Serena Williams won two tennis Grand Slam singles titles in 2009, but she did not appear among the 50 top-earning American athletes ranked last summer by SI.com, whose formula included 2009 salaries or winnings and endorsements. The only woman on the earning lists was another tennis player, Maria Sharapova, who came in 20th among international athletes.
Sharapova might attribute her good fortune to the track and golf standout Babe Didrikson Zaharias, perhaps the first female athlete to endorse a national consumer product when she appeared in local ads for Chrysler’s Dodge automobiles in 1933. Whether she was truly the first is difficult to determine, in part because historians tend to disagree on what activity constitutes sport and whether endorsement of sports equipment or promotion of a sports event warrants consideration.
A recent study dedicated to finding proof of the first female athlete’s endorsement of a mainstream commercial product has led researchers on a journey spanning an era that includes the sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the professional walker Ada Anderson, the mountain climber Annie Smith Peck, the aviation pioneers Harriet Quimby and Elinor Smith, the distance swimmer Gertrude Ederle and the tennis star Suzanne Lenglen.
Oakley is generally viewed more as an entertainer than a sportswoman. She rose to fame initially by beating her future husband, Francis Butler, in an 1881 shooting competition in Greenville, Ohio. Her emergence as a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show made Oakley one of the first female advertising icons in promotional posters of the day.
However, apart from Oakley, women were not allowed to compete in organized sports and were excluded from the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens. The first female Olympians competed in the 1900 Paris Games.
Limited access served as one barrier for sportswomen, as did the often degrading jump to professional status from the amateur ranks. In the early 20th century, events like Wimbledon and other tennis, golf and basketball championships were restricted to amateurs. The appearance of any professionalism could generate the wrath of organizations like the Amateur Athletic Union.
As early as 1876, distance walkers like Bertha Von Hillern and Mary Marshall drew large crowds in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Two years later, an Englishwoman using the name Madame Anderson walked an estimated 1,207km miles in 750 hours over 28 days in Brooklyn. At the time, professional walking was popular and Anderson made about US$10,000 in gate receipts from the heavily promoted event.
On the peaks, Peck, at 45, climbed the Matterhorn in 1895. Two years later, with financing from the Sunday World in Dublin, she attempted the active Mexican volcano Popocatepetl, where she set an altitude record for women. Peck’s job was to provide the paper with an exclusive retelling of her relatively easy summiting, which the World rewrote to heighten the drama of her achievement. When she was featured on Hassan cork tip cigarette trading cards in 1911, Peck, then 61, placed a flag on the 6,401m-foot summit of Coropuna in Peru.
The same year, Quimby emerged as the US’ most prominent aviatrix by appearing in air shows across the country and in Mexico. She became the first female pilot to fly across the English Channel on April 16, 1912. Later that year, Quimby fell out of her aircraft in Boston and tumbled to her death.