What do you think of when you think of women in sports? Or perhaps, I should ask: who do you think of?
Of course there are the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. And the Seattle Storm and Minnesota Lynx basketball teams. And…gosh, I almost forgot…the beach babes who play volleyball! Do not criticize my vocabulary! When I searched the computer for “women’s professional volleyball”, all I got were photos of bikini-clad women. A similar search for “men’s pro teams” produced loads of photos of men in modest knee-length shorts and t-shirts.
My original question was to identify women sportscasters. I found a list of the top ten or twenty — complete with photos of smiling faces framed with curly blond hair, barely visible atop half-exposed breasts. The clincher were the profiles. Almost every one had been a cheerleader for a men’s pro team.
Still, names of famous women in sports continue to show up. Women like Billie Jean King who trounced an audacious outspoken Bobby Riggs in a widely heralded tennis match. Or the talented Sonja Henie who dressed up movies in the 1930s with her exquisite dimpled smile; hardly anyone realizes Ms. Henie was an three-time Olympic champion, winning three gold medals before becoming a movie star.
Or the great-great Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrickson Zaharias, voted the outstanding woman athlete of the 20th century. She was an all-around champion in golf, track and field, baseball, basketball, and anything she took a hand to. While playing baseball with her brothers in the 1920s, she hit five home runs in one game. In the 1930s, she pitched an inning for the St. Louis Cardinals in an exhibition game with the Philadelphia Athletics. She broke world track records in Olympic competition, and in 1949 co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association with Patty Berg.
These are just three of the women on whose shoulders Serena and Venus stand. Other shoulders include those of Gertrude Ederle, Fay Fuller, Helen Wills Moody, Althea Gibson, Tenley Albright, Wilma Rudolph, Diane Crump, Mary Decker, Janet Guthrie, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Debi Thomas, Martina Navratilova, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Lizzie Murphy, and Jackie Mitchell… and oh-so-many more.
I just published a book titled Pandora’s Hunnert Januarys: Watching 20th Century Women Fly Out of the Box, which includes many women “firsts” and record-setters — women who discovered their skills and shared them. The story of Pandora Whaley’s fictional life is told by the decade. It covers the status of women throughout the last century and includes actual accomplishments of more than 500 real women — from athletes, writers, and artists to generals and senators.
Oh, you didn’t recognize Lizzie Murphy and Jackie Mitchell? They played professional baseball with all-male minor league teams in the late ’20s and ’30s — one of them a 17-year-old pitcher who struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game in 1931. These two women alone make great stories.