Wanted: Portraits of top female athletes

Women make up about half the population, and U.S. women excel at major sporting events. Their portraits tell a story of America.

But such images have not always been easy to find. That’s why the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is working to build up its collection of depictions of female athletes.

The challenge for the gallery is partly because, historically, men have been depicted in paintings more than women. Photos of female athletes became more common after 1972, when Congress passed a law known as Title IX, which helped give girls and women equal opportunities to participate in sports.

Here are some of the images the gallery now possesses:

Dorothy Hamill

Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill leaping through air (© John Zimmerman Archive)
Dorothy Hamill, 1976 (© John Zimmerman Archive)

After she won gold in the 1976 Winter Olympics for figure skating, Dorothy Hamill quickly became a U.S. fan favorite, known in the media as “America’s sweetheart.” She created signature moves on the ice rink and made a bobbed hairstyle famous.

Wilma Rudolph

Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph at finish line (© Time Inc./George Silk)
Wilma Rudolph, 1960 (© Time Inc./George Silk)

Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three track-and-field gold medals in a single Olympics, in 1960. After she refused to attend segregated events in her Tennessee hometown to celebrate her victories, the town acquiesced and held its first integrated functions in her honor.

Serena Williams

Close-up portrait of tennis star Serena Williams (© Rick Chapman)
Serena Williams, 2007 (© Rick Chapman)


Serena Williams, who has dominated tennis for the past 15 years, is one of the best-known American athletes. She recently rose to become the world’s highest-paid female athlete and is a vocal advocate of equal pay for women athletes.




Vintage photo of sharpshooter Annie Oakley holding rifle (© John Wood)
Annie Oakley, c. 1885 (© John Wood)

Annie Oakley


This image of sharpshooter Annie Oakley is one of the earliest portraits of a female athlete in the National Portrait Gallery. Oakley was widely admired for her marksmanship in the late 19th century, even when it was considered uncouth for proper women to use firearms.


Billie Jean King

Tennis star Billie Jean King seated in locker room, holding tennis racket (© Lynn Gilbert)
Billie Jean King (© Lynn Gilbert)

She is more than a tennis sensation from the 1960s and 1970s. Billie Jean King is also a champion for social change and gender equality. The first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, King empowered women when she defeated Bobby Riggs in what was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Photo portrait of Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee preparing to throw a javelin (© Gregory Heisler)
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 1988 (© Gregory Heisler)

Jackie Joyner-Kersee is the most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic track-and-field history, competing in the heptathlon and long jump at four consecutive Olympics. Joyner-Kersee set multiple world and Olympic records and was named by Sports Illustrated as the “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century.”

What’s next?

The National Portrait Gallery is committed to adding more female athletes to the gallery’s collection.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said the gallery’s director, Kim Sajet. “In some cases there may not have been a great work of art of that female athlete. We also prefer it to be a portrait depicting someone in the height of their career.”

The Portrait Gallery has a running list of female athletes it wants in its collection: golfer Margaret Abbot, the first woman to medal in the Olympics, in 1900;  Matilda Scott Howell, the first woman to win Olympic gold, in 1904, and Elizabeth Robinson, the first woman to win gold in track and field, in 1928. Newer entries on the wish list include 2016 Olympic gymnastic sensation Simone Biles and Michelle Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history.