A Brief History of Women’s Sports

Program of the first Wimbledon ladies competition, 1884.

In the 1800s women were encouraged to participate only in recreational sports such as horseback riding and swimming. By the turn of the 20th century, during the “Gay Nineties” women’s athletics clubs began to appear across the United States featuring sports such as croquet, archery, and badminton. Although some professional competitions allowed women to compete in the late 1800s, the Olympics did not approve the participation of women until the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, France.  

Paris 1900 Olympic Poster, Jean de Paleologue (1855-1942).
Englishwoman Charlotte Cooper, the first individual woman to win a gold medal at the Olympic games, 1900.
Helene de Pourtales was the first woman to win an Olympic medal as part of a sailing team, 1900.
The boat, Lerina, that Helene de Pourtales sailed on, 1900.

Despite these advances, women’s sports faced a setback in 1910s-30s due to concerns about the effect of sports competition on women’s health, Organizations like the National Amateur Athletic Federation and the Amateur Athletic Union took the stance that women’s sports should not involve competition, record breaking, or monetary gain, and should instead be focused on enjoyment and character building. However, private women’s athletics clubs still flourished.

Female tennis player Gladys Vallebuona practicing with a tennis ball machine, 1936.
Roller derby at Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, 1937
Tennis players, May 1942.
Women’s Basketball Team, University Extension Center in Atlanta, early 1940s.

The absence of young men in the 1940s due to World War II led to more sporting opportunities for women, including an All-American Girls Baseball League and golf competitions. The popularity of events like these as well as the beginnings of second wave feminism led to a rise in intramural and intercollegiate sports in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, organizations like the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women were born. 

Woman baseball palyer Eli Whitaker, Atlanta, Georgia, 1940s.
Woman baseball player, Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1940s.
University of Georgia girls playing baseball, Athens, Georgia, 1946.
Southern Coach and Athlete [Association]; Coach Keith; Agnes Scott College; Girl, May 3, 1949
Lorelei Ladies softball team, July 29, 1955
University of Georgia girls playing baseball, Athens, Georgia, 1946.
Audrey Saffel accepting her trophy for winning the Belle’s Classic race, 1957.
University Signal, Georgia State University, October 15, 1943.
Female fencers during class at Agnes Scott College, 1959.