Some of the greatest women athletes in American history got their start in sports growing up in the Bay Area.
Peggy Fleming Jenkins, Ann Curtis Cuneo and Helen Wills Moody. Helen Hull Jacobs, Alice Marble and Donna de Varona.
But what we don’t know is how many Hall of Fame caliber Bay Area women athletes did not get the opportunity they deserved to hone their craft and display their skills at the highest levels before President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law 50 years ago on June 23, 1972.
The six female star athletes listed above were recognized as champions because they excelled in sports that did not necessarily depend on junior high and high school facilities, teams and coaches to further their careers.
Fleming Jenkins won her Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Curtis Cuneo and de Varona were Olympic gold medal swimmers. Wills Moody, Hull Jacobs and Marble all won multiple Grand Slam tennis tournaments.
What if San Francisco’s Galileo High School didn’t have a basketball team when Hank Luisetti was a student? Or if Bill Russell hadn’t had the chance to blossom as a star at Oakland’s McClymonds High School? This is the barrier that not only prevented women athletes from being appropriately recognized but also, in too many cases, kept them from playing sports altogether. In 1972, only 4% of girls played high school sports.
The legislation’s primary intent wasn’t aimed at requiring equal opportunities in athletics. The authors were dismayed that fewer than 60% of women in the United States graduated from high school, and only 8% had college degrees. Men were given priority in faculty hiring at many colleges and universities, and women weren’t allowed to take some of the classes offered to men.
The impetus for the law came about when Bernice Sandler was turned down for a job as a professor at the University of Maryland, despite having strong credentials. Sandler was told she didn’t get the job because “Let’s face it — you come on too strong for a woman.”
Sandler sent letters to members of Congress urging that federal protections granted in other areas under the Civil Rights Act be given to people in academia, as well.
Title IX’s 37 words changed all that. It read: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
The rest is history. Women coaches and athletes jumped at the opportunity to be given the opportunities they deserved. Tremendous progress has been made, but inequalities still exist in sports at public and private schools. An estimated 75% of boys participate in high school sports, compared to 60% of girls.
Ten years ago at an Aspen Institute symposium, Billie Jean King was asked how people could work to get more girls to participate in sports.
She talked about the importance of girls seeing other women and girls playing sports. “You have to see it to be it.”
Giving women the chance to compete equally in all walks of life, not just sports, should be everyone’s goal.