In 1974, the brilliant women’s rights advocate Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Sport Foundation. The foundation’s aims were to advance the lives of women and girls through sport and physical activity, recognising the gender prejudice that was preventing girls from receiving the same opportunities and access to training that boys had, and making it easier for women to develop successful sporting careers and leave sporting legacies. The foundation has been part of a series of organisations and global initiatives that are successfully building the profile of women in sport. Here are just a few exceptional women to watch out for.  

Heather Watson

I think women do suffer in silence.

Born in 1992, Heather is the British No. 1 tennis player. From age 12, she trained in Florida, becoming very successful on the junior circuit, ranking as high as No. 3 in the world, and in 2008 she won gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games. Moving into adulthood, she was the first British woman to qualify for the French Open since 1983, and this secured her place in the top 100 players in the world. Her first major win was in the final of the Japan Open 2012, making her the first British female to win a WTA singles title since 1988. This win meant she took a place in the top 50. In 2014, she won her third WTA doubles title. Heather made it to the third round at this year’s Wimbledon where, despite putting up a great fight, she eventually lost to world No. 1 Serena Williams.

She is complimented by industry professionals on the quality of her footwork, her powerful serve, and her overall logic and game strategy which demonstrates her intelligence on court.

Heather was very open about the effects of menstruation in sport after her defeat at the Australian Open this year, which she put down to the nausea, dizziness and pain she was suffering as a result of her period. She expressed concern that women were expected to suffer in silence, and that this issue was often swept under the carpet.

Wojdan Shaherkani

Hopefully, this is the (beginning) of a new era.

Judoist Wojdan Shahrkhani was one of only two women representatives of Saudi Arabia at the 2012 Olympics. International women’s rights activists and sports activists put enormous pressure on the Saudi government to reconsider its traditional stance on denying women the right to participate in sport. There was delight for supporters when they were eventually successful, but Wojdan was set a series of strict instructions as to how she must behave at the games by Saudi government, requiring that she “dress modestly, be accompanied by a male guardian and not mix with men.” 

What makes Wojdan so incredibly brave is that at the time of the Summer Olympics in 2012, she had only been practising judo for two years. In fact, the 2012 Olympics were her first ever competition, and she was only at blue belt level. Sports training facilities available to women in Saudi Arabia are exceptionally few and far between. Had it not been for her father, a judo instructor, it’s unlikely Wojdan would have been able to train at all. 

“People think we are breaking our religion,”said Ali Seraj Shaherkani’s father in an interview with CNN, speaking for Wojdan, because she barely speaks English. “But in our mind, we are not doing that. We are doing something I am proud of. We gave the whole world a good picture of the women in Saudi Arabia.”

Wojdan requested that she wear her hijab during bouts, and was permitted to do so, but her demonstration of religious commitment wasn’t enough to win the complete support of her country. The Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee refused to publicly endorse her involvement in the competition and she received a wealth of online abuse.

Despite this, Wojdan is still in training. While she didn’t win any medals in 2012, she’s determined to continue competing and raise the sports profile of women in Saudi Arabia.

Kate Cross

I never thought I would get the chance to play for the first team at Heywood, the club in which I grew up and learnt my cricket.

In April 2015, Kate Cross became the first woman to play in the Central Lancashire League, reportedly one of the most traditional leagues in Britain, seated on Conservative and UKIP territory. Her inclusion helped to place the team third on the table.

Heywood chairman John Rhodes was highly supportive of Kate’s inclusion, asserting that it was a proud moment for the club. “At a time when there is strong focus from the Lancashire Cricket Board and ECB on the development and growth of women’s cricket, I am delighted that we continue to play a part in this exciting time for the women’s and girls’ game.”

Kate is a right-arm medium-fast bowler and a right-handed batsman with a strong collection of previous successes under her belt, including joining the 2011 England Women tour of Australia and the Women’s Ashes Tour of Australia and being one of fewer than twenty women who have received professional contracts from the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Kate stated that she was extremely proud of her inclusion in the league, and hoped it would pave the way for more opportunities for women in the sport.

Zhang Juanjuan

Archer Zhang Juanjuan was born in 1981 in China. She was accepted into the Chinese national team in 2001 and resulting competitions led to her position as eighth in the World Championships. She won silver in the 2004 Olympics and took the gold in the 2008 event. Additionally, she took the 2006 World Cup final title. She is considered to be one of the seven best archers in the world, and is industry-renowned for her incredible precision, power and speed.

Desire Oparanozie

We are not afraid to face anyone. We are ready.

21 year old Desire Oparanozie is a Nigerian footballer who plays for the Nigerian national team. She cut her teeth playing for Bayelsa Queens, then Delta Queens and spending two months on loan in the Turkish Women’s First Football League in 2011. She’s also played in principal events in Russia and France. Her major tournaments include the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2011 and 2014, the African Women’s Championships in 2010 and 2014 and the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2013-2014. She has scored 22 international goals.

References include The Huffington Post, WTA, CNN, Wikipedia, The Guardian, BBC, ESPN, Empowering Women, Sports Reference and FIFA.

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Kate Kerrow

Written by Kate Kerrow

Kate is a freelance writer and researcher, working predominantly in theatre. She has a strong interest in gender, race and cultural diversity, with a particular focus on culturally suppressed narratives.
Pierre-Yves Beaudouin 

Image by Pierre-Yves Beaudouin 

Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons