It’s been nearly half a century since the passage of Title IX, a 1972 law that mandated equal treatment of males and females at educational institutions receiving federal funding. Not only did this groundbreaking law ensure girls and women are entitled to the same education as their male peers, but it also opened up the world of sports beyond the “feminine” choices typically offered before that time. Since then, female athletes have barraged the world of competitive sports.
We now know the many benefits offered female athletes. Countless studies have cited increased confidence, ambition and motivation among girls who are encouraged to pursue athletic activities. According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, women who have participated in sports experience less intimate partner violence victimization (IPVV) than those without athletic participation.
Likewise, in the Women’s Sports Foundation’s report, Her Life Depends On It III, researchers concluded participating in athletic activities prevents chronic disease, lowers rates of substance abuse, decreases rates of teenage pregnancy and overall reduces risky behaviors among both girls and women. Girls who are active also demonstrate better mental health, higher confidence levels, improved communication skills and higher graduation rates than the general population.
Still, almost 50 years after the world of sports was opened up to female athletes, twice as many girls compared to boys still drop out of sports by age 14. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, they walk away for a variety of factors, including lack of access, safety and transportation issues, as well as costs and lack of supportive role models. Unfortunately, 46 years after Title IX, no state in the country has achieved gender equality in its sporting programs, some boast as poor as 66 percent gender inequality regarding sports.
Still, women continue to push the barriers in athletics, showing being born with two X chromosomes in no way has to equal meek and mild. Some female athletes have completely broken the gender barrier, taking part in sports never before played by women on the main stage. These female athletes are showing they can be just as powerful, agile and strong as men in the most vigorous and testing athletic pursuits.
Just look to the women’s roller-derby culture to find proof of women’s athletic prowess. The sport first popularized in the 1970s has made a comeback, but rather than the earlier version’s theatrics and glam, today’s roller derby is a showcase of grit and true athleticism. Women from all walks of life – a quarter of whom are older than 35 – play out their stress and aggressions in a no-holds-barred race around the rink.
But plenty of other female athletes are breaking down the gender gap in sports. Mixed martial artists, hockey players, skaters and golfers are busting through the gates into sports dominated by men – and showing they mean business. Still, they don’t draw the attention, demand or money of their male counterparts.
Who are these women athletes? Check out these examples of women pushing the gender barriers and making their mark in male-dominated sports:
Although women have been competing in Motocross since 1974’s Powder Puff National, the sport faced a backlash from its professional female riders just five years ago when the WMX, an eight-race series held by the Women’s Motocross Association that coincided with the men’s professional tour, was cut to a three-round triple crown event held the same day as the men’s Pro Motocross opener.
The series’ promoters changed each race to a single-day format for practice, qualifying and championship rounds, rather than its past custom of spreading the rounds across two days. And since the entire series was broadcast live on TV and the internet, there was no extra time to fit the women’s events. Because a lack of professional races equals no professional sponsorships, some of the most talented riders simply walked away from the sport.
But others rose to the challenge, rode on and broke new barriers by racing against the men. Former women’s championship-racing gold medalist Vicki Golden walked away from the MWA and decided to enter the men’s pro tour.
“I think I have so much more potential to be so much better and I [didn’t] want to take a step backwards,” Golden told ESPN. “It’s not a professional class.”
Golden went on to become the first female to complete Ricky Carmichael’s Road to Supercross, a qualification program that all riders must complete in order to race in the Monster Energy Supercross series, as well as the first female to race supercross against men in 15 years.
Since then, as other girls’ and women’s races are cut or change rules to make it harder to qualify, more female riders have raced against men to great success.
Hunting may be one of the most classic of American sporting pastimes, but it’s also one of the most gender specific. In 2010, only 2.4 percent of girls living at home went hunting. Their numbers may be small, but mighty women hunters are slowly breaking gender barriers. While the total hunting population dropped 2 percent between 1991 and 2011, women’s participation actually increased by 2 percent during the same period.
“The fact that women are achieving more recognition as hunters represents an important social and cultural shift,” Whitworth University sociology professor Stacy Keogh Keogh wrote in Backcountry Hunters and Anglers‘s Backcountry Journal. “That shift is made even clearer upon entering a sporting goods store where women’s hunting gear is now readily available.”
In fact, according to a report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 3.35 million American hunters are women. Barbara Sackman is one of them. She holds 191 world records in the SCI Record Book, and she won the 2015 Weatherby Hunting and Conservation Award, only the second woman to have ever received the honor.
Additionally, Sackman has won the Diana Award, the SCI Conservation Award, the Magnum Villamanin Award, the ORVIS 20 Award, the Capra Super 20 Award and many others.
Sackman is a true conservationist and only harvests older prey so the younger specimens can dominate, mate and reproduce.
Traditionally, it has been rare to witness women’s involvement in contact sports. But recently, women have proved their prowess in MMA, boxing and even rugby.
While women have been playing rugby for the entire history of the sport, their participation drew little notice. Women’s rugby leagues have organized for more than 50 years, but also received little attention on a national or world stage.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, however, women’s teams finally have taken the main stage. In 2011, the Netherlands became the first nation to award professional contracts to women’s rugby players. By 2014, nine other nations followed suit.
Just recently, the United Kingdom set precedent by offering full-time deals to top sevens players, who will compete in the international World Series and the Olympics. The influx of cash is undoubtedly a result of greater media coverage.
“Every year women’s rugby continues to make strides, and we saw a giant leap in 2017, with the 15-a-side Women’s World Cup final shown live on prime-time Saturday night TV,” Sarah Mockford, editor of Rugby World magazine and the first female chairman of the Rugby Union writers’ club, said in Marie Claire.
Like rugby, gridiron football is nothing new to female athletes, but it’s roots are largely forgotten. Women’s football leagues began forming as early as the 1930s, nearly reaching mainstream popularity during a single season.
However, the players in the Los Angeles women’s football league were also softball players, and the latter sport offered far greater opportunity at the time. After all, softball was a more popular sport, and players could travel to international tournaments. The football league consisted of four teams, all in the Los Angeles area.
Upon America’s entrance into World War II, women’s football was largely forgotten for 30 years. When it resurfaced in the 1970s, it again failed to reach a significant audience. But over time, some women found success in special teams positions, where they were not required to participate physically against males. Still, they rarely broke into the collegiate or professional football scene.
But, the number of girls participating in high-school football has increased every year since 2014 – by 43 percent overall, according to the National Federation of High School Associations. As there is rarely a high-school football equivalent for girls, these young women are crossing the gender gap to play on boys’ teams.
“There is something to be said about girls playing a sport that’s been so strongly linked, historically and culturally, to masculinity,” Purdue University’s Cheryl Cook said. “Having the presence of girls in a sport like football does a lot to disrupt the cultural perceptions and stereotypes of who girls are, what they should be, what they can do.”
And as a generation of female high-school football players grow into adulthood, they seek to enter the collegiate and professional sports worlds. In 2003, New Mexico kicker Katie Hnida became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division 1-A game.
Veterans of the Women’s Football Alliance are coaching in the NFL, and Arizona’s Becca Longo became the first girl to win a college football scholarship in 2017. Each accomplishment forges the path toward greater demand for women’s football.
Long considered the true tests of athletic prowess, combined events – particularly the heptathlon and decathlon – require athletes to be swift, powerful and agile to succeed. But the overall abilities of men and women have always been separated by three events.
The men’s decathlon measures speed, strength and agility in 10 events: the 100-meter relay, long jump, shot put, high jump, the 400-meter relay, hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and the 1,500-meter race.
Women, however, have traditionally competed in the heptathlon, which only consists of seven events: hurdles, long jump, javelin, the 200-meter relay, high jump, the 800-meter relay and shot put. Men also compete in heptathlon events.
Track and field has long treated women as the weaker sex. The Olympics banned the women’s 800-meter race for 32 years after it was determined (no doubt by male officials) that the distance was too difficult for female athletes. Women weren’t allowed to run in an Olympic marathon until 1984, and women’s pole vault events weren’t held until 2000.
Finally, men’s and women’s programs in track and field are the same – with the exception of the combined events. Women are still relegated to the seven-event heptathlon, while men are challenged to compete in the longer decathlon and its 10 events. USA Track and Field finally approved its first women’s decathlon championship in July 2018.
“I don’t want to bash the heptathlon, which is an amazing event,” the organization’s athlete coordinator Becca Peter told the Guardian. “But it is less demanding than the decathlon, which is widely seen as finding the world’s best all-round athlete. What kind of message does that send to women and girls? In effect, they are being told they can’t be the world’s greatest athlete, that they can’t do as many events as men. And that isn’t right.”
USATF awarded cash prizes to the top three athletes in the Women’s Open Decathlon Championship, although the event has not been accepted on the world stage despite many believing 2000’s introduction of women’s pole vault would open that door.
“I think the heptathlon is really too easy for elite women,” first ever Olympic pole-vaulting gold medalist Stacy Dragila told FloTrack. “We should throw in another event to make it more technical. Now that the pole vault has been contested for so long—18 years—why not give women an opportunity to try it?”