In a world where stereotypes run rampant, females are typically seen as weaker, slower and less athletic than most men. It’s recorded all throughout history textbooks — women have been confined to a life spent baking cakes and caring for their children while the men are busy bringing home the bacon.
Thankfully, the times they are a-changin’. Now women can be the breadwinner and the game winner. We owe some of this progress to a handful of fearless women who weren’t afraid to tear down those stereotypes by entering the male-dominated world of sports. They refused to just stay indoors to play with Barbie dolls and paint their nails when they were young, because they realized the lifetime benefits of playing a sport as a girl.
Already 2016 is shaping up to be a big year for barrier-breaking women like this in the sports world. In January, Kathryn Smith made sports history when she was hired as the first full-time female coach in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills. Smith has more than a decade of pro football experience under her belt, and we are confident she’ll be “woman” enough for the job.
In honor of the past and present strides that have been made, we’ve compiled a group of women who made a name for themselves in sports, leaving broken gender barriers in their wake. They’re awesome role models and just badasses in general because they weren’t afraid to show the boys that they can throw, kick, run and hit just as well (and maybe even better) than them. Step aside, men, because these women can probably teach you a thing or two about sports.
Updated by Bethany Ramos on 1/21/2016
In January 2016, Kathryn Smith was named the quality control-special teams coach for the Buffalo Bills, also earning her the esteemed title of the first full-time female coach in NFL history. Smith’s been with the NFL for 14 years and the Buffalo Bills for seven, so it’s safe to say she knows her stuff.
On July 27, 2015, Jennifer Welter made history. By becoming an assistant coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals, she just earned the honor of being the first female coach in the NFL. But this isn’t the first time she’s broken through barriers, as she was also the first woman to play a non-kicking position in a men’s pro football league. We’re impressed.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Named “Woman Athlete of the Half Century” in 1950, Babe Didrikson Zaharias was a jack-of-all-trades during her time. She was the first woman to qualify for and play in a PGA Tour event back in 1938, but she was also skilled on the basketball court and in track and field. Why show up men in just one sport when you can be great at three?
Rhéaume became the first and only woman to play professional hockey when she took to the ice as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goalie during exhibition games in 1992 and 1993. Major props to her for being able to keep her eyes on that small puck under so much pressure!
Hammon was named the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA when she got on board with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. The six-time all-star played 13 seasons in the WNBA before the transition, ranking seventh in WNBA history for points. Show those boys what you’re made of, Hammon!
Kennedy became the first African-American female to host a network sports TV broadcast when she walked on the set of The NFL Today in 1978. She wasn’t afraid to prove she really knew her stuff in such a male-dominated industry like sports broadcasting.
Frontiere became the majority owner of the St. Louis Rams football team when her husband, the prior owner, passed away in 1979. As the first woman to take control of a league franchise, she garnered the nickname “Madame Ram” and witnessed three trips to the Super Bowl before her death in 2008.
Named the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games. But what’s more impressive is how she rose above her illness-ridden past. Rudolph was born prematurely and contracted infantile paralysis at the age of 4, causing her to wear a leg brace until she was 9. Once she shed that leg brace, she left all her competitors in the dust.
Ann Meyers Drysdale
Ann Meyers Drysdale became the first woman to sign an NBA contract when she signed as a free agent with the Indiana Pacers in 1979. Her love for basketball started young, as she was also the first player to join the U.S. national team while still a mere high school student.
Guthrie was the first woman to qualify for and compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. A master behind the wheel of a race car, she proved that women can ride right alongside men in the fast lane.
Lesley Visser is a legendary master of firsts — she was the first woman assigned to the Super Bowl sideline, the first female sportscaster to carry the Olympic torch and the first woman to appear on the Monday Night Football series, among various other accomplishments. She was also dubbed the No. 1 female sportscaster of all time. For any men who think women don’t know anything about sports, we think this is enough evidence to prove you wrong. Sorry, not sorry.
A 16-year-old bat-swinging badass, Mayeux has recently caused quite the buzz in the baseball world. She just became the first female baseball player to be added to the MLB’s international registration list, making her eligible to be signed by a Major League team. Though she hasn’t been officially signed anywhere yet, she has begun quite the lively conversation about women’s place in baseball.
Billie Jean King
This tennis star won 39 (yes, you read that number correctly) Grand Slam titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world for five years, but she also achieved great success off the courts. As an advocate for women’s equality, she formed the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 to advocate for equal prize money for men and women in tennis. You go, girl.
After years of officiating college football games, Thomas was named the first full-time female referee in NFL history. Now she can use her years of experience and knowledge to call the shots and throw those yellow flags until her heart’s content. She sure knows how to rock those black-and-white stripes!
Thanks to her impressive 70 mph fastball, Davis is the first girl to pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history and the first African-American girl to play in the LLWS. At just 14 years old, she has already broken down both racial and gender barriers, making her a kick-ass role model for young female athletes everywhere. #girlpower
Teresa Phillips became the first woman to coach a men’s Division 1 basketball game when she took to the court with the Tennessee State University Tigers in 2003. Though the team lost that game, she still made quite the impression, as Sports Illustrated named her one of its “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports” that year.
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