In the finals of the U.S. Open, Serena Williams’ biggest battle wasn’t with her opponent, Naomi Osaka, but with the feeling that she wasn’t being treated fairly.
After arguing with an umpire, demanding an apology, and calling him a thief for taking points away, Williams was handed a one-game penalty for verbal abuse. A man, she argued, wouldn’t face the same repercussions.
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“I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality,” she said in a press conference afterward. “The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want[s] to express themselves … they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s gonna work out for the next person.”
Just as Williams hopes her advocacy will help the next generation, she and her contemporaries have been helped by the athletes who came before. In sports, equality is elusive, but there are plenty of pioneers who have demonstrated that strong women deserve a seat at the competitive athlete table. Here are five of the greatest.
1. Babe Didrikson
One of the most accomplished all-around athletes of all time, Babe Didrikson won three medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics, took home 10 LPGA golf championship titles, was named an all-American in basketball three years running, earned the world record for the farthest baseball thrown by a woman, and was proficient in diving, roller-skating, bowling, tennis, swimming, boxing, volleyball, handball, billiards, and cycling.
Was there anything Didrikson didn’t play? “Yeah, dolls,” she once said.
Never content to be the best in just one thing, Didrikson was determined to excel in everything she tried. “My philosophy?” she said. “Practice, practice, practice, and win.”
Despite her incredible athleticism and work ethic, not everyone was a fan. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” wrote sports columnist Joe Williams in the New York World-Telegram.
That didn’t deter Didrikson. She kept kicking ass and taking names all the way up to her untimely death from colon cancer at the age of 45.
“You can’t win them all,” she said. “But you can try.”
2. Katie Sandwina
When you’re a girl born in the back of a circus wagon to a family of performers, it’s normal to grow up doing handstands while other tots are learning to walk. What’s not normal is becoming so strong that you defeat the world’s foremost bodybuilder at the time, hoisting 300 pounds over your head while he can only get it to his chest.
Katie Brumbach was anything but ordinary — and after taking down the famous Eugen Sandow, she changed her stage name to Sandwina, a feminine take on his surname.
Sandwina began lifting weights as a teenager, probably not a common activity for girls born in 1880s Austria, and heartily embraced her strength and size. She liked to wear heels and pile her hair on top of her head just to look even bigger and taller (she was reportedly around 6 feet tall and 210 pounds). Among her many talents, she could bend steel, lift multiple men with one arm, and juggle cannonballs. But her strength went beyond the circus ring. She was a vocal advocate for a woman’s right to vote, serving as vice president of the 800-member suffrage group for Barnum & Bailey.
As historian Janet Davis wrote: “In an era when a majority of women’s roles were still circumscribed by Victorian ideals of domesticity and feminine propriety, circus women’s performances celebrated female power, thereby representing a startling alternative to contemporary social norms.”
3. Mildred Burke
It was a tough road to wrestling domination for Mildred Burke, who grew up in poverty and found herself pregnant and abandoned by her first husband when she was still a teenager. She faced about 5,000 women and a couple hundred men in her career, but none as difficult as her abusive (second) husband, who tried his best to have her dethroned in the ring, and routinely slept with her opponents.
After bursting onto the wrestling scene in the 1930s with natural talent, Burke held onto her championship title for nearly two decades. She developed the thigh-powered “alligator clutch” — a move that involves twisting your opponent before sitting on her — which ended most of her matches in her favor. Beyond her own career, Burke wanted to make wrestling accessible to other women, and founded an association and a school for female wrestlers.
Mae Young, herself a trailblazer and a student of Burke’s, put it this way: “You’ve got to understand, if it hadn’t been for Mildred Burke, there wouldn’t have been any girl wrestling. Ever.”
4. Pudgy Stockton
According to Jan Todd, the first woman inducted into the International Powerlifting Hall of Fame, “Every woman in bodybuilding who puts on a swimsuit and steps on a posing dais, every woman straining beneath a clean and jerk, and every woman powerlifter who fights through the pull of a heavy deadlift owes a debt of gratitude to Pudgy Stockton. She helped make these modern sports possible.”
The petite powerhouse — she stood at just 5-foot-1-inch — found her way to weightlifting after not liking the way she felt working a sedentary job as a phone operator. Stockton became known as the Queen of Muscle Beach in the 1930s and ’40s. Eventually she graced the covers of dozens of magazines, hosted the first sanctioned weightlifting competition for women, wrote a popular monthly column called “Barbelles” for Strength and Health magazine for a decade, and opened a women’s-only health club. Stockton’s look appealed to the masses, and she played a big role in encouraging women to get stronger for their health and to improve their athletic capabilities.
“People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn’t be able to get pregnant,” she said. “We just laughed because we knew they were wrong.”
5. Althea Gibson
Until 1950, no black tennis player had ever taken the courts at the U.S. Nationals (now known as the U.S. Open). Then, in its 70th year of existence, the competition invited Althea Gibson to play. The 23-year-old turned heads when she emerged victorious from her first-round match. Later that decade, she won the whole thing — and Wimbledon — twice in a row, along with the French Championships (later to be known as The French Open).
Despite the success, Gibson was never able to make enough money from tennis to pay her bills — there was no prize money at the time, and lucrative sponsorships weren’t coming her way. She retired while still dominant and went on to play golf, becoming the first black woman on the LPGA tour. At many stops, she had to change in her car because she wasn’t allowed inside segregated clubhouses.
Still, Gibson kept playing with quiet determination. “I always wanted to be somebody,” she once said. “If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.”
For all those people who helped her, she paid it forward in inspiration. “I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps,” Venus Williams said in 2003. “Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”
This article originally appeared on Shondaland.
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