Though sports have historically been a male-dominated industry, female athletes are continuously fighting for change and paving the way for future generations. Not only are women excelling in their respective sports, but they are also contributing to societal change. In honor of Women’s History Month, I am introducing five of my favorite females in sports history and how they are impacting future generations of athletes.
Known for her strength and domination on the court, tennis player Serena Williams has 23 Grand Slam Titles and four Olympic gold medals to her name. Serena was named AP’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2013 where she was recognized not only for her athletic abilities, but for inspiring the next generation of female athletes. Serena has continuously been an advocate for females in sports and has most recently set the standard for mothers in sports. Upon giving birth to her daughter in 2017, Serena endured life threatening post-birth complications. This experience motivated her to speak out about childbirth complications, specifically those that black mothers are prone to facing. When returning to the game of tennis, Serena utilized her platform to influence the rules of the WTA; who will now let women keep their rankings for up to three years to allow return to play after pregnancy. Serena Williams is a woman who represents resilience and continues to serve as a role model for not only tennis players, but all female athletes.
Named the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated, Jackie Joyner is a track and field athlete known for her dominance in long jump and heptathlon. During her career, Jackie attended four Olympic Games and is a six-time Olympic medalist. While her talent is undeniable, Joyner-Kersee has also made a large impact post-career as a philanthropist. She established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation in 1988 to help the youth in East St. Louis succeed both academically and athletically. Joyner-Kersee also co-founded Athletes for Hope in 2007, encouraging professional athletes to get involved with philanthropy work. Not only is Jackie Joyner-Kersee an inspiration to track and field athletes with her success in the sport, but she continues to inspire other professional athletes to use their platforms to engage in charitable acts.
As one of the most influential coaches in sports history, Pat Summit is best known for her work with the University of Tennessee’s Women’s Basketball Team and the USA Women’s Basketball Team. Under Summitt’s guidance, the Tennessee Vols won eight NCAA National Championships and 34 of her players went on to continue their careers with the WNBA. Summit consistently pushed for television exposure, creating a large growth not only in Tennessee’s Women’s Basketball Program, but all women’s teams in the NCAA. Summitt also coached the USA Women’s Basketball Team, leading them to an Olympic gold medal win in 1984. Pat Summitt was one of the most influential basketball coaches of all time and her mentoring set the standard for all female coaches that would follow in her footsteps. Summitt was named to eight hall of fame’s, named the Naismith Coach of the Century in 2000 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Pat Summitt was a trailblazer for women and coaches in the sports industry and I have no doubt that her legacy will continue for years to come.
Billie Jean King
As a tennis player, Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam Titles and was ranked #1 in the world in women’s tennis for 6 years. King was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and has been honored with numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year in 1975, and BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award. Not only was King successful on the courts, but she served as an advocate for women in sports as well as a social justice figure for the LGBTQ community. King has spoken out about the challenges of coming out and the importance of supporting the LGBTQ community. Billie Jean King also founded the Women’s Tennis Association as well as the Women’s Sports Organization. Both organizations have been pivotal in fueling the newest generation of female athletes. King’s work in women’s sports has been unmatched and serves as a true inspiration to all female athletes, regardless of their sport.
Maya Moore is an American professional basketball player for the Minnesota Lynx. Moore is a four-time WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist. In 2017, Sports Illustrated named her their inaugural Performer of the Year; calling her the “greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball”. Alongside her athletic accomplishments, Moore is also passionate in fighting for social justice. Her recent activism was committed to working for the release of a wrongly convicted man (Jonathan Irons) who was accused of burglary and assault at a young age. In July of 2020, Irons was released from prison and he and Moore ended up getting married. Moore intends to continue advocating for criminal justice reform, taking a break from her athletic career. Her passion for both sports and social justice are inspiring and she serves as the perfect role model for females who wish to pursue their passions in multiple avenues.
These five women are incredible examples of perseverance, dedication, resilience, and what it means to be an above and beyond athlete. Their unwavering passion and can-do attitude are a true inspiration to women all around the world. There are countless other women leaving a positive impact on female sports (Megan Rapinoe, Dawn Staley, Tessa Virtue, Li Na, Sheryl Swoopes, Misty Copeland, Mia Hamm) just to name a few. With much of the sports industry revolving around men, it is imperative that younger generations of athletes have female role models to look up to in their respective sports. The more female athletes that follow in the footsteps of these incredible role models, the closer we will be to gender equality in sports.
Other women who have most recently influenced the sports industry:
Sarah Thomas – The first female referee to work an NFL Superbowl (2021)
Sarah Fuller – The first woman to score in a Power 5 conference football game (2021)
Naomi Osaka – The first woman to win her first four major finals (2021) since Monica Seles did in 1991