These are the female athletes changing the way we look at women in sports


This year, the women have been at the forefront of many of sports’ celebrated highlights—soccer, baseball, tennis, swimming, ballet, wrestling, phew!—and their victories have been chipping away at the dated assumption that men are more athletically-inclined. While we still have a long way to go in terms of equality, let’s give these hustlers divas the recognition they deserve: Women in sports are having a real moment.

Mo’Ne Davis

One year ago, Mo’Ne Davis made headlines as the first female player to earn a win and pitch a shutout in Little League history. The only girl on her team and the only African-American girl to ever play in the series, she conquered the traditionally male-saturated sport with talent and confidence. Although her team was eliminated in the semifinals, Davis went on to grace last August’s cover of Sports Illustrated, to win an ESPY for best breakthrough athlete in July 2015—beating out golf darling Jordan Spieth—and has granted rights to Disney to develop a movie on her young yet storied life. She told The Hollywood Reporter that it’s important for women’s sports to gain more traction on TV so more girls will join.

Becky Hammon

The celebrated WNBA veteran was hired last season as an assistant coach for NBA champions the San Antonio Spurs. Business Insider marked Hammon as the first full-time female coach in any of the four major U.S. professional sports leagues. In her first year, she has lead the Spurs to a Summer League title in Vegas, and made playoffs. Hammon’s consistency has her colleagues seriously considering her potential as a head coach; former Brooklyn Nets executive Bobby Marks said his “first call would be to Becky Hammon,” were he leading a team.

Jen Welter

In February, Welter was hired by the Arizona Cardinals as a “training camp and preseason intern.” In other words, she is officially the NFL’s first female coach. Welter has played 14 seasons of pro football and coached for the Texas Revolution indoor football league. She wrote for NFL analysis website MMQB: “Being a woman is part of who I am. It’s not all of who I am, and I’m not here just because I’m a woman. I’m here as a football coach.”


The U.S. Women’s National Team won their third FIFA victory this summer after star midfielder Carli Lloyd kicked three goals in the first 16 minutes of the game, leading the team to a landslide win over Japan. Sports Illustrated reported the final drew in 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. television history. The athletes have had quite the summer off the field—from being the first non-New York team to earn a ticker-tape parade to being invited on stage with Taylor Swift to earning a Sports Illustrated cover for each member of the team—meaning USWNT were clearly this summer’s #squadgoals (sorry, Taylor). Thanks to these ladies, we’ve all been losing our minds.

Misty Copeland

Okay, ballet is technically not a sport, true, but there’s no doubt that Copeland is a fierce athlete. In June, she became America’s first black female principal ballet dancer. A 14-year veteran of the American Ballet Theatre, the dancer was bestowed ballet’s highest honor and is the de jure lead dancer of most prominent productions produced by the Theatre. Copeland’s tenure has come with a wide set of detractors—namely because of her curvier, athletic build and her skin color. Despite being extremely cognizant of her race and body throughout her career, Copeland successfully fought the odds and hopes her promotion will serve to recognize dancers for their art over their aesthetics. And now? She will will perform in Broadway classic On The Town running from August 25 to September 6.

Ronda Rousey

Rousey has been in the mixed martial arts game for well over a decade, yet she resurfaced on our radar this summer after knocking out her opponent, Bethe Correia, just 34 seconds into the first round of the UFC 190. Lucky for Correia, she lasted 14 seconds longer than Rousey’s last two UFC opponents. Rousey is breaking bones and boundaries in a sport typically thought of as hypermasculine. Oustide the ring, she has consistently championed her athletic physique and shut down critics who think she looks manly by simply stating: “There’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose.”

Katie Ledecky

USA Swimming cites Ledecky to have won three world records and five gold medals from the 2015 World Aquatic Championships among the plethora of accomplishments that span well over two pages of the website. As Outside Online aptly puts it, Ledecky’s consecutive accomplishments at the championship are the equivalent of an athlete setting a record in a 5K, then setting one in a 800-meter sprint, followed by winning a championship in the mile—all within the span of a day. Her career is already going more than swimmingly—and she’s only 18 years old.

Kiran Gandhi

Gandhi’s stunt at the London Marathon made a powerful statement against menstruation stigmas: She ran the 26.2 miles on the first day of her period, sans tampons or pads. The current Harvard student and former drummer for M.I.A. and Thievery Corporation made the decision for her own comfort and what she felt would allow maximum mobility and comfort to run the distance required. Her decision “shocked people, because we don’t talk about this very natural monthly process,” she wrote in the Huffington Post. Gandhi’s “free bleeding” garnered attention in the media and devoted much-needed attention to period-shaming and the fact that many women around the world can’t afford—or don’t have access to—sanitary products.

Serena Williams

Williams has been successfully slaying the courts for well over a decade and was ranked #1 by the WTA in August. She is the reigning champion of all major tennis opens and rightly beings called the best female tennis player of all time. The Huffington Posts reports that if Williams snags a win in the U.S. Open, she will become “the first player to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam—a sweep of all four majors in the same season—since Steffi Graf in 1988.”

Alzain Tareq

10-year-old Tareq became the youngest ever swimmer to take part in Russia’s swimming world championships earlier this month. Swim Swam reports that she has been competitively swimming since she was 4 years old; three weeks ago she was swimming alongside her longtime idol, Sarah Sjostrom. While her age may set some obstacles in participating in major swim events, Tareq has accomplished quite a feat at an age that many of us were doing the doggie paddle.

Are things changing in terms of how women in sports are perceived?

The landmark victories achieved by women this year are great, but we still have a long way to go. Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported a winning school basketball team from Virginia was disqualified purely on the grounds that their team of predominantly boys contained one girl. Last month, after winning her sixth Wimbledon title, 21st major, and being dubbed as arguably the greatest athlete in tennis, Serena Williams was subject to body criticism; a Twitter user proclaimed the main reason for Williams’ success is that “she is built like a man.” Alex Morgan was labeled by her sport’s own governing body, FIFA, as a “media phenomenon” with “good looks to match.”

“We have a lot of hangups about sexuality and female bodies,” said Shawn Ladda, kinesiology professor at Manhattan College and former president of National Association of Girls and Women in Sport. “We’re consistently trying to feminize or sexualize [female athletes.] It’s hard to find a female athlete on a cover of magazine or in photoshoots that isn’t caked in makeup. We need to be seeing more images of these women in their sport and in action.”

Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of women’s and gender studies, says society is still stuck in the mindset of viewing women in individual sports, such as swimming or tennis, as having a socially acceptable type of femininity, while women in teams sports, such as soccer or basketball, do not.

“[Team sports] are not necessarily seen as feminine sports, so those athletes are often subject to different kind of standard by which their femininity is judged,” Cooky told Fusion. “Individual sports have more of an aesthetic dimension.”

In addition to being scrutinized for their looks, women in sports to face a glaring pay gap. Think Progress reported USWNT were awarded $2 million for winning the World Cup, compared to the $35 million the German men received for winning last year’s men’s World Cup. The U.S. Men’s Team was awarded $8 million for just reaching the round of 16.

Also, there is the age-old problem of spectators finding women’s sports less interesting than men’s.

“Individual sports, where women have consistently succeeded, are followed during key events, not on a daily basis,” Andrei Markovits, a professor at University of Michigan, told Fusion. “Also, we as society have a much higher expectation for boys and men to follow sports—regardless of whether they participate in it or not. Most women who follow their favorite women’s sports teams are athletes themselves.”

Cooky adds that it’s important to maintain a cautious optimism about the future of women’s sports. It won’t be a nice, linear upward path towards more equality, better treatment, or more acceptance of female athletes, though positive change in the perception of women’s sports is incremental. And while it’s important to be conscious of the inequalities female athletes continue to face, we rightfully acknowledge this summer and its myriad of athletic records as a sign that women can be and are just as powerful as their male counterparts—and in some cases, even more powerful—and deserve to be hailed and celebrated.

Nikita Redkar is the editorial intern for Fusion who loves writing all things pop culture and feminism – sprinkled with the occasional punchline. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.

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