Nine women in sport
WOMEN have been making their mark in sport for a long time – but the battles for female tennis players to get parity on pay, the exclusion of women from the Tour de France and the experience of the majority of women footballers a century ago, all remind us that it is still a world in which men are dominant.
During the First World War, as the local teams’ footballers were conscripted, there was a successful move to keep football going (and thus the morale of the community) by having teams of women. The ladies teams were usually named after the munitions factories in which they worked.The most successful was Dick, Kerr Ladies in Preston, founded in 1917. An estimated 53,000 people watched St Helens Ladies play Dick, Kerr Ladies at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1920. That was a crowd bigger than many teams in the premiership can attract today!
The women’s teams continued after the war, but as some of the men returned and others grew up and wanted to play, the women’s teams were disbanded. It is a remarkable story which was forgotten until the start of the First World War centenary projects. One woman stands out …
Lily Parr, 1904-1978, was the greatest goal score – male or female – in the history of English football. She was the star player of Dick, Kerr Ladies. She scored more than 1,000 goals during 31 years at the club between 1920 and 1951, and in 2002 her achievements were finally recognised when she was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame (sadly, long after she died).
Francina “Fanny” Elsje Blankers-Koen, 1918–2004, was the most successful athlete (male or female) at the 1948 Olympic Games in London, where she won four gold medals in track and field events. The Dutch track and field athlete competed there as a 30-year-old mother of two, earning her the nickname “the flying housewife.”
Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, born 1986, is one of the greatest women athletes of all time. Nobody who saw her triumph in the 2012 London Olympics will ever forget that achievement in a weekend of British golds. Sheffield-born Jessica is track and field athlete who has achieved success both as a huddler and in multi-event disciplines. She won here 2012 London gold in the heptathlon, and was the world champion three times in the discipline – 2009, 2011 and 2015. She was also the 2010 European and world indoor pentathlon champion.
Rachel Heyhoe-Flint, Baroness Heyhoe-Flint, 1939–2017, has been described as “the Dr WG Grace of women’s cricket – the pioneer without whom the game would not be what it is.” Rachel captained the England women’s team from 1966 to 1978, and was unbeaten in six Test series. Altogether she played for the England team for 22 years. Her many achievements included captaining the team which won the inaugural 1973 Women’s Cricket World Cup. She was also the first woman to hit a six in a Test match, and one of the first to become a member of the MCC.
Billy-Jean King, born 1943, is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. When it comes to tennis, the choice of greatest is wide – Suzanne Lenglen, Martina, Serena, Steffi (their fame is shown by the fact that we know them just by their first names). But it has to be Billy Jean, who first exploded on the tennis scene as Billy-Jean Moffitt making her Wimbledon debut in 1961. She won 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed double, and famously won a challenge from the male player Bobbie Riggs (recently dramatised in the film Battle of the Sexes.) But it is her campaigning for women’s rights that makes her so important. She founded the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation and had an important role in the battle for equal pay for women.
Beryl Burton, 1937–96 is one of the all time great race cyclists. The names of Victoria Pendleton or Sarah Storey may now be more familiar, but Yorkshire-born Beryl Burton dominated women’s cycle racing in the UK, winning more than 90 domestic championships and seven world titles, and setting numerous national records including a women’s record for the 12-hour time-trial in 1967 which exceeded the men’s record for two years and stood as the women’s record for 25 years.
Ellen MacArthur, born 1976, broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005, completing the 27,354 nautical mile trip in 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds. She beat the previous record by one day, eight hours, 35 minutes and 49 seconds. Dame Ellen loved life on the water from a young age and had previously competed in the Mini Transat solo transatlantic race and the Vendee Globe solo round-the-world race. She has launched two charities, the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Mary King (Thompson), born 1961, and Lucinda Green (Prior-Palmer), born 1952, are two of the greatest names in equestrianism, specifically in the demanding discipline of three-day evening, the sport in which men, women and horses compete equally. Mary King represented Great Britain at six Olympics from 1992 to 2012 (team silver in 2004 and 2012, and bronze in 2008), team gold at the World Equestrian Games in 1994 and 2010, and silver in 2006. Her individual achievements included four-time British Open Champion (1990, 1991, 1996 and 2007), winning the four star Badminton Horse Trials in 1992 and 2000, the four star Burghley Trials in 1996, and the four star Rolex Kentucky with her homebred mare King`s Temptress in 2011. Lucinda Green was the 1982 World Champion, and won many individual and team medals, but her outstanding achievement was winning Badminton a record six times on six different horses.
Eleanor May Simmonds, born 1994. was one of the standout stars of the London Olympics and Paralympics. She first came to national attention when she competed in the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, at just 13 years old, winning two gold medals for Great Britain, despite being the youngest member of the team In 2012, she was again selected for the Great Britain squad. She won two gold medals and set a world record in the 400m freestyle. At the Rio Paralymics in 2016 she won gold in 200m and set a new world record for the 200m medley.
Pictured: Footballer Lily Parr; Jessica Ennis at the 2012 London Olympics; cricketer Rachel Heyhoe-Flint; tennis star Billy-Jean King; cyclist Beryl Burton; round the world sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur; Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds.