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Wed May 15, 2024, 09:41 AM May 15

On This Day: First women in Olympics, beginning long road towards greater gender parity - May 15, 1900

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MAY 15, 1900
First Women in Olympics

Nineteen women were the first to compete in the modern Olympics Games in Paris, France. The women competed in tennis, golf and croquet. During this Olympics, Margaret Abbott was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal by winning the nine-hole golf tournament. She won by shooting a score of 47.

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Equality for Women in the Olympics

Women first took part in the Olympics of 1900, with 22 women competing in only golf and tennis. Since that time, women’s participation in the games has been slowly, but steadily, increasing. In the 2012 London Olympic Games, women made up more than 44% of participants. The U.S. women earned 58 medals in all, including 29 Gold — more than the U.S. men.

The number of Olympic sports events for women has also increased, with women’s boxing finally being accepted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for 2012. Despite progress in female participation, inequities in treatment continued. In 2010, The International Boxing Association suggested women should wear skirts to help “distinguish” them from the males, since all the fighters wear headgear. At the October 2011 world championships, Poland Boxing made skirts compulsory, saying they are more “elegant.”

Despite these numerous accomplishments, there is still sex discrimination. Even though the 2012 Olympics was the first in which almost every country sent at least one woman, many Muslim countries still discourage female athletes from competing in public.

Following International Women’s Day on March 8, 2013, Anita DeFrantz, Chairwoman of the IOC’s Women and Sport Commission, spoke at the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to highlight the role of sports in the effort to eliminate and prevent violence against women and girls in the world.

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How Paris 2024 aims to become the first-ever gender-equal Olympics

It’s been a long road for Olympic women

Women have come a long way since competing in the Olympic Games for the first time in 1900, also in Paris. That year, women represented only 2.2% of all participants.

Why Olympic gender parity matters

Sport can change lives, says UN Women, the United Nations organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. This includes promoting leadership, teamwork, self-reliance and confidence in women.

Gender parity also benefits economies and societies more widely. In its Global Gender Gap Report 2023, the World Economic Forum found that progress in closing gender gaps means more growth, innovation, and resilience for countries.

The report stated that the gender gap across 146 countries is currently 68.4% closed, but equal representation between men and women across the economic, political, health, and education spheres is still 131 years away at the current rate of progress.

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History of women at the Olympics - 1900

The first modern Olympic Games to feature female athletes was the 1900 Games in Paris. Hélène de Pourtalès of Switzerland became the first woman to compete at the Olympic Games and became the first female Olympic champion, as a member of the winning team in the first 1 to 2 ton sailing event on May 22, 1900. Briton Charlotte Cooper became the first female individual champion by winning the women's singles tennis competition on July 11. Tennis and golf were the only sports where women could compete in individual disciplines. 22 women competed at the 1900 Games, 2.2% of all the competitors. Alongside sailing, golf and tennis, women also competed in croquet.

There were several firsts in the women's golf. This was the first time ever that women competed in the Olympic Games. The women's division was won by Margaret Abbott of Chicago Golf Club. Abbott shot a 47 to win and became the first ever American female to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games, though she received a gilded porcelain bowl as a prize instead of a medal. She is also the second overall American woman to receive an Olympic medal. Abbott's mother, Mary Abbott, also competed in this Olympic event and finished tied for seventh, shooting a 65. They were the first and only mother and daughter that have ever competed in the same Olympic event at the same time. Margaret never knew that they were competing in the Olympics; she thought it was a normal golf tournament and died not knowing. Her historic victory was not known until University of Florida professor Paula Welch began to do research into the history of the Olympics and discovered that Margaret Abbott had placed first. Over the course of ten years, she contacted Abbott's children and informed them of their mother's victory.

Two women also competed in the hacks and hunter combined (chevaux de selle) equestrian event at the 1900 Games (Jane Moulin and Elvira Guerra). Originally only the jumping equestrian events were counted as "Olympic", but IOC records later added the hacks and hunter and mail coach races to the official list of 1900 events, retroactively making Moulin and Guerra among the first female Olympians.


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