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See 18 Athletes Who Changed the Game for Women

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When Title IX was enacted on June 23, 1972, the federal law changed athletic life for American women, as TIME explained in a 1978 cover story about women and sports:

Only a tiny minority of girls appear to want to play contact sports against boys. But there is no doubt that the girls want and indeed are insisting upon a fair chance to develop their athletic abilities. Their cause is being substantially helped, albeit unevenly so far, by a section of the Education Amendments Act passed by Congress in 1972: the passage known as Title IX. In essence, Title IX forbids sex discrimination in any educational institution receiving federal funds. The prohibition applies on the athletic fields as well as in classrooms.

Of course, there were plenty of great female athletes before Title IX—and its passage didn’t mean that women stopped breaking new ground. Those who wanted to play found a way, despite limited options and sometimes-violent opposition. Here are just a few of those pioneering women.

Read the full 1978 story here, in the TIME Vault: Comes the Revolution

Lili De Alvarez 1926
Spanish tennis player Lili de Alvarez after she had beaten Molla Mallory in the lawn tennis ladies singles championships at Beckenham, England, on June 12, 1926. Alvarez made headlines in 1931 for wearing what TIME described that year as "a split skirt which resembled a pair of abbreviated pajamas" (in other words, shorts) at Wimbledon.G. Adams—Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Conchita Cintron the Matadora 1941
A portrait of the 18-year-old Mexican matadora Conchita Cintron taking a bow after dispatching her first 52-stone bull, May 6, 1941. In 1947, TIME called her "the world's greatest female torero."Hulton-Deutsch Collection—Corbis
Toni Stone 1950
Toni Stone, shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns of the National Negro Leagues, works out in a photograph around 1950 in Indianapolis. She was the first woman to play in the otherwise-male Negro Leagues.Transcendental Graphics—Getty Images
Babe Didrikson Zaharias 1951
Babe Didrikson Zaharias sinks a putt at the All-American tournament at Chicago's Tam-O'Shanter Country Club in Chicago in 1951. She set a course record of 70 for women, and also won the World Championship, never going over par for her eight rounds. And golf wasn't her only sport: when she died in 1956, TIME noted that she set hurdles and javelin records in the 1932 Olympics, played baseball and "barnstormed nationally in basketball."Underwood Archives—Getty Images
Patty Berg 1951
One of America's top ranking professional golfers Patty Berg practicing at Sunningdale, 1951. She was one of the founders of the LPGA (along with Zaharias) and TIME once noted that her father encouraged her to start golfing so she would stop playing football on a neighborhood boys team.Central Press—Getty Images
Althea Gibson, 1956
Althea Gibson kisses the cup she was rewarded with after having won the French International Tennis Championships in Paris, May 26, 1956. Gibson broke the U.S. national championships color barrier and was on the cover of TIME in 1957.Bettmann/Corbis
Nancy Greene 1968
Olympic Giant Slalom skier Nancy Greene of Canada in Chamrousse, France, on Feb. 15, 1968, after she won the gold medal in the event at the Winter Olympics. The year before, she had become the first woman to win the World Cup of Alpine Skiing. TIME noted that year that she "uses her muscles on skis, and she does it better than any other woman in the world."AP Photo
Kathy Switzer roughed up by Jock Semple during Boston Mararthon, April 19, 1967.
Kathrine Switzer roughed up by Jock Semple during the Boston Mararthon, April 19, 1967, the year she broke the gender barrier for the race. "I was so embarrassed and upset, but if I dropped out, everyone would have said that a woman couldn't do it," she later told TIME.Paul J. Connell—The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Barbara Jo Rubin 1969
Barbara Jo Rubin, 19-year-old veterinary student from Miami, holds the reins of her horse Cohesion, shortly after she rode him to victory at the racetrack of Charles Town, W.V., thus becoming the first female jockey to win a major pari-mutuel flat race in the United States, on Feb. 23, 1969. Later that year she became the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. It wasn't an easy ride: TIME noted that she had had her dressing-room window smashed by a rock during a jockey boycott.AP Photo
Billie Jean King 1973
Pro tennis player Billie Jean King holds her newly won trophy high after beating Bobby Riggs in their $100,000 winner-take-all "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match on September 20, 1973. "[The] conventional wisdom [was] that an adequate male player should be able to beat a first-class woman," TIME commented. "Almost everyone was wrong."Bettmann/Corbis
Chris Evert 1974
American tennis player Chris Evert (Chris Lloyd) with the Wimbledon Ladies Singles trophy after her victory over Russian competitor Olga Morozova, July 5, 1974. Evert was the first woman to earn $1 million playing tennis.Leonard Burt—Central Press/Getty Images
Mary Decker 1978
Mary Decker of Colorado University crosses the finish line of the National AAU 10,000-meter road racing championship in Purchase, N.Y., Sept. 23, 1978. Decker, would become the first woman to record a time under 4:20 for the mile, was the top woman finisher and 47th overall. Richard Drew—AP Photo
Ann Myers 1979
Former UCLA women's All-American Ann Meyers drives in during practice at the NBA rookie camp for the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Sept. 10, 1979, the year she became the first woman to get a contract in men's pro sports. Though the signing was called a stunt by many, Meyers told TIME that she could "dribble and make plays as well as anybody in the league."AP Photo
Marianne Martin 1984
Laurent F. Fignon, left, of France, and Marianne Martin of Boulder, Colorado, hold up their trophies in Paris Sunday, July 23, 1984 after winning the men’s and women’s Tour de France cycling races. This was the first year for the women’s event.AP Photo
Libby Riddles 1985
Musher Libby Riddles stands in front of the City Hall at Nome, Alaska, March 20, 1985, shortly after crossing the finish line, thus becoming the first female champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. "Two weeks into the 18-day trek, while her competition opted to sit out a fierce snowstorm," TIME reported, "the musher from Teller, Alaska, pressed on with her team of 13 dogs."AP Photo
Michelle Akers 1991
Michelle Akers of the United States, right, prepares to shoot against Brazil next to Marcia Silva of Brazil during their Group B match of the First FIFA Womens World Cup in Guangzhou China, on Nov. 19, 1991. That year, TIME called her "the Michael Jordan of soccer" and noted that she had almost earned a tryout for the Dallas Cowboys kicking coach. In 1999, she became the first soccer player on a Wheaties box. Chen Gou—Imaginechina/AP Photo
Manon Rheaume 1992
Goalie Manon Rheaume of the Tampa Bay Lightning sits on the bench during an NHL preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 23, 1992, at the Expo Hall in Tampa, Fla. Rheaume was the first woman to play in the NHL, though she didn't appear in the regular season. After a 1992 game, TIME noted that a sportswriter had just one question for her: "'Did you break a nail?''B Bennett—Getty Images
Jackie Joyner-Kersee 1992
The USA's Jackie Joyner-Kersee walks the track at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona on Aug. 2, 1992, after winning the gold medal in the Heptathlon competition during the Summer Olympic Games. She was the first woman ever to pass 7,000 points in the event.Rusty Kennedy—AP Photo

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com