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Women's sports include amateur and professional competitions in virtually all sports. Female participation in sports rose dramatically in the twentieth century, especially in the last quarter, reflecting changes in modern societies that emphasized gender parity. Although the level of participation and performance still varies greatly by country and by sport, women's sports have broad acceptance throughout the world, and in a few instances, such as tennis and figure skating, rival or exceed their male counterparts in popularity.



For most of human history, athletic competition has been regarded as an exclusively masculine affair. In antiquity, athletic competitions were held among warriors to prove their fighting prowess or otherwise demonstrate their virility. The exclusively male origins of competitive sport carried over into the Ancient Olympics, where women were not allowed even to watch competitions, much less compete. However, a separate women's athletic event, the Heraea Games, was eventually developed.

Few women competed in sports until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as social changes in Europe and North America favored increased female participation in society as equals with men, as exemplified by the women's rights movement. Although women were permitted to participate in many sports, relatively few showed interest, for a variety of social and psychological reasons that are still poorly understood.

The modern Olympics had female competitors from 1900 onward, though women at first participated in considerably fewer events. Concern for the physical strength and stamina of women led to the discouragement of female participation in more physically intensive sports, and in some cases led to less physically demanding female versions of male sports. Thus netball was developed out of basketball and softball out of baseball.

Edith Cummings was the first woman athlete to appear on the cover of Time magazine, a major step in women's athletic history.

Due to a relative lack of public interest in female athletics, most early women's professional sports leagues foundered, so amateur competitions became the primary venue for women's sports. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Communist countries dominated many Olympic sports, including women's sports, due to state-sponsored athletic programs that were technically regarded as amateur. The legacy of these programs endured, as former Communist countries continue to produce many of the top female athletes. Germany and Scandinavia also developed strong women's athletic programs in this period.

In the United States, nearly all schools required student participation in sports, guaranteeing that all girls were exposed to athletics at an early age, which was generally not the case in Western Europe and Latin America. In intramural sports, the genders were often mixed, though for competitive sports the genders remained segregated. Title IX legislation required colleges and universities to provide equal athletic opportunities for women. This large pool of female athletes enabled the U.S. to consistently rank among the top nations in women's Olympic sports, and female Olympians from skater Peggy Fleming (1968) to Mary Lou Retton (1986) became household names.

Tennis was the most popular professional female sport from the 1970s onward, and it provided the occasion for a symbolic "battle of the sexes" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, enhancing the profile of female athletics. The success of women's tennis, however, did little to help the fortunes of women's professional team sports.

Women's professional team sports achieved popularity for the first time in the 1990s, particularly in basketball and football (soccer). This popularity has been asymmetric, being strongest in the U.S., certain European countries and former Communist states. Thus, women's soccer was originally dominated by the U.S., China, and Norway, who have historically fielded weak men's national teams—although more recently, several nations with strong and even dominant men's national teams, such as Germany, Sweden, and Brazil, have established themselves as women's powers. Despite this increase in popularity, women's professional sports leagues continue to struggle financially. The WNBA is operated at a loss by the NBA, in the hopes of creating a market that will eventually be profitable. A similar approach is used to promote female boxing, as women fighters are often undercards on prominent male boxing events, in the hopes of attracting an audience.

Today, women compete professionally and as amateurs in virtually every major sport, though the level of participation typically decreases when it comes to the more violent contact sports; few schools have women's programs in American football, boxing or wrestling. However, these typical non-participation habits may slowly be evolving as more women take real interest in the games, for example Katie Hnida became the first woman to ever score points in a Division I NCAA American football game when she kicked two extra-point field goals for the University of New Mexico in 2003. The practical recognition of basic physiological gender differences has not impeded the development of a higher profile for female athletes in other historically male sports, such as golf, marathoning or ice hockey.

A more detailed history of female participation in various sports can be found in the related articles listed below.


  • Women Talk Sports[1] is an online source for all women's sports news
  • Sportsister[2] is a new UK based online sports magazine for women, packed with interiew with leading sportswomen, gear and kit reviews, health and nutrition advice and women's sports news.

Her Sports

  • REAL SPORTS, an online magazine
  • Sports Illustrated Women (defunct)
  • Sporting Woman Quarterly is a sports lifestyle magazine featuring women's luxury sports.
  • Women in Sports, a UK-based quarterly publication
  • Women's Multisport Online is a magazine for women's multisport around the world.
  • womenSports magazine (defunct) was started in 1974 by Billie Jean King, Larry King and Jim Jorgensen, it was sold to Redbook in 1976 and eventually stopped publishing in 1984.
  • [gsport...for Girls] is an online initiative launched in August 2006 to raise the profile of women's sport in South Africa and showcase vibrant South African women who serve as role models.

Further reading

  • Dong Jinxia: Women, Sport and Society in Modern China: Holding Up More Than Half the Sky, Routledge, 2002, ISBN 0714682144
  • Allen Guttmann: Women's Sports: A History, Columbia University Press 1992, ISBN 023106957X
  • Helen Jefferson Lenskyj: Out of Bounds: Women, Sport and Sexuality. Women's Press, 1986.
  • Helen Jefferson Lenskyj: Out on the Field: Gender, Sport and Sexualities. Women's Press, 2003.

See also


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