13 Images Of Female Athletes Decades Before They Were Even Recognized As "Real" Athletes

Names like Serena Williams and Ronda Rousey have become household names in recent years thanks to their impressive athletic performances and visibility in the mainstream media through the likes of sponsorship deals and morning-show interviews. It’d be hard to deny that these two powerhouses — or their female counterparts in any number of sports — are indeed athletes, and elite ones at that. Still, it’d also be hard to deny that it wasn’t always like this: Female athletes have historically struggled for recognition.

The history of women in sports goes back much further than the Title IX-like reforms Americans used to hearing about today. Even without all the bells and whistles that we’ve come to expect in modern day sports, female athletes throughout history have managed to find both a pastime and a successful professional career in sports. You’ve probably never heard of these women, but their accomplishments would probably place them among the Alex Morgans and Danica Patricks of the modern world.

You’ve also probably never seen these illustrations and photos of female athletes, but they provide a fascinating contrast between where we started and where we are now, as well as insight about how we’ve gotten there. After all, it’s not just the clothing that has changed since these images were produced.

Miss Wicket and Miss Trigger, 1790

This print from 18th-century Britain shows two women, fictionally named Miss Wicket (left) and Miss Trigger (right), partaking in the everyday men’s activities of playing cricket and hunting pheasants. The illustration was originally intended as satire, according to the British Museum. Although some women played cricket sparingly at the time, the first women’s cricket club was not formed until 1887, roughly 100 years after the illustration was published.

Mrs. Jack Hobbs, 1925

Ada Gates Hobbs was married to Sir John Berry “Jack” Hobbs, a professional cricket player in England in the early 20th century. This photograph of Mrs. Hobbs was taken near the middle of her husband’s professional career, when cricket and the Hobbs name were extremely popular. It’s not terribly surprising that Mrs. Hobbs is shown wearing a dress in the photograph, however, it probably does make you grateful that heels are no longer the most-accepted form of beach footwear for women.

Sarah Smith and Ethel Finch, 1938

Sarah Smith and Ethel Finch won this large trophy in a golf tournament at Wake-Robin Golf Club in Washington, D.C. The club was founded in 1937 to introduce minority women to the game of golf and give them amateur competitions to enter.

'Puck,' 1900

Known as the first successful humor magazine in the United States, Puck published cartoons and satirical articles in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The content commented on the complex political and social issues of the time – including, perhaps, the role of women in sport and society.

Charlotte Cooper Sterry, 1908

Decades before Serena Williams and Steffi Graf, Charlotte Cooper Sterry ruled the tennis court. A British athlete, Sterry won five Wimbledon titles from 1895 to 1908. In 1900, she won the tennis singles event in the very first Olympics where women participated. What’s more, she was deaf since the age of 26, and she even competed deaf for much of her career. Recognized posthumously, Sterry was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013.

Mina Wylie & Fanny Durack, 1912

In 1912, Wilhelmina “Mina” Wylie (left) and Sarah Frances “Fanny” Durack (right) were the first Australian female swimmers to compete in the Olympics. They swam in the 100-meter freestyle event, with Durack winning gold and Wylie taking the silver. It wasn’t an easy journey, though. Their Australian league originally refused to let them participate, even though it was the first time the Olympic event would be open to women. But the pair raised the money on their own and ended up competing anyway. Wylie and Durack were both inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Isette Pearson, 1890

More than 50 years before the modern-day Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was established, Isette Pearson founded the Ladies’ Golf Union, which oversees the amateur female golf system in the United Kingdom to this day. Pearson also helped to establish a ladies’ amateur competition, for which she even donated a trophy. Today, the Pearson Trophy is still awarded to the winner of the annual tournament in the U.K.

Plus Fours, 1935

Although the LPGA wasn’t established until 1950, women began to professionalize the game of golf much earlier. For instance, this photograph from 1935 shows a woman playing golf wearing plus fours, a popular style of pant for male golfers at that time.

Herma Planck-Szabo, Ethel Muckelt & Breatrix Loughran, 1924

Herma Planck-Szabo (left) of Austria won gold in women’s figure skating at the 1924 Winter Olympics in Charmonix, France. Beatrix Loughran (right) of the United States and Ethel Muckelt (center) of Great Britain won silver and bronze, respectively. It was the first installment of the Winter Olympics, although figure skating events had been held at previous Olympics in the summer. Planck-Szabo, in particular, helped to modernize the sport for women by wearing a skirt cut above the knee at the 1924 Games.

'Collier’s Weekly,' 1899

Around the time this cover came out, Collier’s Weekly was one of the largest selling magazines in the United States. Known for both fact and fiction, Collier’s often became involved in social issues, calling for the reform of child labor laws and women’s suffrage, among other things. Setting aside the woman in the illustration sporting an unrealistically small waist, the cover in this instance could have been a wake-up call that women can enjoy and excel at playing golf.

A League of Her Own, 1913

Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably at least heard of the movie A League of Their Own, which told the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The league existed from 1943 to 1954, but women became involved in America’s favorite pastime much earlier than that. The photograph above shows an unidentified female baseball player in uniform back in 1913. Judging by her stance, she was most likely a pitcher.

Sybil Arundale, 1906

The evolution of women’s sports is more than just the establishment of female versions of male sporting leagues. Sybil Arundale was a singer and actress, for instance. Although she was not a golfer by profession, the fact that she had been photographed with her golf clubs confirms that golf was an important activity, at the very least for social purposes, for both men and women.