15 American women athletes who broke barriers
15 American women athletes who broke barriers
The sports world would be very different without any of the women mentioned on this list. It’s impossible to deny the significant accomplishments of these athletes, but many of them represent more than medals, trophies, and numbers on scoreboards. These barrier-breaking women disrupted long-held traditions, particularly at a time when women weren’t as accepted in the historically male-dominated world of sports.
From Little League Baseball to tennis to horse racing and beyond, these women defied the odds and unapologetically dared to take risks that others would have shied away from. These women didn’t just make inroads in their sport with their courage, vigor, and tenacity—they created foundations to give back, served as mentors, and have funded and still continue to support athletic and humanitarian causes today.
Using data from news reports, sports sites, and athletes’ very own websites, Stacker compiled a list of 15 influential American women athletes and sorted them by the year each athlete accomplished a significant barrier-breaking moment. While what makes something “barrier-breaking” can be subjective, this list is concerned with events that mark a woman-first achievement, whether in individual accomplishment or via an activism effort in support of a sport or a significant moment of representation for women.
Read on to learn about the history of these athletes and how they showcased their determination and drive.
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1932: Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias, track and field
- Olympic gold medal winner who broke world records in multiple sports and went on to found the Ladies Professional Golf Association
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was a multi-talented athlete who participated in several sports during her lifetime. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, she won two gold medals and a silver medal in track and field—one of which for her record-setting 80-meter hurdle run. At that time, women were only allowed to compete in three events at the Olympics. Zaharias did not waste her opportunity: she took home the gold in the javelin throw, setting a new world record throw of 43.69 meters; and she also walked away with the silver medal in the high jump. By the 1940s, Zaharias had become a professional golfer, where she continued to break barriers in a male-dominated sport, winning 82 tournaments throughout her career.
1944: Maria Tallchief, ballet
- First Native American (Osage Tribe) woman to break into ballet
Maria Tallchief became the first American dancer to obtain the title of prima ballerina. Life wasn’t all tutus and elaborate costumes for this barrier-breaking dancer, though. Tallchief was proud of her Native American ancestry and was vocal against social injustices and discrimination. She was often rejected and went to various dance companies seeking work before making her big break. The summer of 1944 was a pivotal moment for Tallchief, as it was at this time when she met choreographer George Balanchine. The two would go on to marry, and when Balanchine opened the New York City Ballet in 1948, he made Tallchief the troupe’s prima ballerina. She was featured in a wide array of ballets, among them “The Nutcracker,” for which she is still remembered as America’s first Native American prima ballerina.
1948: Victoria Manalo Draves, swimming
- First Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal
In 1948, Victoria Manalo Draves became the first Asian American to win gold in both springboard and platform diving at the London Summer Olympics. The daughter of a Filipino father and British mother, Draves faced discrimination for her Asian heritage. In fact, one of her early coaches insisted she use her mother’s maiden name and go by “Vicky Taylor” during competitions. In the mid-1950s, Draves continued her passion for aquatics and started a swimming and diving training program with her husband. In 1969, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and Museum.
1950: Althea Gibson, tennis
- First Black player to receive an invitation to the U.S. Open
In 1950, tennis icon Althea Gibson became the first African American woman to compete in the U.S. National Championships. At this time, Black participation in professional sports, even for men, was in its infancy. Jackie Robinson had only just broken baseball’s color barrier three years earlier. Given the fact that society at this time was markedly patriarchal in nature, Gibson’s achievement shines among other such advancements for Black athletes. Gibson, who was raised in Harlem, New York, won a slew of tennis titles over the course of her career. In 1956, she became the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title at the French Open. Gibson would continue her winning streak, garnering 16 titles in the 18 tournaments she competed in, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958. And if this weren’t enough, in 1960, she became the first Black woman to compete on the women’s pro golf tour.
1953: Toni Stone, baseball
- First female professional baseball player in a top-tier men’s league
Toni Stone may not be a household name, but she played a significant role in the breakdown of gender barriers in the 1950s. She was originally born Marcenia Lyle Stone but changed her name when she joined the baseball league. Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball in a men’s baseball league. In 1949, Stone played for the New Orleans Creoles in a semi-pro league before signing with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 in the Negro American League, making her the first woman to cross the gender barrier and play in a men’s league.
Stone was subject to prejudice not only for her race but her gender as well, and while promoting her to the ticket-buying public was seen as a boon—both to her and to baseball—she nonetheless had to weather a campaign of misinformation put out by the very team she played for regarding her age and even her level of education. The influence of her example, however, was felt almost immediately after she hit the field. By 1954, just one season after she joined the team, the Clowns added two more female players to their roster.
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1960: Wilma Rudolph, track and field
- First American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics
Wilma Rudolph had several odds stacked against her from the beginning. She was born prematurely, weighing less than 5 pounds, which resulted in her being prone to illness throughout her life. By age four, Rudolph was battling pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio—and this was at a time when there wasn’t a vaccine for the latter. Rudolph lost the use of her left leg and, for a time, had to be outfitted with metal leg braces. Her doctor even told her she wouldn’t be able to walk again—she was just 6 years old by then. Smash cut to the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome: Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track-and-field at the Olympics. For her unprecedented feat, she was dubbed “the fastest woman in the world.”
1967: Kathrine Switzer, marathon
- First woman to complete the Boston Marathon as an official entrant
It may seem hard to believe, but women in 1967 still weren’t allowed to enter the Boston Marathon. This was not going to stop Kathrine Switzer, who, with a clever tweak to her name, entered as “K.V. Switzer,” so as not to reveal her gender. During the marathon, Switzer was physically attacked by the race director who tried to pull her from the course, a historic moment that was captured in several photos. Switzer was still able to finish the race and became the first woman to complete the marathon as an official entrant. Her experience galvanized her belief that it was well past time for women to share the running road with men—in an official capacity. In 1972, she campaigned for women’s official participation in the Boston Marathon and that same year was one of the creators of the first women’s road race. Switzer would go on to win the New York City Marathon in 1974 and, after more than four decades as a marathoner and activist, was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011 for “creating positive global social change.”
1970: Diane Crump, horse racing
- First woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby
There aren’t many people who can call themselves a self-taught equestrian, but horse racing pioneer Diane Crump did just that, teaching herself how to ride without any formal lessons. Crump had always loved horses as a child and worked on a horse farm near her home in Oldsmar, a suburb outside of Tampa, Florida. In 1970, Crump made history as the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby, atop her mount, Fathom, and although she placed 15th out of 17th in the race, her historic accomplishment was cemented. Throughout her horse racing career, Crump racked up 228 wins. Having retired from competitive racing, she opened and continues to operate her own equine sales business in Virginia.
1973: Billie Jean King, tennis
- Defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes
Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles in her career but actually started out playing softball, switching to tennis at age 11 only when her parents suggested she pursue a more “ladylike” sport. In 1966, King made her first breakthrough, winning the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon, a title she upheld the following two years as well. In 1973, more than 90 million viewers worldwide watched King defeat self-declared “hustler and male chauvinist” Bobby Riggs, in what came to be called the Battle of the Sexes. Her victory was not only a significant moment for women in sports, it also put to rout Riggs’ assertion that women’s tennis was inferior to men’s.
Throughout her career, King rallied for equal prize money for men and women at the U.S. Open, and through her advocacy, the U.S. Open became the first major tournament to offer equal monetary rewards to both genders. Despite being the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and recognized as one of the greatest players in history, she was vilified in 1981 when she was publicly outed as a lesbian, losing all of her athletic endorsements. Nonetheless, King continued to advocate for women and the LGBTQ+ community; her life’s work culminated in her receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and founding the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative in 2014.
1976: Janet Guthrie, NASCAR
- First woman to compete in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series
In the 1970s, Janet Guthrie, a former aerospace engineer, was determined to pursue her passion and become a race car driver. The 1976 World 600 marked the moment Guthrie would begin making historical strides in sportscar racing, becoming the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup series superspeedway event. In 1977, Guthrie became the first woman ever to start in the Daytona 500. In 1977, she qualified for speed trials and became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, but her debut was a bust due to mechanical problems. Undeterred, the trailblazing Guthrie returned to the race in 1978 and finished in 9th place. Despite never finishing above 6th in any race, Guthrie took the checkered flag for her generation and the generations that have followed in driving women into the world of speed racing.
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1977: Lusia Harris, basketball
- First and only woman to be officially drafted by the NBA
In the 1970s, Lusia Harris won three consecutive national collegiate women’s championships at her alma mater, Delta State University. At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, “Lucy” became the first woman to score recorded points in Olympic women’s basketball history, and in 1977, she became the first and only woman ever drafted by an NBA team (the New Orleans Jazz) in 1977. At the time, Harris, who had married her high school sweetheart, was pregnant and chose not to try out. Harris was the first woman collegiate basketball player to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, and to this day, holds Delta State records with 2,891 points, 1,662 rebounds, and an average of 25.9 points per game.
1991: Mia Hamm, soccer
- Won the Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 1999, and took Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004
Mia Hamm is often regarded as the best female soccer player of all time. Hamm began playing soccer professionally at age 15 in 1987 and was the youngest athlete in history to join the U.S. women’s national soccer team. Hamm has won two Olympic gold medals and two FIFA Women’s World Cup championships. In 2000, Hamm co-founded the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first women’s professional soccer league. Hamm’s notable accomplishments helped to popularize women’s soccer in the U.S. Since retiring, Hamm now devotes her time to philanthropic efforts through the Mia Hamm Foundation, a nonprofit organization she started in 1999.
2007: Venus and Serena Williams, tennis
- Following Althea Gibson’s historic victories in 1957-58, Serena also became the first African American woman to win the U.S. Open in 1999, and Venus the first African American woman to win Wimbledon in 2000
Venus and Serena Williams, two of the most prominent athletes in tennis history, began their professional tennis careers during their humble beginnings as teenagers. By the late 1990s, the Williams sisters shook the foundation of the sport, which had historically appealed to the white and wealthy. Together, the sisters have transformed tennis for women with their bold confidence, powerful manner of play, and vocality in matters concerning equality.
In 2007, Wimbledon—one of the four Grand Slam tournaments and the oldest in the history of tennis—announced female players would receive the same prize money as male players. This decision came in the wake of intense social pressure from influential tennis players, notably Venus and Serena, as well as other members of the Women’s Tennis Association. The Williams sisters continue to make their professional and personal mark in the sport. As of 2021, Venus is a seven-time Grand Slam Champion and Serena Williams is a 23-time Grand Slam champion.
2013: Simone Biles, gymnastics
- First African American all-around world champion and most decorated gymnast among all athletes in world competitions
Simone Biles’ impact on the world of gymnastics goes beyond breaking records—her name is literally stamped on the art and discipline of the sport itself. There are four gymnastic techniques named after her, paving a legacy that will live on through the sport’s history and create inroads for future generations. Biles has dominated the world of gymnastics for years, accumulating 32 Olympic and World Championship medals as of 2022; in fact, her name has become so synonymous with the sport that many were surprised by her announcement to withdraw from participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to focus on her mental health. This move continued the discussion in the sports world of athletes and mental well-being, which may have inspired another famous athlete, tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from Wimbledon and the French Open for similar reasons. What’s more, Biles has been open with her struggles with attention deficit disorder, which has inspired a generation of girls and young women similarly afflicted to seek treatment.
2014: Mo’ne Davis, baseball
- First African American girl to ever play in the Little League World Series
In 2014, at the age of 13, Mo’ne Davis made history as the first girl to pitch a shutout and score a victory in the Little League World Series. She was also the first African American girl to ever play in the famed youth sports tournament and the first Little Leaguer to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Davis was recorded pitching 70 mph fastballs for the Philadelphia Taney Dragons, who won 4-0 over their South Nashville opponents. As of 2022, Davis plays softball instead of baseball at Hampton University, where she studies communications. The Little League has come a long way from its days in the 1950s and 1960s when the organization prohibited girls from participating. That rule was overturned in 1974 when the National Organization for Women filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 12-year-old girl against the Little League for gender discrimination.
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