A General Introduction to The History of Women in Sports

Before Title IX and the modern Olympics  women participated in sports. Women being athletes is not a recent phenomenon; there is a history dating back as far as ancient civilization. There were times in which women were prohibited from competition and in response formed games of their own. Normally, the historiography of sport focused on men’s participation and involvement in sports. Historians began to examine women’s involvement and the sociological and sex discrimination  issues in the 20th century. Due to the feminist movement women’s history and women’s studies were becoming part of university curriculum. While academia focused on women in politics, science, and the arts women in sports remained an ignored area. Sport historians began taking an interest when women’s numbers increased in sports. The 20th and the 21st century saw the highest participation of women in sports globally. Only 121 years ago women were not permitted to compete in the Olympics. When the 2016 Rio Olympics started women were competing from every continent. This would be to observers unfamiliar with women’s sport history as rapid advancement. This was a gradual process of struggle, which led to the rise of the female professional athlete.

      Women’s involvement and participation in sport dates back to the ancient world. There existed a tradition of women athletes in Greek, Egyptian, Etruscan, and Minoan civilization. During this time period, sports were not  the modern professional business as the public knows it today. The origin of sports could have come from military training. Other theories cite that  the origin of sports was based around rituals of religion and hunting. Another  theory is that sports branched off from simple games. Prior to the rise of television, radio, and internet humanity needed a form of entertainment.  Archaeology has contributed to uncovering a past of female athletes. Art and artifacts show the sports and physical activities women participated during the ancient period. The women of ancient Egypt were involved in swimming  and also ballgames. These ballgames resembled soccer. Carvings on tombs, art, and paintings provide insight to the sporting activities of the ancient Egyptian woman athlete. The tomb of Cheti at Beni Hassan provides the suggestion that women participated in ballgames.


There has yet to be found evidence of organized teams or official competitions. While Egyptian women did enjoy more freedom relative to there Greek counterparts, there is not enough evidence to say they were competing in sports in large numbers. If women did not compete they were at least physically active. Relief carvings depicted on the temple of Queen Hatshepsut demonstrate that women were involved in acrobatic dance. This would be more so part of stunts and spectacles, rather than athletic competition but still required physical skill. Africa has a wrestling tradition that extends across the continent. The Diola, Yala, and the Njabi  ethnic groups had women wrestlers. Girls in these societies would wrestle each other as a ritual into adulthood. The Diola would use wrestling as an arranged marriage method in which the male champion would marry the female champion. It would be assumed that women would have participated in wrestling in ancient Egypt considering it was an African civilization. There are limited artifacts to support this claim, so it merely is left to speculation.

The temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Karnak provides some evidence of possible sporting activities of women. It depicts Queen Hatshepsut running four times around the sacred precinct. Every pharaoh supposedly performed this athletic feat to show their vigor and fitness to govern. It seems possible that Hatshepsut did the same. There is still more to be discovered in terms of women in sport during ancient Egyptian civilization.

       Minoan civilization also had instances in which women were a part of sports. Women had high status in the society, similar to Egyptian civilization. This civilization was located in what is now modern day Crete.The members of the society worshiped a goddess. Paintings suggest that bull vaulting was popular among men and women of the aristocratic ruling class. During Minoan civilization’s existence between 6000 to 1450 B.C.E frescoes were produced showing the sports activities of the population. These provide indications on how bull vaulting was done, but there still remains a level of disagreement over how it was done. Such a feat would be extremely dangerous and require an enormous amount of upper body strength. Bull leaping was a constant theme in Minoan art.


Clay seals and reliefs also provide clues to what were popular sports in Minoan civilization. This fascination with the bull may have been religious in nature. Bull wrestling may have been a ritual in service to the Mother Goddess. Some women may have been trained acrobats, which allowed them to engage in the practice of bull sports. The “Toreador Frescoes” depict women and men with straps on their wrists believed to give them more of  a grip on the bull. Women are depicted with a white complexion and short curls in their hair styles over their foreheads. Minoan iconography shows sports women in loin cloths. The theory that women and men grabbed the horns of the bull then leaped over seems unlikely. One speculation is that this was depicting a form of bull fighting. The art may just have been designed to embellish the accomplishments of popular athletes. Women could have participated in more than just bull leaping. Hogarth’s seal depicts three women in a running position. Some scholars have suggested that women were involved in running, swimming, and hunting. There are also indications that Mycenaean civilizations allowed women to participate in such activities. More evidence must be gathered to reach an accurate conclusion.

         The evidence of early female athletes is more copious in Greek civilization. Sparta a militarist state in Greece was known to have girls and women engage in racing, discus, wrestling, and javelin. Compare to other women in surrounding Greek city states, Spartan women had more freedom. Athenian women were placed under legal guardianship of their husband, father, or another male relative. Although Spartan women have more freedom this does not mean it was a society that valued gender equality. The physical training of both boys and girls was to promote a warrior culture. The poleis had to be ready for long term military engagements. Although women were not allowed to go into battle, they were expected to protect the homeland. Evidence of women’s physical training comes from the Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch. Philostratos also wrote the reasons why Sparta gave women such vigorous physical training. It was eugenic in nature, because the idea was that strong women would produce healthy babies that would become better warriors.

This is a Bronze figure of an ancient Greek woman runner.

       Sparta was not the only group of Greeks that had women athletes. Cyrene was a colony on the north coast of Africa that had women participate in sports. Foot races were in particular popular in Cyrene. Women’s participation could have been wider than previously thought. The Panhellenic Games had athletes compete from all areas of ancient Greece. The Panhellenic Games consisted of four events : the Olympic games ( 776 B.C.E- 394),  the Pythian Games ( 582 B.C.E- 300),  the Nemean Games ( 573 B.C.E- 394), and the Isthmian Games ( 582 B.C.E-394). The Heraean Games were the games that women participated in which were held under the Olympic Games. These games for women were part of a festival honoring the goddess Hera.According to Pausanias’ records in 175 C.E the games were held every fourth year. The athletes were mostly young and unmarried women. Based on accounts the athletic events were mostly footraces.It is not certain when officially  the first Heraean Games were held.  The creation of this athletic event was credited to   queen Hippodameia. She formed the games as a way of showing gratitude for her marriage to Pelops. She gave thanks to Hera by having sixteen women compete in footraces. This was one legend that was told about the Heraean games origins.

Temple of Hera
The ruins of the Temple of Hera

 Another legend about the origin relates to tensions between Elis and Pisa. The games were held to promote unity and avoid warfare. Although legends it is possible that they are based on some element of truth. Winners of the Heraean Games would be  awarded a portion of a cow that would be a sacrifice to Hera and a statue dedicated to their honor. Pausanias documented this, yet at present these statues have not been discovered. The reason could have been is that more attention was given to male competitors in the ancient world. These statues could have been lost or stolen during periods of war or conquest. Although there is a debate about the extent of participation, the women of ancient Greece did run, swim, and wrestle.

       The collapse of the ancient empires of the world also meant a transformation in women’s sports. The Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance  saw women still as participants in sport. However, sports in Europe were under pressure from the rise of Christianity. Christian society of medieval Europe did not approve of sports mainly because they associated it with pagan rituals. There were some who were not so dogmatic when it came to a popular pastime. The medieval tournament mainly had women as spectators or presenters of awards to competitors. This was mainly an activity of the nobility and knight class. Women played folk football along with peasant men. This was an early version of soccer that peasants played in Europe. This was a perfect sport that fit well into the agrarian peasant societies of England and France. It it not require large sums of money or an arena.Women also took part in foot races. Women of nobility were not as physically active, but did engage in some athletic activities. Hunting and Hawking were activities of the upper class, which women were involved in. Women of the nobility were not strangers to horseback riding. Noble women also were known to breed falcons specifically for hunts. As the centuries progressed women in other parts of the world also became participants in sports. China just like England and France had a tradition of ball kicking games. Cuju a game similar to soccer dated back to 2,500 years. Women began involvement in the sport around the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368)  to Ming dynasty (1368-1644). They were even able to be professional players.


Sometimes Cuju was presented as a performing art. This became popular around the Song dynasty ( 906- 1127). Juggling and other stunts would be performed at events. Matches were supervised by judges who would enforce game rules. Teams would conduct the game on fields with goals. Cuju could be one of the oldest forms of football. The game experienced decline under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). While it may seem like there was a slump in sports in Europe, this did not mean  the rest of the world was experiencing it. The Native American population also played sports and women were involved. Women of Amerindian societies were involved in stickball and footraces . Some of these activities were tied to religious rituals, courtship, or fertility rituals. The world was about to change immensely with the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, and the rise of modern imperialism. Sports would also change as well.

         Sports were in the past considered inappropriate for women, but gradually this began to change with some activities gaining approval. Golf, croquet, and archery were accepted as appropriate sports for women because it did not involve physical contact or large amounts of physical exertion. Between the 16th century to 19th century these sports were most popular with upper class women of Europe and North America. Mary  Queen of the Scots was one of the first women to play golf seriously. She would play at St. Andrew’s golf course. When she was playing in the 1500s, no women’s golf clubs existed. It was not until 1867 that one was established at St. Andrew’s. Croquet was significant because it was the first outdoor sport that became popular among women. During the late 19th century   it was popular to play at picnics and garden parties. This period marks a transition from traditional sports to modern sports. Modern sports are specialized, records based, and have a high level of organization.


Women became competitive in archery. This was a sport that was available only to the aristocracy. Archery became popular in courts of central Europe. The upper class women of England went as far to dress up in Medieval clothing for contests. A common misunderstanding was that these events were mere recreation. Competition expanded by the mid-1800s.  Besides these sports women also became active in cricket. There are documented case of women playing before spectators in Sussex. Trapball, which was an early version of baseball was also a popular sport for women in the 18th century. Stoolball became another.


Women had athletic pasts globally, but the irony was that there was still exclusion and prejudice that prevented them from going further. Traditionalists viewed women involved in sport as unfeminine, while the medical community stated that it could harm women’s reproductive capability. Based on eugenic pseudoscience , doctors promoted the idea that vigorous exercise would cause nervous diseases or hysteria. Physicians and doctors of 19th century England had no evidence of this and claimed that adolescent girls needed more rest when they developed their menstrual cycle. The rest cure was more detrimental to health. These combinations of falsehoods formed the frailty myth, which many were convinced that the female body was not designed for strength or fitness. The major purpose of a woman’s life to the eugenicists was that women reproduced. Women would have to fight hard to challenge these prejudices and myths to participate in sports.

        The rise of cycling and bloomers was a milestone for women in sports. The creation of the bicycle allowed women of all classes to engage in a physical activity. A problem arose about clothing. Long dresses could get tangled in the bicycle, which would stop many women from riding. Women’s fashion for centuries was designed to be restrictive in movement . Amelia Bloomer found a solution by designing pants that could fit under a dress. Her idea of a more comfortable form of dress started in 1851. Women would later embrace this style and it gained popularity with women involved in cycling, horseback riding, gymnastics, and skating. Bloomers became popular in both Europe and the US. The bicycle gave women a level of freedom they had never experienced before. Women”s rights advocates embraced this as a sign of progress.

Suffragists embraced the bicycle and bloomers a means to promote women’s equality in the wider society. Elizibeth Cady Stanton once stated ” many a woman is riding suffrage on a bicycle.” While bloomers provided some freedom, a majority of sports clothing for women was still uncomfortable.  Women’s advancement was gradual in sports and eventually women would begin to play team sports. Many times women played sports with no platform for official competition.

            The late 19th century and early 20th century was a time of radical change for women in sport. This was a period in which professional sport became what most spectators recognize today.  Women were competing in tennis, bowling, and rowing. Pedestrianism a popular sport of the 1870s attracted many women. This had competitors walk long distances in both rural and urban settings. The biggest change was the revival of the Olympics. This presented women a chance to compete internationally and in front of a larger audience. The revival occurred in 1896 under the guidance of Baron de Coubertin. He was not an advocate of women athletes. His convictions were clear when he stated ” let women practice all the sports if they wish, but let them not show it off.” This attitude was not a discourage women who really wanted to compete. Alice Milliat an advocate for women’s sports launched the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale to give women a platform for international competition. The organization was responsible for the creation of the first Women’s Olympics Games in 1922. Held in Paris women competed in shot put and 1000 meter races. Gradually, the excuses that women were too weak for sports or that it was negative for their health were being challenged. There were no justifiable reasons for women to be excluded from the games. The IOC and the IAAF were also concerned about Milliat’s independence, which could be a threat to their organizations. It was not until 1926 an agreement was reached in which in which FSFSI would follow the International Association of Athletic Federation guidelines.


Despite such discrimination and challenges women were able to perform. Some women became notable sports stars. Hitomi kinue was a track and field athlete that became Japan’s first female gold medalist. She became a world record holder in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a significant achievement not only for Japan, but other non-whites faced with colonization or racial oppression. The international press rarely covered women’s sports and non-white athletes were practically invisible. Racism and imperialism made the majority of the world’s population suffer under the domination of Europe or the US. Japan like Ethiopia was a symbol of resistance to white domination of the globe during this time. Kinue’s athletic success was praised by the Japanese public, but ignored in the western press.


America has a long tradition of sports fandom and activity, but it was not inclusive. The legacy of racism, slavery, and discrimination propagated through all aspects of American life. Sports were segregated in America, with African Americans forming their own leagues when whites excluded them. Historically Black colleges allowed women to have athletics programs prior to Title IX legislation. Sports would later become a means to break discriminatory barriers in society. Integration of sports demonstrated the African Americans could be just as capable as athletes. African American women competed in tennis, track, and basketball. Athletes such as C.O. Seames  as well as  Virginia Willis became popular for their feats in tennis and basketball. Before Florence Griffith Joyner and and Wilma Rudolph  there athletes like Alice Coachman and Tidye Pickette. Both women competed in the Olympics during the 1930s to 1940s facing extreme racial prejudice from the nation that claimed to love human rights and freedom. Their efforts made it possible for generations following World War II to get equal access and participation.

The defeat of fascism led to the end of the modern European colonial empires. decolonization result in new nations around the world. These countries soon began to send teams to the Olympics to demonstrate their new found independence. Women have been competitors in the Asian Games and the All Africa Games. Women athletes are not just in the West; they have become a global phenomenon over  the 20th century. What started in the ancient past has vastly expanded.

          The Cold War also had an impact on women’s sports. The US and the U.S.S.R were in a contest of geopolitical domination of the world. They competed with each other for influence in the Third World, space exploration, and engaged in wars of proxy. It was inevitable that conflict and competition would come to the Olympics. Sports are political in a sense. They can be used for propaganda, public distraction, and nationalist spectacle. The 1936 Olympics was an attempt for Nazi Germany to demonstrate the notion they were a superior nation. Hitler wanted to present the German people as a master race and use the games to present his racist ideology. The U.S.S.R during the Cold War wanted to use the Olympic games as a platform to present Marxist-Leninist ideas and challenge the US in another international arena. The Soviet Union and Eastern block nations produced many talent women athletes, but the US lagged behind. The reason was that the U.S.S.R and the Eastern block nations had state funded training facilities that were available to women. The Soviet Union had many victories at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Development Committee was formed to improve the performance of America’s athletes. Women’s athletic performance needed more improvement. To remedy the problem physical education was enriched in both primary , secondary, and tertiary  schools. Women and girls benefited form this change, but school programs in regards to sports for them were still lacking. It was not until Title IX did inequality was challenged legally. The Education Act of 1972 did not specifically address sports, but wanted to provided equal opportunity for women in education. If schools did not comply they would not receive federal funding. The reason this national legislation had such an impact was that girls were underrepresented in athletics programs in schools.


Cold War contention spread everywhere. The worse point of tension was the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. The Olympics would also be effected in 1980 when the US boycotted the games over Soviet military operations in Afghanistan. Just like the end of World War II another global change was about to happen. The Soviet Union would collapse giving rise to more nations. These nations of the Baltic and Central Asia would also send athletes to the Olympics, which gave women of these countries new opportunities. As the 21st century approached, millions of women were athletes  in various international competitions.

        When the 2012 Olympics were conducted women could compete in the majority of events available. There has been advancement compared to the Victorian age. There still remain particular challenges. Unequal pay, lack of television coverage, and the use of sex verification tests continue to be discriminatory barriers. A culture of misogyny and body image conformity also is a constant adversary to women athletes. This seems peculiar considering women are participating in all types of sports both nationally and internationally. Sexist prejudice continues to be present whether it is overt or blatant in its presentation.  Women since the 1970s have become a part of sports journalism and broadcasting.

Women still are attempting to have more control and say over the operation of professional sports. Exposure to wider audience has helped women in sports. While coverage in print and television media is low, a new medium has become more popular.The internet and specifically social media has given women in sports a way to promote themselves without a sponsor or going through a corporate gatekeeper. While some elements of the sports world appear to present negative news, there has been a positive change. Women have more access to athletic scholarships and more girls are active in school sports than they were in the past. Women also became more involved in coaching and developing athletic programs in schools. The most significant development was that the woman athlete was gaining a level of acceptance. After the 1960s various attitudes changed in regards to women in sport. It was no longer considered an anomaly or aberration to see an athletic woman. Sports over the course of human history has undergone many transformations and the rise of women has dramatically changed the culture of fans and athletes alike.What was though to be a male only domain actually had a long history of  women’s involvement.


Guttman. Allen . Women’s Sports a History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Reese, Anne. Athletries The Untold History of Ancient Greek Women Athletes.

Costa Mesa : Nightowl Publications, 2002.

Smith, Lisa. Nike Is a Goddess The History of Women in Sports. New York :

Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.

Festle, Mary. Playing Nice Politics and Apologies in Women’s Sports. New York:

Columbia University Press, 1996.

Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Women and Sports. ABC-CLIO, 1996.

Costa, D. Margaret, and Sharon Ruth Guthrie. Women and Sport: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Human Kinetics, 1994.

“Cuju (Ball-Kicking).” Cuju (Ball-Kicking), 9 Nov. 2008, en.chinaculture.org/library/2008-01/25/content_127346.htm.

Wei-Haas, Jackie ManskyMaya. “The Rise of the Modern Sportswoman.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 18 Aug. 2016, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rise-modern-sportswoman-180960174/.

Young, Lauren. “When Ancient Greece Banned Women From Olympics, They Started Their Own.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 25 Aug. 2016, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/when-ancient-greece-barred-women-from-even-watching-the-games-they-started-their-own-olympics.

3 thoughts on “A General Introduction to The History of Women in Sports

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s