In October 2017, the University of Virginia announced the hiring of the first African-American woman ever brought in as an Athletic Director at one of the 64 power five conference schools. As the hiring of Carla Williams indicates, women are involved in sports as athletes as well as in other positions. In this month’s column, we feature women who have contributed to sports as officials, as administrators, and in other non-performing positions, although many of them were athletes or had athletic careers as well.
Known as the Fulton Flash, Helen Stephens (from Fulton, Missouri) won two gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in the 100-meter dash and as a member of the U.S. relay team. Stephens excelled at track and field and held world and American indoor records in a variety of events. From 1938 to 1952, Stephens owned and managed her own semiprofessional basketball team; she was the first woman to do so. Later she was a coach, mentor, and senior competitor. By her death, she had set the record for the longest athletic career in the world. Stephens has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
A baseball player in the Bloomer Girls league in the 1920s and 1930s, Edith Houghton became the first female professional baseball scout who worked on her own when she was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1946. (Her only known predecessor Bessie Largent scouted with her husband for the Chicago White Sox.) Houghton looked for talent – big size and an ability to hit. Sixteen of the players she scouted signed with professional baseball, although none made it to the majors. She was also the last female scout hired by professional baseball. Houghton’s father played semiprofessional baseball and taught her to play at a young age. By age 10, she was the starting shortstop for the Philadelphia Bobbies. She later signed with the New York Bloomer Girls and also played for the Boston team. During World War II, she joined the Navy’s WAVES as supply manager and played on Navy-sponsored women’s baseball teams. She was called up by the Navy and served during the Korean War, leaving the Phillies organization in 1951.
The first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (2006), Effa Manley forged her way in an unwelcoming world. The co-owner of the Newark Eagles (the Negro Leagues), Manley was elected to the Hall to reflect her “commitment to baseball and civil rights, serving as a tribute to her leadership, vision and her dedication to creating respect for Negro leagues baseball.” A fan of the New York Yankees during the Babe Ruth era, Manley met her future husband at the stadium in 1932. They bought the Eagles in 1935 and maintained ownership until she sold the team in 1948. The team won the Negro League World Series in 1946. Manley handled contracts and travel schedules. She had strong personal relationships with the players even serving as a godparent to some of their children. She searched for the best accommodations for hotels during road games (in a time of segregation) and helped players find jobs. Once the league’s players were admitted to Major League Baseball, she fought for just payment, paving the way for today’s method of compensation. Also known as a civil rights activist, the Baseball Hall of Fame says of Manley, “When she found a closed door, Manley kicked it open to improve her league and her team’s playing conditions.”
The first Latino owner, male or female, in Major League Baseball, Linda Alvarado is co-owner of the Colorado Rockies. The second female owner in the League, Alvarado owns a construction business. Growing up with five brothers and no indoor plumbing in New Mexico, Alvarado discovered during college that she really liked working outside. This led to her role as owner of a construction company in Denver, Colorado that has worked on the Colorado Convention Center as well as the Denver International Airport. Alvarado began serving on corporate boards when she was 27. A recipient of many awards including the Sara Lee Frontrunner Award, Alvarado has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The first female official to reach the competitive level in a major league sport, Violet Palmer was a referee in the WBNA and the NBA. She was also the first woman to officiate an NBA playoff game. A basketball player, Palmer was a member of the NCAA Division II Women Championship Teams at Cal Poly Pomona. She officiated her first NBA game in 1997. In 2014, she became the first woman to officiate at an All-Star Game.
The first female commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Carolyn Vesper Bivens served in that role from 2005-2009. An avid golfer, Bivens spent her earlier career in marketing and was part of the founding team for USA Today. In 2002, she was named one of the most powerful women in television.
Named an official of the National Football League in 2015, Sarah Thomas has a series of firsts: the first woman to official a major college football game, the first woman to officiate a college bowl game, the first woman to officiate in a Big Ten Stadium, and the first woman hired as a full-time official for the NFL. Thomas lettered in softball in high school and attended college on a softball scholarship. She began her officiating career in 1996 and refereed her first high school varsity game in 1999. As of 2017, she is serving as a down judge in the NFL.
Women contribute to our lives in so many ways – athletics is no exception! The women profiled above and many other women, almost all of them women we have not heard about and not learned about in school across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories and write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.