Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2009 | Features

Fair Play

By Kathryn Howe
Once restricted to the sidelines, female athletes at the UI now benefit from the move toward gender equity that leveled the playing field.

They wear long, black dresses or pencil skirts and bobby socks. One woman gracefully points her toes as she bounces on a trampoline. Another exudes old Hollywood glamour, striking a pose on a diving board. In these photos, they appear so refined, so elegant, so ladylike—as if they could host a cocktail party or take afternoon tea. Certainly not play basketball or tennis or field hockey.

Certainly not break a sweat. Still, they grasp basketballs, rackets, bats, and golf clubs—these women who first dared to break social barriers and pursue their love for sport.

In celebration of Women's History Month this past spring, the University of Iowa Libraries released a digital archive of almost 1,000 historic photographs of UI women's physical education classes, including archery, synchronized swimming, and dance. Provided by the Iowa Women's Archives, the photographs span almost a century (1906 to 2004) and illustrate the evolution of women's sports from the one-faculty member Department of Physical Culture and Athletics to the breakthroughs of Title IX and women's intercollegiate play.

"What strikes me [about the photographs] is women proved over and over again that they wanted to participate in sports," says Christine Grant, 70BA, 74PhD, former UI field hockey coach and women's athletics director. "Unfortunately, society was not ready to accept that."

Until Title IX passed in 1972, opening intercollegiate athletics to both sexes, Grant says women who actively pursued sports often suffered rejection, persecution, and ridicule. Many people considered sports strictly male domain. "To think [how many] women were denied the joy of participation is heartbreaking," says Grant, who arrived at Iowa in 1969, shocked at disparities she never faced in her native Scotland. "All parents have ever talked about is being fair to their daughters."

Despite such difficulties, early female athletes persevered. At the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, they embraced UI club and intramural sports. By the late 1960s, intercollegiate opportunities began to bloom through the Department of Physical Education for Women (instrumental in the development of graduate studies, professional training, and athletic avenues for women) but were still very informal. The departmental philosophy—still at the heart of the current Department of Health and Sport Studies—maintained that sport and physical activity contributed greatly to a liberal arts education, as well as to individual well-being and the social good.

Following Title IX's passage, UI women's teams received varsity status in 1973 and Grant became UI Director of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, thanks to the support of then-UI President Sandy Boyd. That same year, tennis pro Billie Jean King accepted Bobby Riggs' "Battle of the Sexes" challenge. Former Wimbledon champion Riggs boldly declared that women could not compete on the same level as men—and promised to prove it by beating King, at the time the best female tennis player in the world. Instead, King defeated Riggs decisively in three straight sets. The timing of Title IX and King's victory proved explosive.

Women could go the distance. Women could achieve athletic excellence. Women could be jocks.

Now, women play with all the competitive spirit, skill, expectation, and athleticism of their male counterparts. They put in strenuous hours, face tremendous pressure to win, and enrich their lives with rewards of teamwork, commitment, and fitness.

Kristi Smith knows these rewards. She led the 2009 Hawkeye women's basketball team to an NCAA bid and also competed in the ESPN-televised shootout with other national standouts. As a little girl, she possessed a natural athletic ability, playing soccer with friends and shooting hoops with her dad in the driveway of their home in Thornton, Colorado. She excelled at basketball in high school and earned a full scholarship to attend the UI, where, during the basketball season, she committed six days each week to practices, training, and games.

Her teammates are like sisters. She's visited parts of the world, such as Greece and the Virgin Islands, she never would have seen otherwise. Smith says basketball taught her valuable life lessons, including the personal satisfaction that comes from doing your best—win or lose.

"I want to do well for Christine and all the other trailblazers who have worked so hard to give us a chance," says Smith, who graduated in May with a business degree and has signed with an agent to play professional basketball overseas. She feels grateful that she's encountered open doors rather than ones that slammed in her face.

As a budding athlete in the pre-Title IX days of the 1950s and '60s, Susan Harman remembers far different experiences. Baseball was her first love, but the Cedar Rapids leagues only enrolled boys. When Harman was about ten, her father introduced her to golf, which she played during the summertime. She became serious about the sport and registered for tournaments through the Iowa Women's Golf Association. Her high school, however, did not offer organized girl's athletics—until Harman's sophomore year, when two seniors marched into the principal's office and convinced him to establish a girls' golf team.

"We were thrilled to death," says Harman, 76JD, who became a state individual champion, yet never had the chance to earn an athletic letter from her school. Harman attended Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, continuing to play on her own during summers and through intramurals because the college did not offer women's sports. That was just the way it was.

"Overall, I love the experience I had at Lawrence, but Title IX probably would've changed where I went to school," says Harman, who eventually channeled her love for athletics into a career as a sportswriter. "I probably would've pursued a Division I program. It's a completely different world now."

While some blame Title IX for the demise of men's non-revenue sports, Harman and Grant quickly point out that the legislation is about more than women's access to athletics. It's also about equal access to a quality education.

Although women have come a long way with Title IX, Grant still sees plenty of room for improvement, particularly in Division I sports where she believes resources, equality, participation, and attention for women's programs still lag behind men's. But she hopes more progress is on the horizon. "I think sports give you the kind of qualities that make you a leader," she says. "When the Kristi Smiths of the world start contributing to society, I hope they aspire to lead our country on a more equal basis."

As she anticipates the promising future that lies ahead for today's female athletes, Grant recalls Billie Jean King's words after she defeated Bobby Riggs: "Don't forget that I stood on the shoulders of the many women who came before me."