Is it really a climactic moment for women in sports? Susie Wolff will become the first woman in 22 years to participate in a Formula 1 race weekend. She will be a part of the practice sessions at the German and British Grand Prix events, Williams stated. The announcement has come under fire, though, with the inclusion of the 31-year-old being seen as media fodder from clever PR machinery.
At any rate, it is a significant move—and brings to mind the way women have been breaking into and competing in traditionally ‘men’s sports’ since decades. Here’s a lowdown of the highlights over the years.
1) Madge Syers
Known as the ‘Mother of Figure Skating’, Brit Madge Syers broke into the then male-dominated sport. She discovered that the rules for participation did not specify the gender of entrants. Taking this chance, Syers entered the 1902 World Figure Skating Championship and got in because of the loophole.
It was the first time a woman competed against men in figure skating, and what’s more—she clinched the silver too. This led the International Skating Union to set up an independent women’s championship. In the next two years, she participated in the British Figure Skating Championship, and won the gold both times. Her name is still mentioned under the ‘men’s medalists’ category.
2) Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe Didrikson broke into sports and how—not only did she participate in golf, basketball and track events, she also aced softball, baseball, roller-skating, diving and bowling!
She was, however, best known for golf. Didrikson began to sporadically play the sport in 1935 at the age of 24. Within three years, she started competing against the men in PGA Tours—the first woman to have done so. Thereafter, she qualified for every PGA Tour she entered. By 1950 (that’s fifteen years into her golf career), she had won every golf title in existence. She won 82 tournaments throughout her amateur and professional golfing career.
3) Janet Guthrie
An engineer by profession, Janet Guthrie had been working on building race cars before her foray into racing. In fact, she purchased her first race car, a Jaguar XK 120, and began competing in 1964. In 1976, she became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup stock car race.
It seemed natural, then, that she was invited to test a car for the Indianapolis racetrack. The next year, she became the first woman to compete in an Indianapolis 500 race—and later, the Daytona 500, setting a precedent for later female drivers. Today, her name features in the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
4) Manon Rhéaume
Hockey player Manon Rhéaume broke many glass ceilings in her 18-year-long intermittent career. The Canadian goalie began in 1991 from a young 19, when she became the first woman to play in a major junior league hockey game. The very next year, she was signed for the NHL team Tampa Bay Lightning—consequently the first time a woman tried (and succeeded) playing in an NHL game, in this case an exhibition match. She remains the only woman to have done so.
The same year, she played in the International Hockey League with the Atlanta Knights, thus also becoming the first woman to have played in a regular in-season game.
5) Nancy Lieberman
Playing basketball since the age of 17, Nancy Lieberman went pro in 1980. Six years later, at 28, she broke gender barriers when she became the first woman to play in a men’s professional league: the United States Basketball League. More recently, she became in 2009 the first woman to coach an American professional basketball team, the Texas Legends.
Often referred to as ‘Lady Magic’, Lieberman has a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame today. She still plays on and off; in 2008, at the age of 50, she was signed by Detroit Shock for a seven-day period.