Editor's note: While Arlene Mulder coached the first girls basketball team at Niles West High School after the signing of Title IX in 1972, two other coaches had led girls tennis and softball teams before the signing of the law. Tish Meyers established interscholastic girls tennis and Leeann Heeren established interscholastic girls softball at the school. This was brought to our attention, subsequent to publication of our Title IX series, by Diane Ross, a former athlete at Niles West High School from 1969 to 1973.
Coaching the first girls softball, basketball and tennis teams at Niles West High School after the 1972 signing of Title IX, Arlene Mulder's approach was to ask for help.
Mulder, now the Arlington Heights village president, was then in her 20s and a newly hired physical education teacher at the school. During her youth -- before the civil rights legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in publicly funded education programs and activities -- athletic opportunities for girls were scarce and noncompetitive, she said.
"When Title IX came in, another P.E. teacher went over and demanded equal time from the men's department. She crossed the gym floor and said, 'Now that we have this law, I expect to have the big gym 2½ days a week,'" Mulder recalled.
"My approach was very different. I went over and said, 'Because we play on a big court, could I at least get a couple hours a week before our games?' Otherwise, I was fine in our smaller gym."
Mulder said she wasn't discounting her female athletes by seeking equality one small step at a time. Instead, she was forming partnerships with male coaches she knew might not be thrilled to start sharing gym time or funding.
"You have to give them some time to change and come around," she said. "The guys would do anything for me, but for the other approach, they wouldn't lift a finger."
Mulder helped coach the school's first softball team in the spring of 1973, less than a year after Title IX was signed. She then began coaching the first girls basketball and tennis teams in 1974. Her gradual approach to equality was mirrored by the implementation of the law, which gave schools until July 1975 to adapt before it became effective. From male coaches who became her mentors, she learned plays, strategy and how to teach basic sporting skills. From her own experience as an educator, she adopted a focus on goal-setting and accountability, having her players submit a goal before each game and discuss afterward if they met the mark.
"I made them mentally engage, not just physically engage," Mulder said.
She left coaching and teaching in 1978 because she was pregnant with her third child. But in 1979, she watched as the girls basketball team she built won the state championship.
With a dress code forbidding her athletes from wearing jeans, T-shirts or gym shoes to school, and with hair dryers and "beautiful warm-ups" bought by the booster club, Mulder said she also taught her pioneering players, "You didn't have to give up that femininity to be an athlete."
She said some girls worried boys might no longer see them as attractive or ask them on dates if they joined teams. So when Title IX opened doors to the girls, they had to decide, "Should I go through or not?" she said. "They did, and they excelled, and it was tremendous."