Introduction to the Issue
Throughout time, women have fought not only for the right to play sports, but the right to be recognized for their achievements, as well. With the media's push for men's sports coverage, female athletes -- even those who excel -- are often pushed aside and forgotten. As we examine the lives of five forgotten female athletes, it becomes apparent that these women achieved incredible milestones. However, they were forgotten for some reason. Our goal was to find out why.
The social construction of gender within our society plays a major role in perpetuating gendered norms and roles. Many of the women we’ve featured achieved their feats in the last century, before our somewhat progressive views on gender. Women have been considered outliers in sports, as compared to men who are celebrated for excelling in athletics. Due to sexism in our society, these women all received comments and snide remarks about how they should be at home, either having children or taking care of the children they have. Women who excel are put under a microscope and examined for any flaw to debase their achievements. Just last week, Serena announced her pregnancy and the world realized she won the Australian Open while pregnant. Immediately articles popped up like “Could pregnancy have helped Serena Williams win?” completely ignoring she has already won 23 Grand Slams and currently holds the title of greatest tennis player of all time.
In our classically white male dominated society, the other groups have qualifiers placed upon them. Almost always, a man is not just a man, but a black man. It’s the same with gender in sports. Women’s runners, the WNBA, female tennis player, female skiier…. gendered titles come before recognizing simple humanity.
Diana Nyad isn't just a journalist, author and motivational speaker. Nyad is a champion long distance swimmer. Nyad swam around all of Manhattan island in 1975 and swam from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979. In recent years, at the age of 64, Nyad became the first person, male or female, to swim from Cuba to the United States without a shark cage. The swim took 53 hours to complete.
As part of the information age, Nyad has been a dynamic and outspoken part of the media. She stands of for the rights of female athletes, and LGBTQ athletes as well. With each stroke she takes, Nyad pushes for both perfection and inclusion, as well.
Alice Marble (1930-1990) was the world's #1 female tennis player for four years and won 18 Grand Slam championships. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and was the first women to adopt the serve-and-volley style of tennis previously only used by men. (She also was the first women to wear shorts to play.) Beyond her extraordinary athletic achievements, she was recruited by D.C. Comics as an inspiration for Wonder Woman. She overcame a suicide attempt after her husband was killed in action in WWII and she suffered a miscarriage. She was recruited by the government to be a spy during the war but was shot in the back by Nazis.
She fully recovered from her injury and went on to fight segregation in tennis by penning a transformative letter in American Lawn Tennis Magazine. Her words led to famed 11 Grand Slam winning African American player Althea Gibson to be allowed to play in competitions and was the first public challenge to the sport’s segregation. (Althea was also the first black women allowed to play in professional golf.) Without Alice Marble, there would be no Venus or Serena. Venus Williams once said she had all the opportunities she has today "because of people like Althea."
“If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
Wyomia Tyus, a retired American track and field sprinter, is the first person to retain the Olympic title in the 100m. She won the gold medal for the 100m at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and then again in Mexico City at the 1968 Summer Olympics. At the Mexico City Olympics she set a record during her leg of her team’s 4x100m relay. After the race, Wyomia announced to the press that her team was dedicating the race to Tommie Smith and John Carlos. After the Olympics, Wyomia competed in the Professional International Track Association competitions. During her second year participating she won all 22 races that she entered. She, along with Billie Jean King, Donna de Varona and others, helped start the Women’s Sports Foundation.
DR. ANNMARIA DE MARS
She was the very first American, male or female, to take home gold at the World Judo Championships in 1984. Beyond her stellar athletic achievements, she scholarship is changing the world. With a B.S. in Business, M.B.A., and M.A. and PhD. in Educational Psychology, she is the CEO of 7 Generation Games and The Julia Group. 7 Generation's goal is to intervene when students are young and help them get a grip on math so they can continue on to success. She is also an advocate for Native Americans and has authored many grants for various programs.
She is the mother of four children and one daughter in particular has followed in her footsteps... the famous fighter Ronda Rousey.
Long-time Tenneesee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt will go down as one of the all-time winningest coaches in college basketball history. As of right now, she holds the Division 1 record for most wins with 1098. Summitt compiled an 1098-208 record in her coaching career, winning eight NCAA Division 1 titles, and totaling 18 Final Four appearances.
Along with her many accolades as a coach and player, Summitt contributed greatly to change women’s rights within the sports community. In a world dominated by men, Summitt combated sexism daily. Summitt's fire helped legitimize women's college basketball as she worked tirelessly for gender equality. Summitt passed away after battling Alzheimer's disease in 2016.
On the surface, media seems to be the main culprit when examining why female athletes are often erased or forgotten within a historical context; but the media does not bear the sole responsibility. Though media is responsible for a large part of the way female athletes are portrayed, featured and ultimately remembered, there are other factors at play that limit the exposure of female athletes -- thus damaging their legacy.
Though media isn't the sole perpetrator, media does play a role in this issue and to understand the problem more fully, media's influences must be discussed. Media is our connection to a world we cannot see with our own eyes. If we wish to see a sporting event across the globe, all you must do is turn on ESPN or head to their website to get coverage and more importantly -- commentary. The commentary surrounding female athletes often diminishes the achievements of the athletes and propagates dangerous stereotypes that only set female athletes back.
Money is the driving force behind media coverage, especially on channels like ESPN where advertising is involved. The more money a network thinks it can make by selling advertising slots during a certain sporting event, the more airtime that sport gets. It's simple math. Though, as part of the media, advertising works against female athletes in that regard, we are too quick to point fingers and shirk responsibility to the ubiquitous "media" or advertising "bad guys". After all, it is us -- the viewers -- that tell the media what we want to see. It is our viewership that drives up advertising prices and revenue and forces female athletes to the back-burner of sports coverage.
As a society, we have seen sports as predominantly a male pastime for far too long. As female athletes of awe-inspiring caliber rise to the top, we often write them off as a flash in the pan, or one great exception to the rule. An exception that will soon be forgotten once we notice one singular, other female athlete do something great. We leave room for hundreds of great male athletes because the sexism we see in society is still greatly integrated into sports -- but we only leave room for one or two great female athletes at a time. Unless individuals are making a conscious decision to actively seek out and recognize these female athletes, we remain a part of the indifferent masses, mindlessly telling ESPN and SportsCenter that men's sporting events are all that matter to us.
We dictate what the media covers by not only our viewing choices, but through the merchandise we purchase and our ultimately our silence.
- WomenSports Magazine
- Title IX
- US Department of State Initiatives and espnW
- "The Department of State aims expand the footprint of Title IX and its message of equality and opportunity for women to every corner of the world."
- Stop using qualifiers. Women are athletes, period. Think about accomplishments more than their gender.
- We as consumers influence the media's decisions. Take time to support your favorite athletes and change can come.
- Lobby for gender equality in all sectors. Sports reflect our values as a culture, so the more we combat sexism, the better.
- Follow espnW on FB
- Follow @theunsungheroines on IG
- Read "Game Changers"