Since the United States federal government passed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which, among other things, guaranteed gender equality in collegiate sports, there have been vastly larger numbers of women participating in sports at that level. In the decades afterwards, women’s sports have made vast inroads on both a collegiate and professional level around the world. The WTA (tennis), LPGA (golf) and WNBA (basketball) have all enjoyed decades of financial stability, while other women’s sports leagues in North America like the CWHL (hockey) and NWSL (soccer) are still in their initial years as they attempt to build a permanent base of fans and corporate sponsors to survive in the long-term.
In those years, however, many women have made inroads to participate in men’s leagues as well. There have been struggles on a number of levels for these women to gain acceptance from their male peers, but the talents, courage and determination of these ten women helped them to achieve their goals, whether for a single game or over years of excellence. There are so many worthwhile candidates that not all of them could make this list, but these women were able to serve as trailblazers in their respective sports, and serve as role models for other women everywhere. This will look at 10 women who have been involved on the field, where it be through playing or refereeing.
Honourable mentions include Ann Meyers, who signed with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and practiced with them for three days before her release, Katie Hnida, the first woman to score a point in an NCAA football bowl game as a placekicker, and Sian Massey, one of three women to have served as a referee in an English Premier League game.
10. Eri Yoshida, Baseball Pitcher
A rare knuckleballer, the 22-year old Yoshida grew up idolizing Tim Wakefield and copied his style to achieve success. Born in Yokohama, Japan, Yoshida debuted in the Kansai Independent Baseball League in 2009 at the age of 17, appearing in 11 games for the Kobe 9 Cruise before deciding to move to a higher league. She made her debut with the Yuma Scorpions of the Arizona Winter League in December 2009, throwing four innings of shutout ball, before moving to the Golden Baseball League, the largest independent minor league in the western section of the United States, the following year. Yoshida did not excel there in 2010 or 2011, but this was attributed to her youth and inexperience playing at that level by team staff and fans alike, who respected her and valued her play.
She moved back to Japan in 2012, earning her first win in her home country, but then returned to the US later that year to play in the North American baseball league. As the first woman to start baseball games in three countries (she also briefly played for a team in Victoria, BC in Canada) and the youngest member of this list, Yoshida still has plenty of time to mark herself as a truly dominant force in the men’s game.
9. Shannon Eastin, NFL Replacement Referee
In 2012, the NFL officials went on strike, forcing the league to appoint several replacement officials to complete games early in the season. With over a decade’s worth of high school and NCAA Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference games under her belt, the league selected Eastin as one of their replacement referees. Eastin made headlines as the first woman to referee an NFL pre-season game between the San Diego Chargers and the Green Bay Packers in August 2012, before refereeing her first regular season in game Week 1 of the 2012 NFL season, a 27-23 victory by the Detroit Lions over the St. Louis Rams.
With the intense backlash against the replacement officials, however, Eastin has not officiated an NFL game since. She has also participated in the World Series of Poker and had previously won six national judo championships, and currently owns a company called SE Sports Officiating, which trains other referees.
8. Hayley Wickenheiser, Hockey Forward
A four-time gold medallist with the Canadian Olympic team, Wickenheiser is also arguably the greatest women’s hockey player of all-time. In 2003, however, she became the first woman to score a goal in a men’s professional hockey league, after signing with HC Salamat of the Suomi-sarja, Finland’s third-ranked men’s hockey league. She scored one goal and four points in twelve games with the team, and played ten games with the team the following year after they moved up to the Mestis, Finland’s second-highest league, before leaving the team. She returned to men’s hockey in 2008, failing to secure a contract during a week-long tryout with IFK Arboga IK of Sweden’s Division 1, the country’s third-highest men’s league, before signing with Linden HC of the same league and scoring one goal and two assists in 21 games.
7. Manon Rheaume, NHL goalie
Rheaume has the distinguished honour of being the only woman ever to play in an NHL pre-season game, playing in two games for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and 1993. She then proceeded to play for seven different teams of the International Hockey League from 1992-1997, finishing with 24 career games in the league. She had previously become the first woman to play in a Canadian major junior game, playing with the Trois-Rivieres Draveurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). She also won two gold medals as Canada’s goalie in the Women’s World Championships in 1992 and 1994, and a silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.
6. Ila Borders, Baseball Pitcher
Borders, a left-hander with aspirations to play in the Major Leagues, never had the opportunity to play at the highest level, but nonetheless accomplished several important firsts throughout her career. She became the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship in 1993, the first female pitcher to win a collegiate baseball game later that year, while attending Southern California College. In 1998, she then became the first woman to win a men’s regular season professional baseball game since the integration of baseball, as a member of the Duluth-Superior Dukes of the Independent Northern League.
Her professional career lasted from 1997-2000 with four different teams of the Independent Northern League and Western Baseball League, and she was inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals by the Baseball Reliquary, a non-profit organization seeking to honor those who had the greatest impact upon the world of baseball, in 2003.
5. Pam Postema, MLB Umpire
Postema was the first female umpire to ever officiate an MLB spring training game, but nearly had the opportunity to accomplish even more. In 1977, Postema became the first woman to umpire single A games, before becoming the first woman to do the same at the AA level two years later. She was then promoted to the AAA Pacific Coast League two years after that, where she earned the respect of the vast majority around the league in her six-year tenure with the league. In 1989, after years of consideration to move up to the MLB level, MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti offered her a contract to serve in spring training games, and later that year further offered her the chance to be an umpire for the Hall of Fame game between the Yankees and the Braves.
Giamatti unfortunately passed away in September 1989, and his successor Fay Vincent did not offer her the same opportunities. In December 1989, The Triple-A Alliance overseeing all AAA leagues terminated her contract. Postema filed a sex discrimination case, which the league and her lawyers later settled out of court. If it had not been for Giamatti’s sudden death, Postema may have been the first female umpire to officiate an MLB game, but no one else has accomplished the feat as of yet. The Baseball Reliquary also inducted Postema into the Shrine of the Eternals to commemorate her accomplishments.
4. Sarah Thomas, NCAA Football Referee
Though Eastin (number 9 on this list) was the first female NFL referee, Thomas has the opportunity to be the first permanent NFL official after the league named her in 2013 as one of the 21 candidates for any future openings. Thomas first started refereeing high school games in 1999 and in 2007 made the transition to become the first woman to work a major college football game. Two years later, in 2009, Thomas became the first woman to officiate a bowl game, serving as part of the crew for the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl between Marshall and Ohio. She has also worked scrimmages for the New Orleans Saints, and helped the Indianapolis Colts for three days in one of their mini-camps. She, unlike Eastin, was not chosen as a replacement referee in 2012 because of her previous collegiate commitments, but may make the move to the NFL on a full-time basis as soon as this upcoming season.
3. Jenny Higgs, Wimbledon Chief Umpire
At a club as traditional as Wimbledon, anything new is noteworthy, but Higgs particularly stands out for her accomplishment. In 2010, at the age of 63, she was named the chief umpire of the men’s and women’s tournaments, overseeing all 310 umpires, including 132 women. She had umpired tennis matches since her teenage years and became a full member of the Lawn Tennis Umpires Association at age 18, before umpiring her first Wimbledon match in the 1960s. Though the presence of 132 female umpires, along with the prominence and fame of the top female tennis players being indicative of the progress women have made in the sport, Higgs’ accomplishment placed her in a position of unique responsibility, her reward for decades of hard work and umpiring excellence.
2. Danica Patrick, IndyCar and NASCAR driver
Danica Patrick has accomplished several firsts or bests for female drivers in her racing career. Competing in the IndyCar circuit from 2005-2011, Patrick’s career highlights included her sole race victory at the 2008 Indy Japan 300 and her third place finish to put her on the podium at the 2009 Indianapolis 500, the highest profile race in IndyCar. She also won the pole position three times, and finished on the podium on six other occasions. In 2010, she started driving in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and followed it by also moving to the NASCAR Spring Series in 2012. Patrick currently competes in both competitions. Her best results are eighth place finishes in the 2012 O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 (Nationwide) and 2013 Daytona 500 (Sprint Cup). A podium finish in a Sprint Cup race would bring Patrick a new level of respect, but she has nonetheless accomplished a great deal in her career.
1. Violet Palmer, NBA Referee
The first female official to officiate sports in the top leagues of American professional sports, Palmer has continually distinguished herself throughout her career as a top referee irrespective of her gender. Since starting her career in 1997, she has officiated over 700 NBA games, and has worked many WNBA games as well. The highlights of her career include serving as the first female official of an NBA playoff game on April 25th, 2006 between the Indiana Pacers and the New Jersey Nets, and becoming the first female referee for an All-Star Game of any of the major North American professional sports leagues in February 2014.
She was also one of the three officials during a December 16th, 2006 game between the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks, in which a team brawl broke out on the court and the referees ejected all ten players who were on the court when it broke out. The long duration of her career, her continued ability to referee at the highest level and groundbreaking status as the first female referee in NBA regular season, post-season and All-Star games mark her as the number one choice on this list.