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.

The Pioneers

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.

Wilma Rudolph

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.

Althea Gibson

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.

Gertrude Ederle

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.

19 responses to “Fit and Feminist 100: The Pioneers

  1. Thank you for using your blog to highlight some of our female athletes. There is a wonderful children’s book about Wilma Rudolph that I read aloud once to my second graders at school. One of the girls in class, Madai, was so moved by Wilma’s story of triumph over wearing braces as a child, and then going on to run in the Olympics, she began crying at the end of the book. I’m sure everyone in that class will remember Wilma Rudolph’s story, but especially little Madai who got her first true understanding of both perseverance and feminism.

  2. This is so inspirational! I totally love all of your posts, but I especially appreciate the time you put in to bring us things like this. I think it’s so important in the fitness world for women to hear about other women who are athletic, skilled, powerful and competitive. So much of fitness-oriented media directed toward women is just about being “in shape,” which seems to me to not only seriously underestimate (not to mention serve as a means to objectify) us, but also takes the a lot of the joy out of sports and exercise.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. LOVE THIS!! Just LOVE it. Thank you for inspiring me and for helping us touch and recognize the past efforts and accomplishments of those women.

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  5. Gertude Ederle womens record has been beaten by Trent Grimsey in sept 2012 by 2 hours and 50 minutes!!

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  9. Have you heard of Beryl Burton?

    She was a British cyclist who set a new 12-hour time trial record in 1967, surpassing the men’s record for several years. No woman has yet beaten it.

    “Beryl was 30 years ahead of her time. Her 100 miles record lasted 28 years until beaten in the 1990s by women using aerodynamic bikes. Her 12 hour record still stands today. She was World 3,000 metres pursuits champion 5 times, World road race champion twice and National RR Champion 12 times.”

    And throughout her career she remained an amateur, raising a family and holding down full-time work on a fruit farm alongside her cycling.

    • I have not heard of her, but thank you for bringing her to my attention! She sounds fascinating and I will look up more about her later today when I’m no longer at work.

    • Emily, Beryl only held that record for for 2 years not 7 surpassd by E J Watson in 1969. Athough the ladies record remained stagnant, the mens record increased year by year to the current 305.51 set by J Jones, eclipsing her record by more than 28 miles. Ever heard of Roy Cromack ? He was the first to break the magic 500mile barrier in the 24 hour time trial in 1969. Beryl was also competing, and was far ahead of Roy and others competing, however the gap was closing as she was begining to tire. Very sadly she completed some 250 miles and could not continue any further. On hearing Beryl’s withdrawl from the competition Roy requested the biggest ice cream money could buy, not to cool down, but to celibrate !! He completed 507 miles, despite having 2 flat tires, one at the begining of the race that set him back. One wonders what his final record would have been had he not had these set backs! He held his record for 28 years, surpassed in 1997, a truely inspiring achievment.

      • The 1993 current ladies record is held by C Roberts at only 461.45 miles. I hope Beryl’s participation in that event will inspire other women to one day break the 500 mile record………. nearly 45 years after Roy Cromack set the standard. He too throughout his career remaind an amateur raising a family and holding down a full time job as a maths teacher.

      • Richard, go back and read my comment more carefully – I said ‘several’, not ‘seven’. And don’t you think you’re missing the point here? This page is explicitly about “the fittest women of all time” – Roy Cromack and Trent Grimsey (who you mention above) are male. (Though Cromack is definitely another of my cycling heroes – they don’t make them like they used to!)

    • Hi Emily, I have replied to your last letter on the issue of women participating in sports with men. Thanks Richard.

  10. Emily, If this page is explicitly about the fittest women of all time, you stated “surpassing the mens record” you are comparing her athletic prowess to a man. Therefore if you are using this as a criteria for her achievement, I am entitled using this same principal to compare roy to beryl to put matters into proper context. After all she did compete in this race? and is therfore subject for comparison. It cuts both ways (using your criteria) if women compete against men for achievements, and you are going to bring men into the equation it is only fair and just to honor men by reporting valid achiements/ victories over women right? Or do we only want to see one side of the story with rose tinted glasses? However I do admitt the following errors: 1 I mistook “several” for seven 2. beryl dropt out of the race 345miles not 245miles as I first stated. I would like to thankyou for your original post, as it drew me to Roy Cromack which like most people never heard off, but deserve greater recognition.

    • Sorry Richard, I didn’t mean to get into an argument about this. I stand by my points, but I’m not going to respond any further, as I don’t want to detract from Caitlin’s original post. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to continue the discussion. 🙂

    • Actually, I will reply here (apologies to Caitlin). Richard, your original posts bothered me more than they should have, because they’re reminiscent of the all-too-common retort of men I’ve had similar discussion with, along the lines of ‘yes, but, the strongest man will always be stronger than the strongest woman, so why don’t you shut up and get back in the kitchen’. (I’ve addressed this question at more length on my own blog, in case you’re interested: Forgive me if this wasn’t your intention, and if I’ve been too quick to take offence.

      But if your remarks were made in innocence, I do still find them somewhat irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Of COURSE you are entitled to say whatever you want to, and please do. But it seems to me that pointing out Cromack’s victory over Burton in the 24-hour time trial is part of a different argument. I don’t think anyone reading this blog will be in any doubt as to the context in which female sporting achievements occur – the cycling world remains massively male-dominated, and yes, women usually are beaten by men (everyone is eventually beaten by someone). This is precisely why Burton’s 12-hour record (and Cromack’s jubilation when she withdrew from the 24-hour time trial) was so remarkable. And the context of this post, as laid out by the author in the introduction, is “the fittest *women* of all time”. Again, I may be taking offence where none was meant, but your persistence in pointing out Cromack’s superiority in the 24-hour time trial, comes across as an attempt to belittle Burton’s achievement.

      Ultimately though, Richard, we’re on the same side. I’ve spent an awful lot of my time ranting about the good old days of British cycling, and how little recognition its heroes still have, despite the current renaissance. If this were a different blog post, I’d probably be blowing Cromack’s trumpet as loud as Burton’s. Go and have a look at the original Men’s Health feature linked in the first paragraph. You’ll be pleased to see that Graeme Obree features (though of course you will probably argue that his record has long been surpassed by Chris Boardman and Francesco Russo). But I don’t think Ray Cromack does (admittedly I didn’t flick all the way to the end), nor Andy Wilkinson, Tommy Godwin, Jure Robic, Nelson Vails, Mike Hall, or any of my other male cycling heroes. But Brad Pitt and Harry Houdini both do, even though (as far as I’m aware) neither of them has ever held a record for speed, strength or physical endurance. Perhaps your arguments would be better raised over there?

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