Serena Williams said it best a few years ago: All female athletes owe a debt of gratitude to Billie Jean King, a former tennis standout who spent her career fighting for gender equality.
To mark the 100-year anniversary of women getting the right to vote in America, USA TODAY has compiled its list of 100 Women of the Century, individuals who’ve significantly impacted our nation. It’s fitting that tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams and Billie Jean King highlight the list, along with groundbreakers like Ann Bancroft, Ibtihaj Muhammad and Pat Summitt, among others. These are our Women of the Century from Sports.
Women of the Century: Recognizing the accomplishments of women from the last 100 years
First woman to reach the North Pole
A physical education teacher from Minnesota who overcame dyslexia to earn a degree from the University of Oregon, Ann Bancroft made history in 1986 when she was part of a six-person team to journey to the North Pole by dog sled. After the 56-day trek, she became the first woman to cross the polar ice cap. She added the South Pole to her conquests in 1993 and led a four-woman expedition that skied across the southern polar cap less than a year later.
Olympic gold medalist
At age 23, with 30 combined Olympic and World Championship titles, Simone Biles is the most decorated gymnast in American history. She led Team USA’s historic performance at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, matching a record for an American woman with four gold medals at a single Olympics. She won a team gold as well as individual golds in all-around, floor exercise and vault, along with a bronze in balance beam. Additionally, her five world all-around titles are the most for any woman.
First woman of color to hold an international pilot’s license
The first Black and Native American female pilot, Bessie Coleman – known as Queen Bess in early American air shows – gained popularity as a daring stunt pilot. As a woman of African American and Native American descent, she had to go to France to attend flight school (learning French to apply), and she championed the cause of equal opportunity in aviation throughout her career. She died in a crash at age 34 while testing a new aircraft.
Olympic gold medalist
Mildred Ella Didrikson, universally known as Babe, is perhaps the best-known female athlete of the first half of the century. She gained a bit of renown in her home state of Texas in amateur basketball circles, but her fame grew internationally in 1932 at the Los Angeles Olympics. She won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin as well as a silver in the high jump. Later, she helped found the LPGA and was still among the world’s top-ranked golfers when she died from colon cancer at age 45.
First Black woman to win Wimbledon
In an era when country club sports were extremely limited for women, let alone people of color, Althea Gibson was a breaker of barriers. She won her first major singles title at the French Championships, later known as the French Open, in 1956. In 1957 and 1958, she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open championships and was twice named female athlete of the year by the Associated Press. In 1980, she was part of the inaugural class of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Florence Griffith Joyner
World’s fastest woman
A gifted athlete with a flair for fashion, “Flo Jo” was the breakout star of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. She won gold in the 100 and 200 meters as well as the 4×100 relay, adding a silver with the 4×400 team. She received the Sullivan Award that year as the nation’s top amateur athlete. Her world record times in the 100- and 200-meter distances still stand. Her death in 1998 after a seizure stunned the sporting world.
Billie Jean King
Tennis Hall-of-Famer, women’s rights champion
Billie Jean King was one of the most dominant tennis players of her time, winning 12 Grand Slam singles titles. Her off-court career was just as notable, founding the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation. A passionate advocate for gender equality, she persuaded the U.S. Open to offer equal prize money to men and women. But perhaps no moment was more important for the widespread acceptance of women’s sports than her victory against Bobby Riggs in 1973’s so-called “Battle of the Sexes,” watched on TV by 90 million people and one of the most defining events of the era.
Fencing usually doesn’t get the prime-time treatment in Olympics coverage in the USA. But Ibtihaj Muhammad received more attention than usual at the 2016 Rio games when she became the first Muslim American to compete while wearing a hijab. She didn’t make the medal stand in individual competition, but she helped deliver a bronze in the team sabre event. A New Jersey native, she is a 2007 graduate of Duke, where she was a three-time All-American.
Olympic gold medalist
Despite bouts of polio and scarlet fever that resulted in leg braces and orthopedic shoes until age 11, Wilma Rudolph grew to become arguably the most well-known Black woman of her era. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals at the same games – the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome – claiming the 100- and 200-meter titles as well as anchoring the 4×100-meter relay team. Though she retired from competition in 1962, several of her world records held up for much of the decade. She died of brain cancer at 54.
University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach
Named the Naismith Women’s Collegiate Coach of the Century and part of the inaugural class of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, Pat Summitt led the Tennessee Lady Vols to 1,098 victories, eight NCAA championships and 18 Final Fours over her storied career. She began in Knoxville as a 22-year-old graduate student who had to drive the team van but eventually would lead a powerhouse program that played in sold-out arenas on national TV. She also directed Team USA to Olympic gold in 1984 in Los Angeles.
23-time Grand Slam champion
Taught by her father on the dilapidated public courts of Compton, California, Williams is widely considered the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. Her 23 Grand Slam singles titles are just one shy of Margaret Court’s record of 24. She owns 14 more in women’s doubles, all won with her sister Venus Williams, and two more in mixed doubles. Renowned for her powerful, precise serve, she also has four Olympic gold medals, three in doubles earned with Venus.
7-time Grand Slam champion
In 2002 when Venus Williams became the first African American woman to gain the world No. 1 ranking in the Open era, she appeared poised to dominate the sport for years to come – until her sister Serena Williams came along. Even so, Venus Williams has left her own mark on the sport with seven singles titles. She is the only tennis player to win Olympic medals at four games, including a sweep of singles and doubles in Sydney in 2000. Her legacy also includes the fight, and victory, for equal prize money at Wimbledon and the French Open.
Sources used in the Women of the Century list project include newspaper articles, state archives, historical websites, encyclopedias and other resources.