We've come a long way since the days of female athletes like Billie Jean King and Wilma Rudolph, who blazed trails for generations of women to follow. Yet, in many ways, our world is still the same—Little League baseball only began officially accepting young girls after defending hundreds of lawsuits across the country; gay and lesbian athletes must fight to be treated the same as their heterosexual teammates; and women still struggle to earn equal pay across all professions.
In a recent conversation between the legendary Billie Jean King and Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins, King explained why she believes our society is so obsessed with sports in the first place: "Because they reflect what's going on," she said, "Sports is a universal language. They shape time and space. And the stakes are high."
The following three female athletes remind us of these stakes and show how it's possible for the efforts of one athlete to affect the masses.
At 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, Shelby Osborne will be the first female to play college football as a defensive back. She has experience as a safety and a wide receiver, and she played cornerback in five high school varsity games. She will be the second female to play a non-specialist position in college football.
After dabbling in multiple sports, Osborne knew football was the one for her. While at Jefferson High School in Indiana, she actually played only one year of football, but she was named captain of the JV team. Facing negative reactions to a girl playing football, she had to double her efforts to "earn each and everyone's respect," she said in an interview with SB Nation. To earn that respect, she put in extra hours in the morning and more after practice in the evening.
Osborne said, "I filled out hundreds and hundreds of recruiting questionnaires looking for someone to give me a shot." She finally piqued the interest of Campbellsville University in Kentucky, visited the school and met with the team. Afterwards, she received a dozen messages of encouragement from the Campbellsville players.
Osborne hides her hair as best she can under her helmet, not wanting her opponents to treat her differently. Only after she unsnaps her helmet does the nasty backlash often ensue. On bad days, she occasionally listens to the Eric Thomas speech, "How bad do you want it?"
Ultimately for her, being part of a team overrides all the jeers and taunts. She is committed to attend Campbellsville in the fall.
Two-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist Shannon Szabados is the first woman to play in the Southern Professional Hockey League, a regional men's senior league a rung below the ECHL in the National Hockey League ranks.
At age 16, she was the first woman to play in the Western Hockey League, and she went on to play for the men's team at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
In a press conference in March, when Szabados was asked if she was aiming for the NHL, she responded, "I think I'm quite a ways from that." However, she added, "Stranger things have happened."
A week or so earlier, Szabados suited up for a practice with the Edmonton Oilers. She had been considered (but ultimately not selected) to play backup goaltender in a game against the Ottawa Senators. (The Oilers' new goalie wasn't arriving until the following day.)
Currently no professional women's hockey league exists that pays a decent living wage, so top female players often have limited options if they want to continue to play after college.
At this year's United States Sumo Championships in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, only 10 women competed. Tiffany Tran, a top female middleweight, was among the six women who qualified at the event to wrestle internationally.
Perhaps to no surprise, sumo wrestling does not draw very many women, let alone American women. Mary Pilon of The New York Times points out, "In this country of almost 315 million people, where body-image anxiety could be included as a national sport, there are fewer than a dozen serious female sumo wrestlers."
The typical misconception surrounding sumo—an ancient full-contact sport of Japan— is that "sumo is just fat guys belly-bumping in diapers," as Tran puts it. Actually, sumo wrestlers come in all shapes and sizes. Most do wear the mawashi on top of their shorts. Although the garment might slightly resemble a diaper to a novice, it is actually more of a belt. Sumo wrestling consists of two opponents trying to knock each other down or out of the ring using a variety of tactics, and grabbing the mawashi is fair game.
Traditionally, sumo has been strictly for men only, and to this day, Japan does not have a professional female sumo wrestler.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock