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Too Good to Be Ignored: Women Who Reached the Top in Sports

When AnnMaria De Mars was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Alton, Ill., a “short, fat little kid with real thick glasses,” as she described herself, there were few outlets for girls interested in sports. “Back then, Title IX hadn’t passed, so it was perfectly legal to say, ‘Girls can’t do this,’” she said. Nonetheless, her mother dropped her off at a local Y.M.C.A., with instructions to find an activity. “The options were swimming or sprinting,” Dr. De Mars recalled, and, thanks to one sympathetic instructor, judo.

She chose judo, where her size was an asset. “I was harder to push over backwards, and I was harder to pick up,” she said. She won her first match within six months of starting, at 12. In 1984, at 26, she took home a gold medal in the World Judo Championships, the first American (man or woman) to do so. Her daughter Ronda Rousey, the mixed martial arts star, has carried on her mother’s legacy, as the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in judo.

Dr. De Mars scored her gold as a single parent, while working full-time as an industrial engineer. In between bouts, she’d also earned an M.B.A. and later a Ph.D. “I think those early years of being in a male-dominated sport where people expected me to lose, and a lot of people wanted me to quit, was a great preparation for my career now,” said Dr. De Mars, 58, who now runs software and consulting companies.

Her story is sketched out in a new book, “Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History” (Simon & Schuster). A photo-driven compilation, born of an Instagram project, it offers vivid accounts of the mountain climbers, racecar drivers, sailors and shot-putters who were female path-breakers from the 19th century until today.

Some didn’t dwell on being the only girl to compete; others started by tucking their ponytails under hats or adopting masculine names. To see a portrait of a woman like Fanny Bullock Workman, who scaled Himalayan peaks dressed in the heavy, ankle-length skirts of her Victorian era, or the bullfighter Conchita Cintrón, who started at 13 and defied Spanish laws about what she could do in the ring, is to understand the obstacles that women trampled.

“Game Changers” was created by Molly Schiot, a commercial, video and TV director in Los Angeles, who was inspired by the hurdles in her own path. “This book is dedicated to all the women who were forever told no,” her inscription reads.

A few years ago, Ms. Schiot, 36, a lifelong athlete — she played soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey in high school — was invited to submit documentary ideas to a major TV sports network (which she preferred not to name). She focused on women, like the group of black golfers in the Wake-Robin Golf Club, who fought to desegregate the sport in Washington in the 1930s. They petitioned the secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, who eventually approved a new course for their use: It was built on the site of a trash dump. Still, by 1941, the city’s public courses were open to African-Americans, and Wake-Robin remains the oldest registered African-American women’s golf club in the United States.

But despite rich stories like these, and Ms. Schiot’s previous success — she directed an episode of ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series — her pitches about female athletes were repeatedly rejected, she said.

“It’s just sexist,” she said. “At the end of the day, that’s all it is.”

Frustrated, she started an Instagram account in September 2014, posting an image of a sportswoman daily. “I kind of did it as this personal protest,” she said, “where I was like, you can’t tell me that these stories aren’t interesting. I’m going to show you that they are.”

“It’s a way to do something positive with this outrage that I feel,” she added. The account, @theunsungheroines, now has more than 20,000 followers. The book contract soon followed.

Ms. Schiot’s ire is justified: Women’s sports stories are routinely underrepresented in the media, said Dr. Marjorie Snyder, the senior director of research at the Women’s Sports Foundation. Outside of the Olympics, when attention gets more equitable, “we’re at only 8 percent of all coverage everywhere,” she said. “It’s only recently that the coverage of female athletes has surpassed dogs and horses.”

Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that mandated gender equity in any educational program (not just athletics) with federal funding, made a huge difference in female participation in sports. Before Title IX, “girls were encouraged to have pompoms and be cheerleaders for their brothers’ baseball or football teams,” said Lynn Hill, a pioneering rock climber. “Now it’s so different that it’s hard to imagine.”

In the 1970-71 school year, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in varsity sports, Dr. Snyder said. In 2013-14, more than 3.25 million did — a record, and an increase for the 25th consecutive year.

Still, Dr. Snyder said, inequities in athletic opportunity persist, especially for women of color. “Even today — I don’t think I’ll be struck by lightning for saying this — there are still very few high schools and colleges that are in complete compliance with Title IX,” she said. “There is still a long way to go.”

And in coaching and management, women’s involvement has actually declined, Dr. Snyder said, a compounding problem. “If you don’t have the role models out there, you just risk perpetuating the past,” she said.

That is one reason that women like Ms. Hill, 55, who was the first climber to free-ascend a peak called the Nose, share their stories. She started climbing as a girl in California in 1975, when climbing barely registered as a sport, and became professional in 1988. In 1993, she scaled the Nose, nearly 3,000 feet up in the Yosemite Valley and once considered unreachable. She did it twice, the second time in just 23 hours. “It took over 10 years for somebody to repeat it,” she said.

Acknowledgment of women’s accomplishments can be hard-won: While some of the athletes in “Game Changers” are celebrated in their field, few are household names. When Dr. De Mars, the judo champ, returned home with that first gold medal, “nobody was that interested,” she said. “People said to me, ‘Well, it was just the women’s division.’”

Judging by the fan base for her daughter Ms. Rousey, that attitude is changing, slowly.

When Dr. De Mars was younger, she said, the male opponents she bested were taunted for losing to “a girl”; the presumption was that a woman couldn’t beat a man.

Now, if Ms. Rousey were to receive that reaction, she would stop and say, ‘I train seven days a week; why would I not beat him?’” Dr. De Mars said.

Even in arenas where brawn is not a metric, equal treatment and financial parity were next to impossible. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, earning front-page fame by 1977, when she finished as the top rookie at Daytona. But when she later sought out sponsors, she found no takers — because, she felt, the businessmen didn’t find her tough enough. “A woman driver doesn’t do much for an executive’s macho,” she said. By 1983, she went into early retirement. “Without sponsorship, you’re just a fast pedestrian,” Ms. Guthrie, 78, a former pilot and aerospace engineer, said. “I will always regret that I wasn’t able to continue.”

Ms. Schiot discovered her story in a public library, where she started her research for “Game Changers.” “I would pull these books out that were like, ‘She’s Got Balls,’ or ‘She’s Going to Knock You Out’ — they were so funny but so offensive,” she said. Eventually she found the LA84 Foundation, which houses a sports archive, and womenSports, a magazine published by Billie Jean King in the 1970s, which chronicled some of the people in “Game Changers.”

But images of minorities were harder to come by, Ms. Schiot said, in part because they were not allowed in the country clubs and civic associations where early women’s leagues were often created and documented, even as their participation stirred social change outside. She put Wilma Rudolph, the 1960s Olympian, on the cover of the book.

Without recognition, “women lose their history,” Ms. Guthrie, the racer, said. “They do these extraordinary things, and then they are forgotten and denied ever to have existed, so women keep on reinventing the wheel.”

When her own accomplishments were lauded, “I realized I had a responsibility,” she said, to share the stories of other female racers, which date back over a century. In 1898, for example, a daredevil named Marie Laumaillé sped one of the first electric tricycles in a race along the French Riviera, from Marseille to Nice. She wore a scarlet scarf and a white veil over her eyes; her husband, a report in the French press noted at the time, trailed behind her. “Her arrival,” it said, “caused a sensation.”

As Ms. Guthrie put it, “there have always been women like me.”

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