Buoyed by Title IX, Women’s College Sports Have Come a Long Way

Buoyed by Title IX, Women’s College Sports Have Come a Long Way

By Glen Farley, The Enterprise (Brockton)

(First in a three-part series) 

BROCKTON, Mass. -- It conjures memories of the sales slogan employed by Virginia Slims during that era.

“You’ve come a long way, baby.”

With a stroke of President Richard Nixon’s pen, women’s college athletics forever changed on June 23, 1972.

“I have two sons,” Bridgewater State University athletic director John Harper said, “and one of them (Jonathan, commissioner of the Little East Conference) has a daughter (10-year-old Skyler, twins with brother, Clayton) who’s playing in an instructional baseball league in Swansea. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a girl and not have the opportunities that are out there now. But 30, 40 years ago, you didn’t know what you didn’t know.”

Signed into law 40 years ago on Saturday, Title IX of the Education Amendment Act states that, “No person in the United State shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.’’

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported earlier this year that nearly 200,000 female athletes will compete on 9,274 NCAA teams in 2012. Compare that to the 31,852 female athletes who participated in 1972.

“It really is amazing,” Stonehill College vice president for intercollegiate athletics Paula Sullivan said, “and I think without Title IX that would not have happened.

“It certainly was the impetus behind promoting athletics for girls and women and it did a lot more, too, in all of education for women. It’s just not an athletic piece, but it’s true to form that these high school girls who participate in athletics usually are better students. It keeps them away from drugs and alcohol. It keeps them fit. There are less teenage pregnancies.

“There are a lot of studies that show what sports do, never mind give (women) a skill set where they have a little more self-confidence. They’re able to work in a team environment that will benefit them later in life and (it helps with) time management and all of those good things.”

With a Hall of Fame playing career at Bridgewater State ending in 1971 and a women’s basketball coaching career at Stonehill that led to her induction into that college’s Hall of Fame beginning later that same year, Sullivan has lived athletic lives before and after Title IX.

A Bridgewater State (Class of ’76) Hall of Famer herself, Bentley University Hall of Famer Barbara Stevens recalls the era when Title IX was implemented.

“During that time, we understood what was happening,” said Stevens, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer and the winningest coach ever in Div. 2. “We understood that there was a fight, if you will, occurring, and that change did not come easily in a lot of situations. It's still, at times, a battle, but the change fortunately has occurred.

“I think back to when I was in high school (at Marianhill in Southbridge and Marian High in Worcester), it was almost embarrassing sometimes to be known as a female athlete. Now, these kids thankfully embrace it. They’re confident. They’re proud to be known as good athletes.’’

“I think back then it was just a different era. Yeah, if you loved to play that was great, but once you got off the court or the field or whatever it was, you had to face nicknames of ‘Tomboy’ or whatever that weren’t so flattering.”

A member of Bridgewater State’s Class of 1955, South Weymouth resident Mary Lydon was pushing for a level playing field for males and females a generation before Title IX’s birth.

Lydon, the former director of physical education for the Quincy School Department who injured her knee (“they didn’t give us safety equipment”) while playing field hockey at Bridgewater State back in her day, calls the impact Title IX has had “mind boggling.

“I never thought it would come this far. I really didn’t,” said Lydon, whose devotion to gender equity led to her presentation with The Heights Award at Boston College in 2006. “Now, schools are doing all they can for women. It’s a big difference.”

It’s certainly a big difference from the college life 93-year-old Quincy resident Mary Pratt knew when she was paying $432 a year to attend Boston University.

A true pioneer in women’s sports, Pratt pitched in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1943-1947. She also spent more than half her life teaching (most of it in Quincy) and coaching at the high school and collegiate levels (Salem State).

“Once Title IX came along, there was a far different approach,” said Pratt, a lifelong advocate for the advancement of girls and women in sports whose efforts also resulted in her presentation with The Heights Award in 2006. “There are so many opportunities. Girls are getting a chance. Seeing them get scholarships and exposure on TV is wonderful. What more could I ask for?”

Next: Title IX Has Taken Women’s College Athletics a Long Ways in 40 Years