Women’s sports are more popular today than they’ve ever been. From the WNBA to the NWSL, women’s leagues are grabbing a foothold on audiences everywhere, especially in the United States. This wasn’t always the case, though. Here are seven pioneer women who helped change how female athletes are viewed today, and the impact women will have on the sports world for years to come.

Janet Guthrie—Racing Through the Glass Ceiling

Janet Guthrie #68 stands in front of her car before the 1977 Winston Cup Daytona 500 on February 20, 1977. (Credit: ISC Archives/Getty Images)

Janet Guthrie wasn’t the first woman to get behind the wheel of a race car, but she became the first woman to compete in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series (known today as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series), in the 1976 World 600 race. Her 15th-place finish was a milestone for the history of women in sports, but Guthrie wasn’t content with just breaking through the gender barrier. The next year, the former aerospace engineer from the University of Michigan pushed forward becoming the first woman to run in the Dayton 500–NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl. Later that same year, she switched to open wheel racing and became the first woman to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500. To date, fewer than 20 racers (male or female) have competed in both the Dayton 500 and Indianapolis 500. The only other woman to achieve this feat is Danica Patrick, who is one of the most recognizable stars of racing today.

Guthrie finished 12th in the Daytona 500 and 29th in the Indy 500 (car troubles kept her from better finishes in both), but that doesn’t take away from her accomplishments. She was inducted to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006.

Becky Hammon—First Woman Assistant Coach in the NBA

Assistant coach Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs. (Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

On August 5, 2014, the San Antonio Spurs signed Hammon as an assistant coach, making her the first full-time female assistant coach in not only the NBA, but in any of the four major North American sports. A year later, the Rapid City, South Dakota native was named Head Coach of the team’s Summer League squad—the first female to hold this position as well. Hammon’s basketball pedigree speaks for itself, and the Spur’s signing her was no publicity stunt. After a prolific college career for the Colorado State Rams, she was the fifth alum to have their number retired. Hammond signed with the New York Liberty of the WNBA, despite going undrafted after her senior college season, where she played for eight seasons before moving to the San Antonio Stars for eight more. Over her 16-year career, she was selected to six WNBA All-Star teams, was twice First Team all-WNBA and in 2011 was selected as one of the 15 best WNBA players of al ltime.

Maybe Hammon will go on to clear that final hurdle, becoming the first woman head coach in the NBA. d.

Toni Stone—Swings Through the Baseball Barrier

Toni Stone and Buster Haywood on the Indianapolis Clowns of the National Negro Leagues pose for a photograph around 1950 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Credit: Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

In 1953, Toni Stone signed with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, making her the first female professional baseball player in a top-tier men’s league. Born Marcenia Lyle Stone on July 17, 1921 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Stone began playing baseball in local children’s leagues at age 10. By the age of 15, she was playing semi-pro ball with the Twin City Colored Giants, a men’s traveling team. When she moved to San Francisco in the 1940s to care for her ailing sister, her baseball career really took off. She changed her name to Toni, shaved 10 years off of her age and began trying out for men’s teams in the area. In 1949, she joined the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro Baseball League. Although she had to deal with taunts and insults from fans and teammates who objected to her playing a men’s game, her stint on the Sea Lions provided her with some much-needed exposure.

She capitalized on that notoriety by joining the Clowns in 1953. Although she was hired, in part, because the owner thought a woman on the roster would draw fans, she earned her playing time with hard work and dedication. She put up with abuse from fans, teammates and opponents–many of who enjoyed spiking her while sliding into second base when she was covering the bag–and more than held her own. She got a hit off of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, and played with future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Ernie Banks.

At the end of the season, she was traded to the Kansas City Monarchs, the team Jackie Robinson played for before breaking the Major League color barrier in 1947. After one season with the Monarchs, her age caught up with her and she retired. She passed away in November 1996.

Manon Rheaume—First Woman to Sign an NHL Contract

Goaltender Manon Rheaume of the Tampa Bay Lightning in action during a game. (Credit: Scott Halleran/Allsport)

In 1992, the NHL’s expansion Tampa Bay Lightning signed Goalie Manon Rheaume as a free agent. When the ink was dry, the Beauport, Quebec, native had become the first woman to ever sign an NHL contract. Although Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito admitted that publicity was a major factor in the decision to invite Rheaume to try out in the first place, he believed she had enough skills to play against those competeing at the highest levels of the game. Rheaume wasn’t new to being the first woman in the game. The year before she was signed professionally, she was the first woman to ever sign with a top junior division team (the Trios-Rivieres Draveurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). In 1992, she became the first woman to ever play in one of the four major men’s pro sports leagues, competing in an NHL exhibition game. While two goals were scored on her, she saved seven shots. She played another exhibition game for the Lightning in 1993, and ended up signing with the Lightning’s IHL affiliate, the Atlanta Knights. She played on various teams until her retirement in 1997. Twelve years later, she came out of retirement to play her last-ever professional hockey, in an exhibition game for the IHL’s Flint Generals.

Aside from her accomplishments on the professional ice, she was also a two-time gold medalist in the women’s IIHF (the top tournament in women’s hockey) championships, and a silver medalist in women’s hockey at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Pat Palinkas—Holding it Down in Pro Football


In 2014, Jen Welter garnered headlines by signing with the Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution. As a running back, she became the first woman to ever play a “contact” position on a men’s football team, but she wasn’t the first woman to sign to a professional men’s team.

In 1970, the Orlando Panthers (a minor league team) signed Pat Palinkas, a placekick holder. That summer, Pat’s husband, Steve, had tried out as a kicker for the Panthers, but had a bad tryout and did not make the cut. He convinced the Panthers to give him one more chance, but also to allow him to bring his wife, Pat, to be his holder. The second tryout went so well with Pat holding the ball that the Panthers signed them both to contracts.

Later that summer, Pat and Steve made their debuts together in an exhibition game, and Pat instantly became the more famous footballer in the family. After botching the first snap she received, the pair never missed another kick. After only two games, Steve injured his leg and had to quit, but Pat ended up playing three more games for the Panthers. In the end, it wasn’t as fun for her without her husband there, so she too retired. Women like Jen Welter, Julie Harshberger (a kicker in the Continental Indoor Football League for seven seasons) and Katie Hnida (also played in the CIFL in 2010) owe a debt of honor to Pat Palinkas.

Diane Crump—Makes Horse History in the Derby

Diane Crump (center), the first woman to compete in a regular event in U.S. thoroughbred racing history. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Prior to 1970, no female jockey had ever ridden in the world’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby. That all changed on May 2, when Milford, Connecticut, native Diane Crump saddled up on a horse named Fathom and made her way to the starting gate.The journey to the line was not easy. In her first race at Hialeah Park Race Track in Florida in 1969, out of fear for her safety, Crump needed a full police escort around the grounds. During subsequent races, she had to fight through crowds of angry spectators who spewed hatred at a young woman they believed would ruin the sport of horse racing.

In the end, Crump finished 15th out of 17, but her fight was not in vain. Her strength and persistence inspired women jockeys for years to come. Today, although they are still the minority in the “Sport of Kings,” several dozen women make their living as professional jockeys in North America.

Mo’ne Davis—Inspiring the Next Generation of Young Athletes

Mo’ne Davis of Pennsylvania pitches. (Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

When it comes to the Little League World Series (LLWS), 2014 will be forever known as the year of Mo’ne Davis. The then 13-year-old from Philadelphia burst on to the national sports scene while pitching for the Taney Dragons (who were representing Pennsylvania in the series). Just by stepping on the field, she made history as the first African American girl ever to play in the LLWS (18th girl overall), but she wasn’t done there. She wowed the crowds in her very first start, hurling a complete game shutout–the first ever pitched by a girl (it was also first win for a female pitcher at all).  She gave up just two infield hits and struck out eight opponents. She was pitching 70 mph fastballs (likely the equivalent of 93 mph major league fastball) and a nasty curve ball. Suddenly, “throwing like a girl” was something every kid, boy or girl, wished they could do.

The world took notice, and Davis was getting Twitter shoutouts from Mike Trout, Kevin Durant and other top athletes. The last game she pitched in the series gained a 3.4 overnight rating, more than doubling the average LLWS game rating and making it the most watched series game of all time. Unfortunately, Mo’ne’s team fell short of a LLWS Title, but the girl from Philly with a fastball that couldn’t be beat, was a hit. She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August 2014—the first Little Leaguer ever to be featured. She took home the ESPY Award for Best Breakthrough Athlete, joining the likes of Mike Piazza, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady and Lebron James. She was even the subject of a Spike Lee-directed mini-documentary called, “Throw Like A Girl.”

Despite all of that, Mo’ne’s sport of choice is actually basketball. This might keep her from bringing to fruition Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s prediction that she will be the first female major leaguer one day. At the very least, she’s an inspiration to whoever achieves that feat.