AN INTENSE frisson of excitement gripped the village of Haworth 100 years ago this week. The highlight of the Yorkshire village's gala day would be a parachute descent by Lily Cove, who would jump from a gas-filled balloon.

Sensation-seekers got considerably more than they bargained for. Lily plunged to her death. The incident triggered national publicity and The Glasgow Herald of the day reported Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone being asked to take action. Lily had been the fourth British female aeronaut to die.

Viscount Gladstone, son of the former Prime Minister, said his attention had been drawn to the case, and responded to a Commons question. "I have prepared, and hope to introduce shortly, a bill extending the Dangerous Performances Act to all women, whatever their age may be."

Ms Cove travelled the country with Captain Frederick Bidmead, who ran a balloon-manufacturing business. The pair often jumped in tandem, but Lily had made 20 solo descents. The 21-year-old was buried in Haworth cemetery on June 13, 1906, with her gravestone shrouded in a parachute paid for by public subscription.

There is no shrouding how much the perception of what is appropriate sport for women has changed since Lily's day. The Dangerous Performances Act in 1906, dictated by an all-male parliament, covered only females up to the age of 18. The notion of women being banned from what might be termed extreme sport is preposterous today.

Despite enduring risks, women remain undeterred. By a chilling coincidence, the funeral will take place today of 32-year-old Tamsin Causer, a British extreme sports enthusiast and would-be stunt actor, killed as a consequence of a freak parachuting accident. Causer, who had made more than 500 jumps and was the first person to hold four world records, was knocked unconscious when she struck a fellow jumper. She drowned near Barcelona. Her other interests were base jumping, kick-boxing, horse-riding, skiing, fencing, motorbiking, diving and trampolining. What a difference 100 years have made.

The British Parachuting Association has some 5000 experienced members, of whom some 15per cent are women, and, of 35,000 first-time jumpers last year, 42per cent were women. Tanya Streeter and Ellen MacArthur have surpassed men in their sports, and when Paula Radcliffe set a women's world marathon record, she was faster than any UK male runner all year. Streeter holds the world record for free diving, having descended further into the depths without oxygen than any man. MacArthur beat Frenchman Francis Joyon's world record for a singlehanded circumnavigation of the globe under sail.

Then there are ladies who punch. Jane Couch, aka the Fleetwood Assassin, has taken five world titles but only after winning a restraint of trade battle with the British Boxing Board of Control.

Jockey Muriel Naughton also had to fight the establishment, using the Equal Opportunities Act, before becoming the first woman to ride over National Hunt fences. "You'd have thought I'd won the Grand National, rather than just finished fifth in a hunter chase at Ayr, " she says.

Storming all-male bastions is never easy. The world champion bull-rider and bareback horsewoman, Dee Dee Crawford, can make only a fraction of what her male counterparts earn, while Cristina Sanchez, Spain's first fully-fledged female matador, blamed the "machismo" of colleagues when she quit in 1999.

No frontier seems beyond women. Six years ago Polly Murray became the first Scots woman to climb Everest. Now, a 51-year-old compatriot, Vicky Jack, has climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents.

Women's limit? Perhaps one day they'll find it.

Jane Couch, boxer She had to take the British Boxing Board of Control to court to become the first licensed female UKfighter. Now 37, she has won five world titles, and also promotes. She will box for the world light-welterweight crown in the US next month. "I'll go on as long as I'm one of the best in the world, " she said this week. "Kids? If I don't have one soon, I will wake up one day and regret it."

Couch was expelled from school, and appeared in court aged 17. She admits in her autobiography: "My life was one long round of drunkenness and punch-ups . . . girls, fellas - it didn't matter to me."

In her first official fight she knocked out a female police officer. "It was brilliant to flatten one and get paid for it." She told The Herald: "I used to smoke 40 fags every day, and drink a bottle of whisky, more, at weekends, but my life was changed by watching a boxing documentary. I suppose women boxing is extreme, but I'd never been out of Fleetwood until I started boxing. I'd never had a holiday. Never been on a plane. Now I've been all over the world, met a lot of nice people. I've been really lucky. Sport can teach you anything. I was brought up on the street. Sport took me out of that."

Barrister Dinah Rose took Couch's case on a no-win, no-fee basis. "She made a complete fool of their medical witness, " says Couch. "He said that if I was a woman pilot, and I was on my period, he wouldn't even get on my plane. 'God forbid that women should ever be trusted with children, ' my barrister said. The doctor didn't seem to have a clue that when a female athlete's body fat goes below 8per cent she doesn't usually have periods. Some men seem to think our whole world stops.

"We won, and now there's a professional boxing career in Britain for girls. I am really proud of that. Not just for myself, but for Dinah."

Cristina Sanchez, bullfighter Cristina Sanchez swapped scissors for a sword when she quit hairdressing at 16, and cut a niche in an exclusively male preserve. She became Spain's first fully-qualified female bullfighter, ranking third of 100 matadors (all men) at Madrid's bullfight school. She did it against the wishes of her father, a former banderillero.

During her career she cut 316 ears, viewed as a proficiency award, but critics said the 5ft 2ins Sanchez was too small to kill well. She was gored several times and routinely tossed, but they still said she was not injured often enough.

Not only did Sanchez defy tradition, she had to overcome machismo in the country that invented the word. Junior matadors were insulted to be on the same bill; Jesulin de Ubrique, leading matador and selfstyled senoritas' favourite, says: "Women should be in the kitchen . . . It is unnatural for them to fight.'' And the leading traditionalist, Enrique Ponce, threatened to boycott any feria at which Sanchez appeared.

"Bulls are associated with courage and virility, and some men cannot forgive a woman for being able to hold her own in that environment, '' said Sanchez on her retirement. "I realised prejudice had won when I wasn't accepted in any of the top festivals . . . I refuse to accept a life trailing around second-rate rings fighting dud bulls."

She hung up her suit of lights, blaming her colleagues' machismo, and traded it for a wedding dress. She married a Portuguese banderillero. Male rivals said she had failed to make the grade and said it was a publicity stunt to boost her career, and that she would make a comeback. She has never done so.

Dee Dee Crawford, rodeo rider Dee Dee Crawford has thrice been World Professional Rodeo Association bull-riding champion. She's also won the bareback horse-riding world title twice. "Men's champions can make dollars500,000 to dollars1m a year. I probably made about dollars15,000, " she says. "I won a saddle and a belt buckle for the world title when I won both titles last year. I do it for love of the sport, not the money. There aren't many women's rodeos, though I compete coast-to-coast. I wish that the money could be as good as the men's, and just hope it grows. Often we are just an intermission in men's events, though we get a great reception."

Crawford, 25, was raised on a farm in eastern Texas. "I break and train horses, but prefer bulls to bareback in rodeo. I started riding goats and sheep as a kid, and moved on to calves and steers, then bulls. Yes, you get hurt, but you can twist your ankle checking the mail box. Stick at this long enough and you're bound to get hurt. In 2002 I broke a leg, and the next year I dislocated my shoulder. There have been a few other broken bones, an arm, an ankle, draggings and smashings. I've been stood on.

"Some bulls just want to get you off. Others will eat you alive, come around and step on you - real mean critters. It's just the luck of the bull you draw."

Tanya Streeter, diver Tanya Streeter took one breath, held it for three minutes, 38 seconds, and plunged 400ft down into the ocean. Her lungs were crushed to the size of oranges, and her heart slowed to 15 beats per minute as she went deeper than any human had ever gone in what is known as free diving. It's one of several world diving records she has set, but probably not what her parents had in mind when they sent Tanya to Roedean, England's most exclusive girls' school.

Streeter has been voted the world's perfect athlete. "It's not about depth for me, " she says. "It's about redefining my limits."

Vicky Jack, mountaineer "I'm not a climber, and I don't count myself an extreme sportswoman at all, " says Vicky Jack, who lives at Balquhidder in the Trossachs. Yet she was the first Scottish woman to climb the highest peak on all seven continents, doing Mount Everest at the second attempt, aged 51.

"I wanted to get to know my own country better, so I started climbing Munros. It took 10 years to do them all, and it grew from there. I'm still climbing, but feeling a wee bit empty now, with no big challenge. Life's about travelling, not arriving."

She trained by bagging Munros with 12 telephone directories strapped to her backpack. The first Scots woman up Everest was Polly Murray, in 2000. She got her chance because two men in the summit party were unable to carry on. The first woman on the summit was only 4ft 9ins tall. Junko Tabei, of Japan, made the ascent in 1975, and was the first female to scale the seven summits.

Shona Crombie-Hicks, endurance runner She ran for Scotland in this year's Commonwealth Games marathon, but it was more like a sprint for her.

The Aberdeen-born woman won a unique 1000-mile challenge (one mile every hour, for 1000 hours) in 2003. It commemorated the greatest betting coup in British sports history (worth GBP40m in today's money) by Scotsman Captain Robert Barclay in 1809. Shona completed the 1000 miles, wearing out three pairs of shoes, and then beat three men in the decider: the Flora London Marathon which started just an hour later.

"I wanted to prove women can beat men at something like this, " she says. Crombie-Hicks is a former professional jockey whose 12 wins included one over champion jockey Frankie Dettori.