A History of Women’s Sports

By Tim Lambert

Early Women’s Sports

Greek women were not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. However, women had their own games dedicated to the goddess Hera (wife of Zeus). The Heraean games were held once every 4 years. In Rome from about 55 AD, some women fought as gladiators but the practice was banned in 200 AD.

At the end of the 18th-century archery became a popular sport with both men and women. It continued to be popular in the 19th century. Women’s archery was first included in the Olympic Games in 1904. The first Archery World Championship was held in 1931. Both men and women competed.

In the 16th century, Mary Queen of Scots was the first recorded woman to play golf. The first women’s golf tournament took place in Musselburgh, Scotland in 1811. The first women’s golf club was formed in St Andrews, Scotland in 1867. It was followed by many others and the first women’s golf tournament in the USA was held in New Jersey in 1894. The Ladies Professional Golf Association was formed in the USA in 1950.

A rough form of football (soccer) was played as early as the Middle Ages. Women playing football was first recorded in Scotland in 1628 when a minister complained about men and women ‘footballing’ on Sunday. In 1795 a writer said that in Inveresk in Scotland every year on Shrove Tuesday married women played unmarried women at football. In England, the first women’s football clubs were formed at the end of the 19th century. The first recorded match was in 1895. The Women’s Football Association, the WFA was formed in 1969 and the first WFA cup final was played in 1971.

In 1884 girl called Emily Valentine was recorded as playing rugby at a school in Ireland. There is also a record of a women’s rugby charity match in Wales in 1917. However, women’s rugby was rare until the 1970s. In Britain, the Women’s Rugby Football Union was formed in 1983. The first Women’s Rugby World Cup was held in 1991.

In 1745, the first recorded women’s cricket match was held on Gosden Common near Guildford. The ladies were from the villages of Bramley in Surrey and Hambledon in Hampshire. The Hambledon ladies beat Bramley 127 to 119. The first known women’s cricket club was formed in Yorkshire in 1887. In the 20th-century women’s cricket became a popular sport. The Women’s Cricket Association was formed in 1926 and the first international match was played in 1934 between England and Australia. The International Women’s Cricket Council was formed in 1958 and the first Women’s World Cup was held in 1973. The first women’s hockey club was founded in Britain in 1887.

People have played tennis since the Middle Ages. Women first played tennis at Wimbledon in 1884.

Women in the Olympic Games

In 1896 the Olympics Games were held for the first time since 394 AD. A Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin decided to revive them. The 1896 games were held in Athens. Women athletes were first included in the Olympic Games in 1900.

On the water – women’s swimming was introduced into the Olympics in 1912. In 1926 Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. In 1987, a woman named Lynne Cox swam across the Bering Strait. Meanwhile, rowing became a popular sport for women in the early 20th century. The first Women’s World Rowing Championship was held in Switzerland in 1974. Women’s rowing was first included in the Olympics in 1976. The first World Women’s Water Polo Championships were held in 1986, in Spain. Women’s water polo was included in the Olympic Games in 2000.

In 1978 Naomi James became the first woman to sail around the world single-handed (with stops on the voyage). In 1988 Kay Cottee became the first woman to sail around the world solo and non-stop.

Meanwhile, baseball was invented in the mid 19th century and women’s baseball began soon after. Softball was invented in 1887. The first women’s softball team was formed in Chicago in 1895. The first World Championships to include women were held in 1965, in Melbourne, Australia. A man named James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. The first recorded women’s basketball game was in 1892. In the USA the first National Women’s Basketball Championship was held in 1926. Women’s basketball was included in the Olympic Games in 1976. Then, in 1985 Lynette Woodard became the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Meanwhile, William G Morgan invented volleyball in 1895. It soon proved to be popular with both men and women. The United States Volleyball Association (now the USAV) was founded in 1928. It started a women’s division in 1949. Women first played volleyball at the Olympics in 1964.

Another game, netball was invented in England in 1895. It quickly became a popular women’s sport and the first Netball World Championships were held in 1963. Netball was first played in the Commonwealth Games in 1998. It has not yet been played at the Olympics.

In the USA Ann Lee Aldred became the first woman to gain a jockey’s license, in 1939. In Britain in 1977 Charlotte Brew became the first female jockey to ride in the Grand National.

The first recorded game of Women’s American football was in 1926. The Women’s Professional Football League was formed in 1965. The first IFAF (International Federation of American Football) Women’s World Championship was held in Sweden in 2010.

Women’s boxing has been a sport in England since the early 18th century. Women’s boxing continued during the 19th century and the 20th century. It became an Olympic Sport in 2012. Women’s weightlifting also dates from the late 19th century. Women first competed at the World Weightlifting Championships in 1987.

From the beginning of the 20th century, women drivers participated in car races. Odette Siko was the first woman to drive at Le Mans, in 1930. In 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first woman to drive in the Indy 500 auto race.

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