Some broke boundaries by being the first to compete in their field, while others broke records and set the standard for the next generation. BBC Sport profiles a number of female trailblazers who have excelled and inspired through history.
The first woman to compete at the Ice Skating World Championships, where she beat two men to take the silver medal in 1902. This prompted a separate ladies’ championship to be created and the London-born skater went on to win the first Olympic gold in the event in 1908.
Dick, Kerr Ladies
Formed by munitions factory workers in 1917 to raise money for wounded soldiers, the Preston-based female football team ended up gaining a huge following. They played in front of 53,000 people at Everton’s Goodison Park and took part in the first women’s international game against a France XI. The Football Association banned women from playing in 1921 but they continued to play across the world, going more than 200 games without defeat.
The first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926. The American was 20 when she completed the feat in 14 hours and 30 minutes to beat the men’s record by more than two hours. During some of the hardest moments of her swim, when her trainer tried to get her to give up, she said: “I’d just look at him and say, ‘What for?’.”
At the age of 30, the Dutch mother-of-two became the first female athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, in London in 1948. The sprinter set 20 world records during her career.
The first black Grand Slam winner in tennis. She won the French Open in 1956, followed by Wimbledon and the US Open the following year. She made more history in the 1960s by becoming the first African-American competitor on the women’s pro golf tour.
The first woman to run in an official marathon in 1967 in Boston. At a time when marathons were considered too far for women to run, German Switzer disguised her identity on her application in order to receive a race number. Race official Jock Semple attempted to wrestle the number off her but he was tackled by Switzer’s boyfriend and she went on to finish the race.
During her cycling career, Leeds’ Burton won more than 90 domestic championships as well as seven world titles. Among her many achievements, she broke the women’s and men’s 12-hour time trial record in 1967, recording 277.25 miles.
The first gymnast to achieve a ‘perfect’ 10 at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976. The Romanian’s first 10 came on the uneven bars, and she went on to achieve six more on her way to three golds and a bronze at the Games.
Billie Jean King
Considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, American King won 39 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles competitions. The founder of the Women’s Tennis Association is a vocal advocate for gender equality and campaigned for equal prize money during her playing career. She famously beat former world number one Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ exhibition match.
The Japanese mountaineer was a 35-year-old mother of two when she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1975. She was also the first female to climb the highest peak on all seven continents.
In 1991, the first Women’s World Cup was played in China. The USA took their first of three titles with a 2-1 win over Norway. They remain the world number one side.
The Wales-born wheelchair athlete won 16 Paralympic medals – including 11 gold – across seven Games. She also won the London Marathon six times and set more than 30 world records during her career. Now a Baroness and working peer, she speaks on issues including disability rights, welfare reform and sport.
The Australian became the poster girl for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and, after lighting the torch at the opening ceremony, fulfilled her ambition by winning gold in the 400m. She celebrated by flying a flag which represented her indigenous heritage.
Between them Venus and Serena Williams have won 30 Grand Slam titles but they are tennis legends in their own right. Venus, now 38, still tours on the WTA circuit and has seven major titles, while younger sister Serena has 23 and is considered one of the greatest players of her generation. They won the Wimbledon women’s doubles title together in 2016 and have both been active voices in the fight for race and gender equality.
Dame Ellen MacArthur
The Isle of Wight-based yachtswoman completed her single-handed round-the-world voyage in 2005 in a world record time. She sailed 27,000 miles in 71 days.
The first-ever Winter Olympics gold medallist in women’s ski jumping. Her win in 2014 came 90 years after the men’s event was first included at the Games.
Earlier in 2019, Frenchwoman Frappart became the first woman to referee a top tier Ligue 1 football match. She was also the first female referee to officiate a Ligue 2 match back in 2014.
Women’s boat race
The 70th event between Oxford and Cambridge in 2015 was the first to involve a women’s race on the same course as the men’s on the same day. Investment firm boss and mother-of-nine Helena Morrissey was the woman behind the change. She agreed to sponsor the event but only if the women received equal funding.
A judoka, mixed martial artist turned wrestler, American Rousey became a trailblazer in UFC. She set the record for most title defences by a woman and became the first female in the UFC hall of fame. She is now a professional wrestler with WWE.
The first woman to win an Olympic boxing title at London 2012. That same year she was named the most influential LGBT person in Britain. Leeds’ Adams also became flyweight champion at world, European and Olympic level in 2016. She turned professional a year later and was victorious on her debut.