Before Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe: Early female athletes paved way

Why We Wrote This

Elite female athletes are not just a recent phenomenon. In the early 20th century, two women rose to the top of their sports and achieved fame. Their stories have been forgotten – until now. Two biographies capture the excitement of their achievements and also the challenges they faced in a male-dominated society. Today's sports superstars stand on their shoulders. 

Courtesy of Akashic Books and Penguin Random House
“Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar” by Sasha Abramsky, Edge of Sports, 288 pp.; and “The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery” by Robert Weintraub, Dutton, 512 pp.

Before Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe, there was Lottie Dod and Alice Marble. The latter were well known in the late 19th and early 20th century, and as media sensations they paved the way for female sports superstars today.   

Dod (1871-1960) was a British tennis prodigy, golf champion, and all-around athlete. At the tender age of 11, she began challenging adults and “leaving their tennis in tatters.” By age 21, she had racked up five Wimbledon wins; her first win at age 15 earned her the still-unbroken record for youngest ladies’ singles champion. Her story is chronicled in “Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar” by Sasha Abramsky. 

Yet, at the peak of her power, Dod left tennis. She craved a new challenge. Throughout her 20s and 30s, she bounced from sport to sport, achieving a string of successes not just in tennis and golf, but also in hockey, ice skating, tobogganing, and mountain climbing. She closed out her impressive career by winning a silver medal in archery at the 1908 Olympics.

Dod challenged the prevailing image of the “delicate” female athlete, who was considered inferior to her male counterparts. She was vocal in her belief that women could be just as successful in sports as men. After her death, The Guardian called Dod “one of the most remarkable sportswomen of the 19th century.” 

Abramsky presents a well-researched account of a woman whose rare losses were almost more newsworthy than her consistent victories. 

The tennis world’s comeback kid

American tennis player Alice Marble (1913-1990) captured the world’s attention and multiple titles beginning in the mid-1930s. As detailed in Robert Weintraub’s “The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery,” Marble possessed a great deal of innate talent, but it wasn’t until coach Eleanor “Teach” Tennant agreed to instruct her that she morphed into a champion.

The road to the top wasn’t easy. Several health crises threatened to end her career, and she left the circuit for two years to recover. She made a triumphant return in 1936, when she won the U.S. National Championships (now known as the U.S. Open).

Her comeback story along with her televised matches made the public fall in love with Marble. Her friendships with movie stars such as Carole Lombard and Clark Gable gave her a reputation of rubbing elbows with Hollywood royalty. She became a glamorous figure in her own right and gained a platform for her other projects, including sportswear design.

Much of Marble’s life remains shrouded in mystery. Though she wrote not one but two memoirs, questions persist. Was she married to an officer who died in World War II? Did she serve as a spy? Weintraub uses Marble’s memoirs as the foundation of his research, and his discoveries turn this sports biography into a page-turning thriller.

These two biographies serve not only as opportunities to marvel at the accomplishments of these women, but also as reminders that some things haven’t changed. For example, Dod and Marble were criticized for how they dressed, accused of playing like men, and berated for their progressive political views. These books are celebrations of women’s progress, but they also show how much work is left to be done.

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