Fit and Feminist 100: The Pioneers
A couple of months ago, Men’s Health put together a slideshow in which they featured “the fittest men of all time.” The slideshow features super-studtastic guys like Scott Jurek and Usain Bolt, with a little bit of information about the man’s fitness routines and physical accomplishments. Of course, it’s silly to think that an English language magazine published in the 21st century is going to be able to be able to survey the entirety of human history to find 100 guys who embody the pinnacle of “fitness,” and really, can we talk about how subjective that is anyway? What does it mean to be fit? Does it mean running fast? What about running far? Lifting heavy shit? Holding heavy things over your head? Having abs you could grate cheese on? I mean, if you really want to get technical about it, you could say that the fittest men of all time are the men who managed to survive when the human race’s numbers dwindled so low you could have packed it all into the Racine Civic Center and still had room for a mastadon or five. But you know, that’s just me being pedantic.
That said, I was totally intrigued by the slideshow. As I clicked through it, I thought about how much I’d love to see one featuring women. And then I thought, hey, why don’t I do one myself? I have a blog. I know some things about women and sports. I’ll do one! So here it is, in no particular order – the completely unscientific, totally subjective, not-at-all comprehensive list of 100 female athletes who I think deserve to be considered among the fittest women of all time.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
No conversation about women in sports is complete without the inclusion of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. She was the Bo Jackson of her day, if Bo Jackson played tennis, golf, volleyball, basketball and handball, plus competed in track, swimming, diving, cycling and boxing. She did it all in the 1930s, in a time when it was still considered uncouth for a woman to compete in sports. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” a reporter wrote about her.
Zaharias was one of those naturally gifted athletes, the kind of person who can pick up a ball or a racket and almost instinctively know how to handle it. She won Amateur Athletic Union championships, she held world records, she competed in the Olympics and won. But it was on the greens that she really established her dominance, becoming the nation’s first female golf celebrity. Charles McGrath, writing for the New York Times, said that, when asked about her powerfully athletic swing, Zaharias remarked, “It’s not enough to just swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it.”
Zaharias once said her life’s ambition was to be “the greatest athlete who ever lived.” Considering that ESPN named her the tenth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, I’d say she came damn close to making her dream come true.
Billie Jean King
Most people know Billie Jean King for the Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, which happened in 1973, when the women’s lib movement was really hitting its peak. The match was a total spectacle, with Riggs entering the Astrodome in a rickshaw pulled by a group of models and King coming onto the court in a chair held by four bare-chested men. From everything I’ve read (and also what I’ve heard from my husband, who was actually alive to watch it), the match itself was kind of goofy, with the middle-aged Riggs basically having his butt handed to him by the younger, fitter Billie Jean. It was more the symbolism of the thing, about a young woman giving a good walloping to the condescending older man, an image that continues to resonate to this day as we are graced again and again with the sight of older men trying to dictate the terms of younger women’s lives.
King’s advocacy for women and sports didn’t end with the Battle of the Sexes. She helped found the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Women’s Tennis Association. She pushed for equal prize money with the men and women’s games, even going so far as to say she would not play if the prize money wasn’t equalized. She helped organize the first professional women’s tennis tour. After she was outed as a lesbian in the early 1980s, she become a vocal advocate for the LGBT community. All of this is in addition to her legendary career during which she won 39 Grand Slam titles.
One of the things I admire most about King was that she was not merely content to be a top athlete. She wanted her athleticism to have some wider meaning in the world, to be more than just a spectacle for people to watch. Her talent as an athlete gave her access to a platform, and she used it to push for social justice and equality. It’s that desire to make the world a better, fairer place that has made her into an icon for the generations of feminists who followed her.
The woman who was once known as the “fastest woman in the world” spent most of her childhood in bed. Wilma Rudolph was a premature baby who contracted double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio, which led doctors to fit her with metal leg braces when she was six years old. She had twenty-one brothers and sisters, twenty of whom were older than her, and they helped take care of her, rubbing her damaged left leg and making sure she didn’t take off her leg brace. Her doctor was sure she’d never walk, but her mother told her she would and Rudolph believed her.
Rudolph, who was a basketball and track star when she was in high school, qualified to go the 1960 Rome Olympics when she was twenty. She won three gold medals, in the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the 4×100 meter relay – a first for an American woman of any race.
So much for the doctor’s prediction.
Her biography on the website for the National Women’s Hall of Fame credits her with giving women’s track a boost. Considering that both Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have cited her as an inspiration for their own amazing track careers, I’d have to say that’s a fair assessment.
Rudolph was a trailblazing badass off the track as well. At her insistence, her homecoming parade and banquet were the first integrated events held in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. She was active in the civil rights movement, taught high school and founded a non-profit organization that brought athletic programs to underprivileged kids in urban areas. “I tell them that the most important aspect is to be yourself and have confidence in yourself,” she said of her work with the organization. “I remind them the triumph can’t be had without the struggle.” If anyone would know, it would be Rudolph, who struggled against so much and triumphed in ways most of us can only ever imagine.
The woman who is sometimes known as “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” was born in 1927 to sharecroppers in South Carolina and later raised in Harlem. At the height of her career, Althea Gibson was the top female tennis player in the United States, winning eleven Grand Slam titles in a sport that was so white my eyes hurt just thinking about it, and being the first black woman to be named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.
Gibson played tennis in a time when it was all but impossible to make a living at the sport, and because there was no professional tour for women, she ended up playing a series of exhibition matches, including some before Harlem Globetrotters basketball games. Racism was another huge obstacle, as sometimes tournaments would be canceled when organizers learned she’d be playing or she’d have to listen to people sling racial slurs at her as she played.
For a while, Gibson played in the Ladies Professional Golf Association, and in doing so, knocked down yet another color barrier, as golf was another sport that was all about the white folks at the time. Even though she was good enough to play pro golf, she was nowhere near as dominant as she was with tennis. For a while she worked as a tennis pro, but when she left sports, entered a life of public service, working as the New Jersey state athletics commissioner and serving on the governor’s council on physical fitness.
When she was 31, she wrote a book about her life titled, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.” Through her determination and her talent, she had managed to do just that.
In the 1920s, the development of a more athletic bathing suit led to a bit of an explosion of interest in swimming among women. One of the most famous swimmers of that time was a woman named Gertrude Ederle, who earned herself a spot in the history books in 1926 by becoming the first woman – and the sixth person ever – to swim the 21-mile English Channel. The 20-year-old faced squalls and storms during her 14-hour swim, and at one point in the swim, when things were particularly rough, her coach said she had to get out of the water. She turned to him and said, “What for?” When she finished, she had beaten the previous men’s record by nearly two hours.
Ederle, who didn’t learn to swim properly until she was about fifteen years old, quickly excelled at the sport, even competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics and bringing home a gold and two bronze medals. For a four-year stretch, she held 29 world and national amateur records. And in the year before her English Channel swim, she became the first woman to swim the length of New York Bay, which took her from New York Battery to Sandy Hook, N.J., and again broke the previous men’s record by doing it in seven hours and eleven minutes.
Ederle and her teammates swam under Charlotte Epstein, who was another epic badass herself. Epstein held “suffrage team races” and agitated for changes to bathing suit requirements (such as a rule that women had to wear stockings while swimming) and pushing for distance swim events for women. Eppie’s Girls, as they called themselves, mounted a serious campaign to prove that women were capable of swimming in conditions that were just as challenging as anything men could do. Ederle said as much regarding the English Channel, saying, “People said women couldn’t swim the Channel, but I proved they could.”
Ederle’s post-swimming life was quintessentially 1920s, with a dance step named after her, a successful career in vaudeville and a role as herself in a movie called “Swim Girl, Swim.” (No word as to whether she ever referred to anyone as “old sport.”) She was also almost completely deaf by the 1940s, and she spent much of her life teaching swimming to deaf children.