In Search of the First Female Sports Superstar

The remarkable career of the Victorian athletic phenom Charlotte Dod—and the legacy that wasn’t

Illustration by Paul Spella; image from PA Images / Alamy

Charlotte Dod was only 16 when she challenged a man to single combat—three men, in fact. It was the summer of 1888, and the British prodigy had already won two Wimbledon titles, earning her the nickname “Little Wonder.” But Dod was always eager for another victory, and three singles matches, each against a top-ranked male tennis player, would attract plenty of publicity. Two of the men knew her already, having partnered with her in mixed doubles. One of them, Ernest Renshaw, even had prior experience in taking on a woman—Dod’s great rival, Blanche Bingley. (On a dare, he had worn cumbersome women’s clothing to do so; he won the match.)

The men allowed Dod to start at 30–0, and she could request replays of up to three points in each set. But the advantages did not all run one way: Dod wore a long, high-necked dress; a corset; thick stockings; and heavy leather shoes. And, like most women at the time, she habitually served underhand. Renshaw lost the first set, and upped his game. One commentator remarked that once he realized “he had no ordinary lady opponent … every stroke was keenly contested.” He recovered to win the match narrowly (2–6, 7–5, 7–5), but the other two men were beaten by a girl. Eighty-five years before Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs fought the “battle of the sexes,” a Victorian teenager showed what women could do.

Dod’s story is all the more extraordinary because, after winning three more Wimbledon victories, she abandoned tennis in the mid-1890s, feeling that she had nothing left to prove. She went on to represent England in field hockey, win an Olympic silver medal in archery, and become an accomplished mountaineer, expert horseback rider, skilled ice-skater, champion golfer, and daredevil tobogganist.

A sensation in England at the end of the 19th century, a time of feminist ferment, Dod was all but forgotten when she died in 1960—“a Victorian relic in a nuclear age,” as the journalist Sasha Abramsky wistfully puts it. In Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar, he sets out to write her back into the historical record. In doing so, he joins a well-established feminist project—the rediscovery of lost pioneers of all kinds. Researchers have not yet settled on the athletic equivalent of the playwright Aphra Behn or the mathematician Ada Lovelace. Could Lottie Dod be that figure?

Working out where Dod fits in the pantheon of sporting, and female, greatness is its own sort of feat. After all, she played against a limited pool of amateur opponents, drawn from the upper and middle classes, while wearing clothes chosen for modesty rather than performance. Taking stock of her remarkable versatility is tricky, too. Her omnicompetence now seems like dilettantism, but it might also reflect changing models of success. The current formula for athletic stardom is the “Tiger path,” mimicking Tiger Woods’s early and unwavering hyper-focus, but in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein instead endorses the more eclectic “Roger path”—following Roger Federer, who loved skateboarding, skiing, and wrestling as a child, and settled on tennis only as a teenager.

The “Lottie path” is an extreme variation of that approach, and it has now fallen firmly out of fashion. Still, Dod’s story does shed light on women’s quest to claim their place in sports, a realm that has always been dominated by men—as players, officials, coaches, and viewers. Women were banned from competing in the ancient Olympics; in Dod’s time, the president of the International Olympic Committee pronounced women’s sports “against the laws of nature.” Sports were not, however, against Dod’s nature. Born in 1871 in the village of Lower Bebington, she had the advantage not just of upper-middle-class comforts (among them a tennis court at home) but of a physically gifted family, with three siblings who also excelled athletically. Early on, her elder sister, Ann, was her doubles partner and chaperone; later, her brothers accompanied her on outdoor adventures.

To the Victorians, the highest aspiration for women’s sports was respectability. Was it “unfeminine” to exert oneself in public? To aspire to beat the competition and seize glory for yourself? To train hard to excel, instead of resigning yourself to life as a supporting actor in someone else’s story? The answer was obvious, which didn’t stop Dod from hitting the ball with “sheer ferocity,” according to Abramsky, or from crushing more ladylike opponents, or from disdaining women who “merely frivol at garden parties” with a racket in their hands. Feminine modesty didn’t deter her from keeping a fat scrapbook of press clippings, either, though she was well aware of the patronizing spirit of plenty of the coverage—praising her for being “healthy, ruddy, and as strong as a man,” for example, while noting that she “has not lost a particle of her womanliness.”

We get a rare glimpse into the inner fire that made Dod such a fierce competitor in a seven-page magazine essay on tennis that she wrote when she was just 18. Abramsky cites passages in which the teenager described a world of commentators who presumed that “no lady could understand tennis scoring.” She attacked the editor of a popular journal, depicting him as being “invested with the prerogative of an irresponsible despot” and arguing that the quality of female competitors had “conclusively disproved” his prejudices against them.

She was also outspoken on the subject of one particular disadvantage faced by female athletes of the time. “How can they ever hope to play a sound game when their dresses impede the free movement of every limb?” she remarked to a journalist. “A suitable dress is sorely needed, and hearty indeed would be the thanks of puzzled lady-players to the individual who invented an easy and pretty costume.” Entering competitions as a young teenager, Dod benefited from being able to at least wear skirts above the ankle, but soon enough she was trussed up and weighed down by more restrictive garments. (For an insight into the daily life of Victorian women, remember that the rational-dress movement, which emerged in the mid-19th century, called for reducing the weight of undergarments from as much as 14 pounds to a still-hefty seven.)

As I read Little Wonder, I kept thinking of Serena Williams, whose career has unfolded in the shadow of the same issues more than a century later. Ideas about femininity conferring respectability still persist in women’s sports. In 2018, the French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, said that the sleek black catsuit worn by Williams at the French Open went “too far,” adding: “You have to respect the game and the place.” A gentle reminder: The French Open is played on courts plastered with the names of airlines and investment banks, not in the state rooms of the Élysée Palace. Why impose a formal dress code on athletes sharing space with a 50-foot banner reading fly emirates? Like Dod before her, Williams was being urged to play in an outfit that did not cost her “a particle of her womanliness.”

Williams’s huge fan base is the exception: Women’s sports are often still treated as inferior by both male players and viewers, a second-class status commonly justified by market appeal. Novak Djokovic once declared that prize money should be determined by “who attracts more attention, spectators, and who sells more tickets.” But the greater popularity of men’s sports right now is not the result of some natural law, like gravity or the diminishing quality of Radiohead albums. Around the world, women’s sports are underfunded and underpromoted. That is why Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in American education programs, has been such an important and contentious piece of legislation. Since its enactment in 1972, women’s participation in college sports has increased by 545 percent; the number of girls playing high-school sports has surged by 990 percent. Fairness in competitive opportunities or financial prospects has yet to follow, however. (For example, the U.S. women’s basketball team, which has won six Olympic gold medals in a row, had to fight publicly to secure paid training sessions for its stars to prepare for the now-postponed Tokyo Games.)

It would be wrong, though, to see Dod as a passive victim of condescending attitudes. She was lucky to have supportive siblings and other companions in her youth. In Abramsky’s telling, the men she challenged did not see their matches as a way to put women in their place, as Bobby Riggs did. And in her post-tennis life, her holidays in the ski-resort town of St. Moritz granted her a social circle where her athleticism was admired and encouraged. She encountered men who took her seriously, and were ready to devote time to coaching an obviously exceptional athlete. After passing a stringent ladies’ test in ice-skating, she trained for the much more rigorous men’s exam, spurred on by the example of her friend Elizabeth Main, the first woman to pass it.

This relationship sustained Dod. In the Irish-born Main—rich, twice-widowed, and charismatic—Dod had finally met a woman who could rival her for athleticism and daring. The two women took to climbing mountains together, accompanied by a Bernese mountain dog named Pluto, tackling difficult peaks in Switzerland and Norway. Main showed Dod how to use an ax to carve ridges in the rock; they slept in mountain huts and raced at dawn for the summits. And then, after five years of adventuring together, for reasons Abramsky says are “lost to time,” they fell out.

Wondering whether they had a romantic quarrel—whether Main may have been more than a friend to Dod, who never married—is not mere prurience. Many Victorian social reformers, such as Sophia Jex-Blake and Octavia Hill, were lesbians. They had no husbands or children to tie them to the domestic sphere, and perhaps their sexuality made them aware early in life that they would never fit into conventional society. In Dod—as in other tennis trailblazers such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova—were gender, social, and sexual nonconformity somehow linked?

Abramsky cannot be blamed for failing to settle questions like these, given that one of the problems of writing women’s history is a lack of primary sources. Dod’s letters are few, and she left no revealing personal diary to plunder for insights. That said, I wish the book included more of that essay Dod wrote at 18—and less irrelevant historical context (the evocation of Queen Victoria’s golden-jubilee parade, in 1887, drags on like the procession itself). Here and there, Little Wonder is padded like an American football player.

Wisely, however, Abramsky’s contribution to the feminist genre of “lost lives” wears its politics lightly. Dod was a pioneer, eager to achieve one female “first” after another. But she wasn’t a natural activist, even if she did persuade the Royal North Devon Golf Club “to allow ladies to use their facilities from October through May of each year.” Nor was she a suffragette, bombing and burning, although the daredevil mountaineer and tobogganer never lacked courage: She volunteered as a nurse during World War I, despite her painful sciatica. If Abramsky’s biography feels rather slight, it is because he refuses to co-opt her into an uplifting parable of women’s liberation. Instead, he celebrates her as a brave and talented and determined original. In sports, the battle of the sexes is far from over, but Dod won more than a few break points simply by living her own life to the fullest.

This article appears in the October 2020 print edition with the headline “Was Charlotte Dod the Greatest Athlete Ever?”