I’ll take a wild guess that most of the young women athletes playing collegiate-level basketball or lacrosse or soccer or softball are unaware of the reasons why many older advocates for women’s sports are mourning Ted Stevens today. Outside of the Alaskans who are remembering this towering figure of Alaskan politics, killed in a plane crash earlier this week, I suspect that few Americans beyond the Beltway know anything about his legacy in amateur sports generally and women’s sports in particular.
In fact, Senator Ted Stevens was the principal sponsor and lifelong advocate of Title IX, the 1972 law that mandated equality of opportunity for girls and women in education. While Title IX’s mandate goes well beyond the locker room and playing field, in fact, the most dramatic impact of the law occured in collegiate women’s sports. Title IX made it possible for succeeding generations of women athletes to excel and dominate sports in ways previously deemed impossible. From the championship women’s basketball program at Maryland to the Washington Mystics to Mia Hamm and the professional women’s soccer league, to Danica Patrick driving at Indy to the women’s Olympic ice hockey champs, the success of women’s sports during the last three decades is a direct result of Title IX.
I first met Senator Stevens at a gathering sponsored by the Women’s Sports Foundation on Capitol Hill. I had not realized his large role in protecting equal rights for women in sports, but as I listened to his talk that afternoon, I realized his impact. In an extended way, without Stevens’ advocacy for Title IX, we would not have the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports! We created the Trinity Center with the help and inspiration of the Women’s Sports Foundation, an education and advocacy organization founded by the great Billie Jean King in 1974, shortly after the passage of Title IX.
When we were developing the case statement for the Trinity Center, I often recalled my own pre-Title IX basketball playing days. When I was a Trinity student, our “gym” was the basement of Notre Dame Chapel with its low ceiling and pillars marking the sidelines; we had to put our foot against the wall to be out of bounds. We played some weird-looking ball down there, but our style was not so different from the other women’s teams with whom we competed. I remember going out to the University of Maryland where the Lady Terps played in similarly awful conditions — they also knew how to put their foot against the wall to be out-of-bounds.
But after 1972, the Lady Terps went to the bright lights and dazzling playing floor of the men’s arena; Trinity’s teams, however, kept playing under the Chapel. Title IX created remarkable differences in opportunities for women at coeducational universities; women’s colleges, however, were exempt from the legislation and we made a serious mistake for many years in thinking that was a good idea. Failing to compete with the changes required by law in coeducational settings was a blow for many women’s colleges, Trinity included.
Creating the Trinity Center was one of many steps that Trinity started taking early in the 21st Century to get our facilities and programs onto a more level playing field with coeducational institutions. A competitive women’s college cannot use mission as an excuse — we must be competitive with contemporary standards in higher education, and those standards are established by large coeducational universities, often public institutions.
Of course, our funding is very different, so Trinity still faces huge challenges in making our campus equal in every way to any other modern university campus. We are now planning an exciting new Academic Center that will provide state-of-the-art facilities for our academic programs in the same way that the Trinity Center has propelled our sports and fitness programs. Unlike the public universities that can build such facilities with appropriations, however, Trinity will have to raise a great deal of private money to make the vision a reality. We can do it, and we will do it, because we have proven Trinity’s worth and value repeatedly.
In an ironic way, Trinity’s booming enrollment and ambitious plans for the future today have roots in Title IX, and while it took us a little longer than other institutions to begin our building boom, we are on the way. We can offer a small note of thanks in memory of Senator Stevens for being part of the movement that has propelled the revitalization of Trinity’s campus.