Women in sports: a historical perspective

March 3, 2023

Over the past few decades, women have put in countless hours of work in the field of sports to try and gain the approval and acceptance of not only their male colleagues and viewers, but society as a whole. 

In the early 1800s, women were warned not to participate in sports due to their menstruation cycles because it could make them “weak and frail.” It was often said by many that women should leave sports and things of that nature to men and maintain their roles at home.

There have been many stereotypes and labels placed on women in the field of sports, but since the early 1800s, trailblazing women have paved the way for the future of women in sports.


In 1896, the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game was played between the University of California and Stanford. Men were banned from watching, and three years later both of these universities banned women’s basketball from their intercollegiate competition.

It was years later before real progress was made to bring women on a more even playing field.

The 1970s were a big decade for the equality of women. Under the presidency of Richard Nixon, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was signed and passed into law. Title IX states, “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program of activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

While Title IX didn’t give women the full equality that they deserved within their sports, it did open many doors for women.

In 1974, the Women’s Sports Foundation was established by Billie Jean King, a pioneer for women in sports, who won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs. This group was founded to support the participation of women in sports and to advance the lives of women and girls through sports and physical activities. 

Ten years later, in 1984, women were allowed to participate in the Olympic marathon for the first time in history. The 26.2 mile race was always considered “too much” for women by their male counterparts. In ‘84 an American woman, Joan Benoit won the gold medal in the women’s marathon. 

In 1991, the first women’s World Cup was arranged by FIFA and took place in China. The event was widely ignored by the world, but the U.S. won, beating Norway 2-1. Also in ‘91, there were changes made to the Olympic sports that women were allowed to participate in, and all new sports that were added to the Olympics had to have women’s events. 


This was a huge step forward for women in sports, and it helped to increase women’s participation from 21.2% to 40.3% according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Following the 1991 Olympic improvements, USA basketball created a yearlong training program for the women’s Olympic team to help them prepare for the 1995 Atlanta Games. This step toward equality for women in sports showed that people were starting to realize that men’s sports had these accommodations for years and it was time for women to have the same. 

1996 was the summer of women in the Olympics. U.S. women’s teams won gold in basketball, soccer, softball, gymnastics and several other individual events. Following the ‘96 Olympics, many professional basketball leagues were formed for women. The ABL and WNBA were began as the premiere women’s basketball leagues. While the ABL only lasted two seasons, its players were moved to the WNBA. 

In 1999, the women’s soccer World Cup was held in the United States, selling out NFL stadiums and eventually becoming the most successful women’s sporting event in history with 18 million viewers watching the final match.

Following this tremendous success for not only women’s soccer, but women in sports overall, in 2000 the WUSA was formed, influenced by the U.S. women’s national team. The team only lasted three seasons and was forced to fold due to financial reasons. 

According to the Louisville library, a few reasons behind the financial instability of the program were an inadequate business plan, lack of trust in leadership and lack of support for women’s sports.

Since the beginning, this has been the major issue as to why there is no equality for women in sports: lack of support for women’s sports. 

Women continued to soar in trying to create equality for themselves with events like the 2012 Olympics where, for the first time, every country that was competing had female athletes and the 2015 women’s soccer World Cup broke records in ratings and viewers. Despite this, there continues to be an issue, not only when it comes to support for women’s sports, but opportunities. 

From a more local standpoint, Southern Illinois’ women’s basketball head coach, Kelly Bond-White has seen her sport from every perspective having played since she was a little girl, to playing at the collegiate level and now coaching at that same level. 

Starting her basketball career at the YMCA, then moving up to the middle school/high school level where she got her first collegiate offer in seventh grade, then moving into her collegiate career, which eventually led her into coaching, Bond said that there were never really boundaries in her way. She just felt as though she was labeled differently for her actions compared to how some of her male counterparts may have been labeled for the same actions. 

“When women are really animated on the sideline, energetic, or fighting for their players to rise and push them through, sometimes we get landed with negative connotations. Whereas when our male peers do the same thing, they say more positive things like passionate,” White said. 

She said, “it’s just something I note that when you look at the top teams in the men’s games and how brash they are, how their style of play is, it’s never taken as a negative.”

Starting her college career, White chose to play at the University of Illinois because she wanted to be a part of the history of Illinois basketball and show that you could stay in your home state and still represent something that is meaningful. 

In the beginning of her time at Illinois, the team was at the bottom of the rankings in the BIG 10. Bond said a key piece to the rebuild of their program at the time was head coach Theresa Grentz.

“We ended up coming back and winning the BIG 10 championship that year and when I look back on that, it was because another woman came in and empowered all of us. She didn’t just come in and tell us what to do, she asked us how we wanted to do and then held us accountable for that, and I’ve never forgotten that lesson,” White said.

White said the lessons that Grentz taught her, she has carried with her throughout her career. She said, even the days the team was dying in workouts, or whatever it was they were working on, Grentz would remind them, “this is what you asked for and I’m asking you to, not blind faith, but I’m going to take you where you need to go.”

White followed with, “That has stuck with me through each program I’ve been with, and every program has gone into a climax at some point, in terms of building it. That’s what I’m trying to do with this program we have here. The blueprint was handed to me and we’ve just been using that ever since to try and do what we call build champions.” 

College basketball brought her so many more opportunities than Grentz thought it would when she played and led her to the coaching position she is at today. 

From serving as the Associate Head Coach of the Texas A&M women’s basketball team for the 2007-2008 season, to spending 19 years with the team helping lead them to the 2011 NCAA National Championship, three Elite Eight appearances, five conference championships and many more accomplishments, White has taken the opportunities given to her through sports to create a life for herself and her family. 

“Continuing to pave the way to give back so other women know that there are so many avenues in sports that you can pursue. I want more young women in coaching, refereeing, administration,” White said.

Paving the way is exactly what she has done in the short time she has been at Southern. Bond-White is making sure the team makes a good name for themselves, not only on the court but in the community as well. 

“I can probably count on one hand the women athletic directors that we have at the Division One level,” White said in relation to the changes that still need to be made for women in sports. 

While there have been so many improvements for women in sports, there is still a line between what they have in comparison to their male counterparts. 

“There is a continuous light at the end of the tunnel for women in sports and we can keep pushing it further and further,” White said. 

Sports reporter Joei Younker can be reached at [email protected].

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