Sport, like many other professions, has been traditionally and historically dismissive or even hostile towards women. It took many years for the majority of sports to create a professional women’s league. Moreover, even once these were established, commentators were largely derogatory towards female athletes and broadcasters were reluctant to offer them exposure or coverage. Even in sports where men and women competed on the same big stages, the prize-money difference between the two genders was nothing other than insulting.
Considering these obstacles, it’s even more impressive that certain female athletes have managed to either raise or create awareness for their sport and have continually battled to improve both the treatment and reputation of sportswomen everywhere.
But who are these pioneers and how have they helped shape female professional sports in the world today?
While there are countless examples, here are three of the most influential and pioneering female athletes.
Steph Houghton – Soccer
With women’s soccer often being sneered at and belittled by sports fans, Steph Houghton went out to prove something at the 2012 London Olympics. Having played for the national squad since 2007, and being capped 44 times, Houghton was not unused to high-pressure situations. However, with women’s soccer gaining some traction in the media, Houghton needed to show the UK exactly what female footballers could do.
Despite Great Britain losing in the quarter-finals, Houghton scored three goals in four matches during the squad’s run. Gifted with an iron work-ethic and a versatile playing style, Houghton’s seamless ability to both defend and attack drew praise from numerous previously unconvinced critics. Partially due to this stellar performance, Houghton was selected as England captain for the 2014 World Cup.
Houghton’s superb performance at the Olympics has seen a further rise in female interest in professional soccer. In 1993, the English Football Association only had 11,200 registered female players. Today, there are more than 100,000.
This steep rise is the perfect testament to Houghton’s game-changing Olympic performance.
Kate Walsh – Horse Racing
The National Hunt, the UK’s largest professional horse racing organization, is almost unique due to the fact it allows male and female jockeys to compete in the same race. However, despite there being a literal level playing field, few women have been able to take advantage of it. This can be attributed to a general lack of female jockeys and the somewhat related reality that those women who do try but fail to qualify for major National Hunt events are subjected to serve commendation.
However, in 2012, Irish jockey Kate Walsh became the highest placed female rider in the history of the Grand National. Riding the now retired Seabass, and being only the 18th woman to compete at the Grand National since 1977, Walsh overcame initial nerves to strongly finish in a podium position. It was quite a feat and would have won vast sums in the horse racing betting.
Far from a one-trick pony, Walsh has had success at a variety of National Hunt events. She has two winners at the Cheltenham Festival to her name and, in 2014, became the first female winner of the Kerry National.
Considering Walsh’s tendency to break records, it’s unlikely that she’s going to stop anytime soon and may even continue to do so at the Grand National this year.
Venus Williams – Tennis
The Williams sisters have pushed the boundaries not just female athletes but also for African-American sportswomen. Coming from an impoverished upbringing in Compton, Serena and Venus battled hostility both on and off the court. Yet, despite having few allies in the beginning, Serena and Venus went on to win numerous Grand Slam titles between them and, more importantly, the respect and admiration of their peers and spectators. Whilst Serena has won more across the net, Venus has done more behind the scenes.
When Venus won the 2005 Wimbledon Championship, she was rewarded significantly less prize-money than men’s singles winner Roger Federer.
Outraged by this inequality, the last of its kind left on the tour calendar, Venus went on the attack. Appealing to governing bodies one minute, and writing potent and powerful newspaper/magazine articles the next, Venus didn’t so much open the debate but blow it to smithereens.
Needless to say, when Venus next held the Wimbledon trophy in 2007, she was also given a check to the tune of $1.4 million – exactly the same amount rewarded to a certain Swiss maestro.
Featured image via Gabriel Rossi/STF