Mildred “Babe” Didrikson (1913-1956) was one of the most celebrated female athletes of the first half of the twentieth century. Competing in the 1930s and 1940s, when conventional attitudes regarding women’s participation in sport dominated North American culture, Babe Didrikson rose to fame by dominating not just one, but a number of sports.
Didrikson flouted conventional notions of femininity and “proper” female activity by excelling in field events such as javelin and shot-put, in addition to traditionally male-dominated sports such as baseball, swimming, and golf. Interestingly, Didrikson would always have to battle popular accounts that attacked or questioned her femininity and sexuality. As a woman with a large, muscular and athletic body, Didrikson was often accused of having an “unfair advantage” over other women, and often regarded as not being a “real woman.”
Born in the state of Texas, Didrikson rose to athletic fame quickly, representing the U.S.A. in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles where she won and set records in the javelin and 80 metre hurdles. Later in her career, Didrikson turned her athletic attention mainly to golf, a sport in which she was immensely successful. Interestingly, however, Didrikson tired of the popular innuendo regarding her “unfeminine” appearance and made a conscious effort to change her image in favour of a more traditionally feminine one: she donned dresses and make-up in place of her sweat pants and makeupless appearance.
Didrikson’s controversial career underwent a twist when she fought the American Athletic Union (AAU), which had stripped her of her amateur sports status after she allowed her image to be used in endorsements for cars. When offered amateur status reinstatement, Didrikson refused, challenging what she believed to be the AAU’s antiquated rules and regulations.
Aside from her incredible athletic accomplishments, Didrikson is an important historical figure because of the challenge she made to the male-dominated institution of sport. Didrikson challenged those within the institution of sport to question gender values at a time when the political environment made it difficult to do so. Didrikson prefigured by several decades the challenges to sport made by other female athletes such as Billie Jean King, Martine Navratilova, and Florence Griffith Joyner. Didrikson forced a re-examination of the meaning of sports, making many aware of the social and political importance of an institution typically not thought of as such.