Why women’s sport needs its own literary canon

Sports journalist Anna Kessel can see a significant upsurge in the number of books being published about women’s sports. And about time, too, she says. Now she hopes the trend will continue. In the meantime, she offers her own reading lists for adults and children alike

For most of my life I have been lead to believe that women’s sport is a niche area. That’s how it’s represented, right? That’s the story that the participation stats tell us, that the lack of media coverage and investment tells us. Only a minority of women play, watch, or even care. So when I was asked to write a book on the subject, I had to wonder: who is actually going to read this?

But the more I thought about the subject, the more it began to take on a life of its own. A life with urgency. Because sport, I realised, is so fundamentally connected to everything about being a woman. Regardless of whether you love or loathe sport, in our society being female means being defined by our bodies. And right now that’s something that women across the world are waking up to, and fighting against. No wonder the United Nations say that sport will play a leading role in the journey to equal rights for women and girls everywhere.

When women and girls play sport we see qualities that are not promoted elsewhere; instead of static, posed, body-perfect images, we see active, determined, powerful, strong, unselfconscious females – with grit. In an age where our bodies are not always our own, where pharmaceutical companies routinely test out drugs for women on men, where researchers still don’t really know about pregnancy or menopausal women, where elite female athletes don’t know how to train around their periods, where even high-powered businesswomen might not know what a uterus is, sport provides us with a life-affirming anchor. A place to be, just as we are.

eat sweat playWriting Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives opened my eyes to this bigger picture. Dredging up adolescent memories of humiliating PE lessons, I realised just how connected all women are to these global themes. And – from tackling the gender pay gap, to obliterating body-image woes – so many of the answers seem to be located in sport. Because sport is so potentially liberating. Sport is this most obvious of spaces to reclaim, to redefine; a space we have been collectively ignoring for far too long, a space to call our own.

I am thrilled, then, to see so many books on women’s sport being published this year. Because after decades of tumbleweed from major publishing houses, forcing many writers on women’s sport to publish in relative obscurity – and no doubt perpetuating 26 years of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award without a single women’s sport winner – the tide is finally turning.

With a rush of exciting books released this year we can only hope that the days of ‘The 50 Best Sports Books Ever Written’ that recently appeared in a national newspaper, but disappointingly turned out to be a list of the best sports books about men’s sport, chosen by an all-male panel, and almost exclusively authored by men – are numbered. Even if women’s sport has been neglected in the past, there have been dozens of wonderful books about men’s sport, written by women – from Amy Lawrence’s Invincible, to Lauren Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, and Anna Krien’s Night Games. Meanwhile, a quick glance at last year’s New York Times sports bestseller’s list shows that women’s sports books accounted for a third of the top 10 sales with a range of fascinating stories.

And as women’s sport becomes more mainstream we might not even need to wait for traditional sports media to jump onboard. Actress Emma Watson’s online feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, launched in January this year to immediate support from retired US striker Abby Wambach, a promising sign of what might be included in Watson’s future recommended reads. Meanwhile the world of fiction has been set alight by the story of Little Warrior (Faber & Faber), by Giuseppe Catozzella, an international bestseller – translated into 12 languages – based on the true story of Samia Omar, a girl growing up in war-torn Somalia who dreamed of becoming a sprinter, inspired by her hero Mo Farah.

This year a significant cluster of major publishing houses have invested in women’s sport, signaling a watershed moment for the industry. From Sport Magazine’s Sarah Shephard assessing the status quo in women’s sport Kicking Off: How Women in Sport are Changing the Game (Bloomsbury) to Emma John’s Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket (Bloomsbury), and the powerful autobiography of Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakai – A Different Kind Of Daughter: The Girl Who Hid From The Taliban in Plain Sight (Bluebird). Still to come are 10,000 metres gold medalist Jo Pavey’s story in This Mum Runs (Yellow Jersey, July), and a mouthwatering collection of stories and photographs from Molly Schiot’s Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History (Simon & Schuster, October). I am thrilled that my own book, Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives (Macmillan) will join the party on June 16.

As a mum I also couldn’t help but cast one eye over the children’s book market. If we think adult publishing is challenging, then the children’s book world is “hugely conservative” say Letterbox Library, the children’s bookseller with a 30-year campaign for gender equality and diversity. “Good stories featuring sports women and girls are few and far between. Books still all too readily default to female characters who are more likely to trip over their sparkly heels and manes of hair than kick a ball … the revolution is yet to come.”

Some of the best books on women and girls originate from the US – perhaps no surprise considering the history of investment in women’s sport through the Title XI act of 1972. A selection of recommendations for adults and children follow, we hope you will be inspired to add many more.



Personal BestPersonal Best – Beryl Burton (Springfield, 1986)
Arguably Britain’s greatest ever female cyclist, Burton raced in the 1960s when she dominated the women’s field, winning world titles and setting world records. Remarkably, she also made a habit of beating the men.

The Breakaway – Nicole Cooke (Simon & Schuster, 2014)The Breakaway Nicola Cooke Autobiography of one of Britain’s most decorated sportswomen and a vocal campaigner on gender equality in sport. Cooke’s widely praised book covers everything from race tactics and doping to sexism in cycling.

CathyCathy: My Autobiography – Cathy Freeman (Highdown, 2004)
Cathy Freeman’s 400 metres gold at the Sydney Olympics took the world by storm. Here, in unflinching honesty, the sportswoman who ‘united a nation’ shares her experiences of growing up as a black woman in a white world, and the pressures of being a national icon.

Tanni GTSeize The Day: My Autobiography – Tanni Grey-Thompson (Coronet Books, 2002)
The story of Britain’s most successful Paralympian: how an extraordinary sportswoman took her event into the mainstream consciousness through outstanding performances on the track, and vocal campaigning off it.

Kelly HolmesKelly Holmes: Black, White & Gold – Kelly Holmes (Virgin Books, 2006)
The autobiography of double Olympic gold medal winner Dame Kelly Holmes, detailing her life growing up as a mixed race child in a predominantly white community, the strict regime of the armed forces, injuries in her athletics career, and her battles with self-harm.

PLaying with the boysPlaying With the Boys: The Girl Footballer Who Took on the Boys at their Own Game – Niamh McKevitt (Vision Sports Publishing, 2015)
The unique story of a girl determined to play football with the boys. McKevitt’s experiences became the subject of FA research into mixed gender football and contributed to the raising of the age limit to 18 years. Part-autobiography, part-manifesto, McKevitt questions the current set-up for girls and women’s football and calls for change.

PaulaPaula: My Story So Far – Paula Radcliffe (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
Autobiography of Britain’s world record marathon holder, largely written by herself, tells the behind the scenes stories of some of her most famous moments – from her London Marathon triumphs, to the disappointments of the Athens and Beijing Olympic Games.

Ronda RouseyMy Fight Your Fight – Ronda Rousey (Century, 2015)
The UFC fighter who changed the game. Ronda Rousey became the biggest star of her sport – outselling the men – just five years after UFC President Dana White insisted women would never fight in his code. Ghostwritten by her sports journalist sister, Rousey’s is a compelling autobiography of one of the biggest female sports stars in the world right now.

Kelly SmithFootballer: My Story – Kelly Smith (Corgi, 2013)
England’s famously shy, supremely talented midfielder, shares her life story in a candid tome all about the struggles of growing up wanting to be a professional footballer. Along the way Smith experienced loneliness, injuries and a battle with alcoholism.

Chrissie WA Life Without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey – Chrissie Wellington (Constable, 2013)
A Sunday Times bestseller, the four-time Ironman world champion’s autobiography tackles eating disorders, bodily functions and the grueling obsession it takes to be as indomitable as Wellington.

Fast GirlFast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness – Suzy Favor Hamilton (Dey Street Books, 2015)
It’s about the US 1500 metres runner who had bi-polar – but didn’t realise it – suffered from panic attacks when she competed at Olympic Games and never won a medal there despite fronting a huge campaign for Nike and being US champion seven times. She ended up becoming a Las Vegas prostitute, and trying to commit suicide.


Don BellesI Lost My Heart To The Belles – Pete Davies (Mandarin, 1997)
Davies’s classic account of a season spent with the Doncaster Belles football team, covering the stories of players from the pit villages of South Yorkshire, and their struggles on and off the pitch just to play the game they love.

Game FaceGame Face: What Does A Female Athlete Look Like? – Jane Gottesman (Random House USA, 2004)
Gottesman searched through the work of some of America’s best photographers – from Annie Leibovitz to Ansel Adams – to pull together this extraordinary collection of images of women and girls doing sport across the ages.

women on the ballWomen On The Ball: A Guide To Women’s Football – Sue Lopez (Scarlet Press, 1988)
Essential reading from one of England women’s star strikers turned writer and historian. Lopez charts the history of her sport throughout the 20th century, including the often neglected ‘FA ban’ years of the 1960s, women’s football in Italy in the 1970s, and the founding of the Women’s FA.

in league of their ownIn A League of Their Own: The Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club – Gail Newsham (Scarlet Press, 1997)
Historian Gail Newsham’s authoritative book tells the story of the world’s first famous women’s football team – from its inception during World War One, to the crowds of 53,000 who watched them play at Goodison Park, before the FA banned women’s football, and their collapse in 1964.

nike is a goddessNike Is A Goddess: The History of Women in Sports – edited by Lissa Smith (Atlantic only Press, 1999)
A fascinating compilation of essays telling the stories of America’s greatest sportswomen – from Billie Jean King to Althea Gibson, Babe Didrikson Zaharias to Jackie Joyner-Kersee – written by a collection of America’s best female sportswriters.

game set matchGame, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports – Susan Ware (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
A biographical/historical account of how Billie Jean King’s seminal Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, combined with the 1972 Title XI legislation and the second wave of feminism launched a new era for women’s sport in the US.

running like a girlRunning Like A Girl – Alexandra Heminsley (Windmill Books, 2014)
The personal story of a non-runner’s journey into marathons, met with high praise from the likes of Caitlin Moran and Miranda Sawyer, and brought the experiences of women’s recreational running to the mass market – body image woes, blisters, chafing boobs and all.


Picture books

peppa pigPeppa Pig Sportsday – Ladybird (2+ years)
The ever-popular pig tackles school sports day with aplomb, ending with a boys versus girls tug of war.

maisyMaisy Plays Football – Lucy Cousins (3+ years)
Part of the Maisy series about a little girl mouse and all the activities she gets up to.

pollyPass it Polly – Sarah Garland (4-7 years)
A feel-good story from well-known English children’s author and illustrator Sarah Garland, in which Polly and Nisha – a rare portrayal of an Asian girl playing football – are desperate to join the school football team.

Football StarFootball Star – Mina Javaherbin (4-7 years)
Great story from Iranian author about growing up in football-mad Brazil; set against a backdrop of poverty, a little boy dreams of being a professional footballer – but in the end it is his little sister who triumphs.

My three best friendsMy Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay – Cari Best (4-8 years)
The brilliant multicultural story of a young girl who is blind, but wants to run at school sports day. Her school and friends support her to achieve her dream.

beautiful warriorThe Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu – Emily Arnold McCully (4-8 years)
Beautiful illustrations tell the story of how two women excelled in martial arts in Ancient China.

americas champ swimmerAmerica’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle – David A. Adler (5-8 years)
Evocative images tell the story of Olympic and world record holder, Gertrude Ederle, who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel – breaking the men’s record by two hours. A ticker-tape parade and two million people greeted her return to New York.

daisy sports dayDaisy and the Trouble with Sports Day – Kes Gray (5-8 years)
Part of the Daisy series, Gray explores the highs and lows of a school sports day, and what it’s like when you desperately want to win. With illustrations and short chapters.

jojos flying side kickJoJo’s Flying Sidekick – Brian Pinkney (5-8 years)
The story of an African American girl who loves taekwondo, but has to overcome her fears to win her yellow belt with a flying sidekick. Her mum, who plays tennis, gives her advice.

wilma unlimitedWilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman – Kathleen Krull (5-9 years)
Fascinating true story of the world’s fastest woman, Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio and paralysis as a child to become America’s first sportswoman to win three gold medals at an Olympic Games.

run becca runRun, Becca, Run – Elin Meek (7-10 years)
From Welsh author, Elin Meek, a girl joins the school’s rugby team despite never having played the game before. But her grandfather used to play and gives her lessons on the art of the game.

Girls FCGirls FC – Helena Pielichaty (7-10 years)
From an author passionate about women’s football, Pielichaty wrote a series of books about a girls’ football team – featuring diverse female characters – playing for Parr’s (homage to Lily Parr of Dick, Kerr Ladies).

Dream to WinDream to Win series – Roy Apps (7-12 years)
Featuring the inspirational life stories of a diverse range of sportswomen including Ellie Simmonds, Nicola Adams, Jessica Ennis-Hill and others.

Young Fiction

bend it like beckhamBend It Like Beckham – Narinder Dhami
Novel version of the international hit film about girls’ football, teenage angst and growing up in a Punjabi family.

trebizonTrebizon – Anne Digby
Series of 14 novels, set in a boarding school, the major character – Rebecca Mason – is a budding tennis star, and her friend Tish is also sporty. Often compared to Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, Digby’s famous series was written in the 1970s and 1980s.

camp goldCamp Gold – Christine Ohuruohu
Fiction series about a girl called Maxine and her friends at an international athletics camp, co-authored by multi-gold medal-winning 400 metres star Ohuruogu.



Anna Kessel is a sports journalist for the Guardian and Observer Anna’s latest articles.

3 thoughts on “Why women’s sport needs its own literary canon

  • 13th May 2016 at 7:19 pm

    Emma John may have written a great book but it is NOT about women’s sport – it is about men’s sport.

  • 31st May 2016 at 10:59 am

    Great article. I will certainly be buying the book(s). Sport absolutely has the ability to empower women to redefine how they live and how they’re perceived in society.

    Female athletes continue to be grossly underrepresented in the media (research estimates from various nations put this at around 5% of all sports coverage) despite the fact that females participate in and watch sport at much higher levels than this number. No wonder we experience female drop-out in lots of sports, when there are few heroines to look up to for role models. If sport is transformative it’s imperative we curb this trend and keep girls engaged.

    If the sports media won’t get on board perhaps other media can take up the slack – well done to all the authors listed for taking on a subject that unfortunately remains in the shadows.

  • 20th June 2016 at 7:09 pm

    This is a great idea, even though I don’t agree with all the selections. I think women’s sports suffers from a rash of books that are bad history and contain too much of the wrong kind of feminist ideology. “Game, Set, Match” was promising, but could have been so much better. I’ve covered women’s sports in the U.S. (as well as Olympics and Women’s World Cup) for 25 years, and to me the best book about all this is Allen Guttmann’s “Women’s Sports: A History” from 1991.

    Nothing stands up better after all that time, but new books are needed to track the evolution of women’s sports in the 21st century. So much has changed since most of these books were written.


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