Not an untold history, but a valuable introduction to women and sports

Katie Taylor
Nottingham Trent University

Alexandra Allred
When Women Stood: The Untold History of Females Who Changed Sports and the World
364 pages, hardcover, ill
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2023
ISBN 978-1-5381-7134-9

Women’s sport is on the rise. Record crowds watched women’s soccer at the UEFA Women’s European Championships in 2022, and 92,000 fans watched the Nebraska women’s volleyball team beat Omaha. Additionally, equal pay agreements for the US Women’s National soccer team and projections that women’s sport might generate £1bn in revenue by 2023 in the UK offer further evidence of significant progress. However, the fight for anything close to parity with male sport has been long. When Women Stood provides some historical context to women’s participation and shines a light on the women who have paved the way for today’s sportswomen.

Alexandra Allred is well-placed to write such a book since she is a former Olympian who fought for women’s rights to compete in bobsled and instigated change in protocols for how pregnant athletes should train. She continues researching and working with those with special needs and is an adjunct professor at Tarleton State University.

The book’s first half primarily covers the historical elements roughly chronologically. Beginning with women in ancient Greece and Sparta, the history of women’s participation moves through the Enlightenment into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chapters focus on the women’s suffrage movement, women and war, Title IX, and second and third-wave feminism. The second half concentrates predominantly on contemporary issues facing women today. Chapters include topics about medicine and women’s sports, abuse in sports, transgender female athletes, and media coverage. These chapters are interwoven with stories of pioneering women. Some information about women in coaching and other roles is occasionally included in these sections.

The book’s readable nature also makes it ideal for the general public.

Allred tackles a lot in this book, with chapters often covering several different stories and topics. Consequently, some sections feel short and underdeveloped, making some chapters slightly jump around. However, she is clear about her approach when she titles her introductory chapter “Merely an Introduction.” In doing so, she is clear that this book is not meant to cover everything, nor will it have all the detail.

Some sections seem to drift away to less relevant topics, for example, a discussion about comic books and another about breast implants. These do, at times, feel a little disjointed from the rest of the core argument. In addition, some sections are less about women who were groundbreaking and more about women who were high profile. These detours mean there is less space to consider women in sports, other than athletes, who have changed the sporting landscape for other women, including coaches, administrators, and others. While there is an attempt to cover these other roles where women have challenged gender and sporting norms, it could be amplified.

Women on tennis court, May 31, 1922. (Library of Congress)

The chapter on transgender athletes in sports attempts to tackle a controversial topic. Allred’s call that female athletes ‘must retain their own space within the world of sports’ (p.224) lacks the nuance such a topic demands. I am reminded of McDonagh and Pappano’s Playing with the Boys, which seeks to address the issue of segregated sports and suggests how desegregation could work. These discussions would also feed into the transgender participation in sports debate. We also need to be mindful of those sports that have historically already had ways of dealing with different body sizes/types, e.g., in age-grade rugby. Not to mention those sports where the advantages of muscle mass are less critical, e.g., archery and shooting (see Hamilton et al.’s 2019 study). The edited text Transgender Athletes in Competitive Sport (2017) offers more critical discussion on this sensitive topic.

Allred is open about the fact that this is an introduction. The book reminded me of other texts that cover topics in more detail. For example, the references to Amazonian and ancient Greek women brought to mind Allen Guttman’s seminal work Women’s Sports, in which he starts with women in ancient civilizations. Similarly, topics about women taking a knee in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protest are covered excellently in Dave Zirin’s The Kaepernick Effect. Women playing football (including in the National Women’s Football League) can be found in Hail Mary by Frankie de La Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and We are the Troopers by Stephen Guinan. Susan Cahn’s influential 1994 book Coming on Strong also covers many of the same themes and athletes as Allred’s book. These comments are not aimed at denigrating Allred’s work but merely to point out that more detail can be found in other texts.

The title’s claim that this is the ‘untold history’ does not hold for those who research and work in this area: there was little that was new to me. However, it is a valuable text for undergraduate students of women’s history, sports history, and sports sociology. The book’s readable nature also makes it ideal for the general public. For them, this is likely the first time they have come across many of these stories of pioneering women in sports, and Allred’s engaging writing style will draw them into the incredible achievements of women in sports.

Copyright © Katie Taylor 2024


Anderson, A. & Travers, A. (2017) Transgender Athletes in Competitive Sports. Routledge.
Cahn, S. (1994). Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport. Harvard University Press.
De la Cretaz, F. & D’Arcangelo, L. (2021) Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Bold Type Books.
Guinan, S. (2022) We Are the Troopers: The Women of the Winningest Team in Pro Football History. Hachette Books.
Guttmann, A. (1991). Women’s Sports: A History. Columbia University Press.
Hamilton, B., Guppy, F., Barrett, J., Seal, L. & Pitsiladis, Y. (2021). Integrating transwomen athletes into elite competition: The case of archery and shooting. European Journal of Sport Science, 21(11), 1500-1509.
Zirin, D. (2021). The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. The New Press.

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