reed: When we think of running, we often think of men as the dominating sex. However, when it comes to long-distance running, Pamela Reed beats many of the boys. She has finished first in the Badwater race against men, and she is the first person to run 300 miles without sleep. Her male counterpart, Dean Karnazes, has twice attempted to run 300 miles without sleep — and failed.
- Katie Hnida: The first female to play in a NCAA I-A game, Katie Hnida was a kicker. She played at Colorado and New Mexico. She has scored extra points. Other female college kickers include Brittany Ryan, who has 35 extra points and three field goals, and Ashley Martin, who was, in fact, the first woman to score in college football’s Division I.
- Germaine de Randamie: If you are into kickboxing, Germaine de Randamie is someone to look to. She has won against men, including knocking out Belgian Tom Waes. However, some point out that Waes only trained for three months and de Randamie is a professional fighter. However, there have been other women to beat men in the fighting world, including Chantal Ughi, who defeated Kwan Fa.
- Kelly Kulick: Only this year, in 2010, Kelly Kulick became the first woman to win a regular Professional Bowlers Association tournament. She has competed against other women in female events, as part of the PBA, which opened to women after the PWBA folded. However, few women make it very far in this male-dominated sport. Kulick may have just opened the door.
- Lynn Hill: Many people still think of rock climbing, especially free climbing, as something that men do. However, there are a number of talented female climbers. And one of the most amazing is Lynn Hill. She was the first person to complete a successful free ascent of the Nose Route on El Capitan in Yosemite. This is something that many thought was impossible, including plenty of men. In 2005, Hill’s 1993 feat was duplicated by two more women, Katie Brown and Beth Rodden.
- Sonya Thomas: When we think of competitive eating, women don’t usually come to men. We think of large men — or at least the skinny Japanese sensation Takeru Kobayashi. However, Sonya Thomas is a major competitor in the world of professional eating. At just 100 pounds, she is known for her ability to keep up with the big boys, with her 33 eating world records.