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.
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.
8 Hayley Wickenheiser, Hockey Forward
7 Manon Rheaume, NHL goalie
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.
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.
4 Sarah Thomas, NCAA Football Referee
3 Jenny Higgs, Wimbledon Chief Umpire
2 Danica Patrick, IndyCar and NASCAR driver
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.
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