How Title IX opened new frontiers to women, on and off the court
My mom dug out her high school yearbook recently so that she could be fully prepared for my questions.
I had wanted to ask her about her experiences with sports when she was growing up, and she set out to confirm what she remembered to be true.
"There is pretty much nothing but boys sports in the yearbook," said my mom, Linda, a 1967 graduate of a large public high school in a suburb west of Chicago.
In celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX this year, I thought it would be interesting to chronicle the difference that Title IX has made in just one generation of women by interviewing mothers and daughters, starting with my mom and me.
I also talked with three other mother-daughter pairs: Sky center Sylvia Fowles, 26, and her 49-year-old mother Arrittio; Chicago Sky Chairman Margaret Stender, 55, and her 13-year-old daughter Kathryn; and Indiana Fever forward and former Stevenson star Tamika Catchings, 33, and her 59-year-old mother Wanda.
I am a Title IX baby. Literally. I was born in 1972, the year he iconic law was passed, and am among the first generation of women who hit high school just as Title IX was gaining significant steam. Title IX is the law that requires equal opportunities for men and women at institutions that receive public funding.
I had all kinds of athletic opportunities available to me as a teenager and I wound up getting a full college scholarship to play basketball at Northwestern.
My mom, a 63-year-old pre-Title IX baby who graduated from high school five years before the law was even passed, has a very different story.
"The only sports for girls in the yearbook were synchronized swimming, dance and cheerleading," my mom said. "That was it. I remember playing a little bit of volleyball, but only in P.E. class.
"Competitive sports for girls at the high school level were not stressed at all back then."
Not surprisingly, my mom grew up believing that she wasn't a very good athlete. I don't know if I buy that. My mom is 5-foot-11 and has produced three college athletes. I think she's probably got some athleticism in there somewhere. She just never got a chance to show it.
Who knows what else she never discovered about herself?
Studies have shown that women who play competitive sports are much more likely to be career-driven as well as confident in their ability to match up favorably with male counterparts in the workplace. My mom went to college and was a talented mathematician. But she had me when she was 22 and stayed at home raising children until my youngest brother was in high school. Only then did she begin working, as a substitute teacher.
Her path was not unlike many of the other women in her circle back then. It's just the way things were.
"I think (playing sports) would have definitely helped me in terms of a career, and probably in being more driven in that way," my mom told me. "I know that it helped you build your self-esteem and confidence. I saw that."
I am 6-foot-2 and have always been tall. By the end of elementary school, I was probably about 6-feet, taller than all of my classmates, all of my teachers and even the principal. Back then, I didn't like being tall. In fact, there are old pictures of me standing next to friends and I am slouching. Subconsciously, I'm sure I was just trying to look more like everyone else. I wanted to fit in.
But then I started playing competitive sports. And being tall became quite an advantage, particularly in basketball and volleyball. I started to be proud of who I was. I started being comfortable in my own skin. My entire outlook changed and so did the way I carried myself. I started to dream big.
I am convinced that part of the reason I have been able to hang in there for 15 years in a profession that is completely dominated by men is that I gained a tremendous amount of confidence and self-assurance by playing sports.
There are daughters like me everywhere who feel the same way about their involvement in sports. And while there are plenty of mothers just like my mom, there are others a bit younger who were luckier because of better timing.
Here are the Title IX stories of three other mother-daughter pairs: Sky center Sylvia Fowles, 26, and her 49-year-old mother Arrittio; former Chicago Sky President Margaret Stender, 55, and her 13-year-old daughter Kathryn; and Indiana Fever forward and former Stevenson star Tamika Catchings, 33, and her 59-year-old mother Wanda.
Dressed for success
It's not uncommon for a college coach who is wooing an elite high school athlete to pull out the old jersey trick.
When the athlete comes to campus for an official visit, he or she is given an official team jersey to try on for size. It also happens to have his or her name on the back.
"They did that for me when I visited LSU, just so I could see how my jersey would look," said Sylvia Fowles, who went on to sign with LSU and lead the team to four straight Final Fours. "It was pretty cool."
Fowles' mother Arrittio concurred. In fact, Arrittio was so enamored with the jersey that she had to see it up close for herself.
"I think I went to the bathroom or something and when I came back, my mom had the jersey on, and the matching shorts on, too," Fowles said with a laugh. "She said, 'I look nice.'"
Arrittio also looked like a basketball player, something she never got a chance to be.
"When I had that uniform on, I thought, 'I could have been a good basketball player,'" Arrittio said. "Really good."
Arrittio graduated from high school in Miami in 1983. She ran track for a couple of years and had good speed. But besides very casual track and volleyball programs, there were no other sports offered for girls at her school.
"The girls always had it hard with sports," Arrittio said. "There weren't many options."
Arrittio believes that a more serious focus on sports would have given her options that could have changed her life. Sylvia is Arrittio's youngest of four children, and Arrittio was only 23 when she had her.
Studies have shown that women who play sports are less likely to get pregnant at an early age.
"If I had played sports, I probably would have waited a little longer to have my kids," Arrittio said. "I would have held off longer because I would have been more career-driven.
"But then again, I'm happy about the way things turned out. Because if I had waited, Sylvia might not be the same Sylvia, and I love the way she is."
Thanks to sports, Sylvia is strong and confident, and happy in her own skin. She wasn't always that way.
"In elementary school, I was taller than everyone, and they used to call me names. I didn't want to be tall," said Sylvia, who is 6-foot-6. "But once I started playing sports, it made me proud of who I am. Playing sports let me be comfortable with who I am. It definitely gave me a lot of confidence. It made me feel that anything was possible and it made me the person I am today."
Sylvia is now widely recognized as the best center in the world.
"It brings tears to my eyes when I see Sylvia on the court," said Arrittio, who accompanied Sylvia to the Olympics in London. "Something just overcomes me. It brings tears of joy.
"It's hard to believe how far women have come. It's such a blessing."
Passing the torch
Many young kids aren't sure what their parents do for a living, let alone what their parents' lives were like before they arrived in this world.
Kathryn Stender is just the opposite. She's been to work with her mother Margaret (going to Sky games is a pretty fun day at the office) and is well-versed on her mother's background. It's a source not only of pride but of motivation.
Kathryn wants to be just like her mom.
"I think it's pretty cool about my mom. I want to be as successful as she is, I want to be as involved in sports as she was. She was the first woman at the University of Richmond to get an athletic scholarship," said Kathryn, an aspiring basketball player. "She played on three teams and is in the Hall of Fame there."
Margaret Stender graduated from her Virginia all-girls high school in 1974. It took some time for Title IX to stimulate major changes in athletic departments across the country, but by the time Stender got halfway through her career at Richmond, where she played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse, she could see the shift beginning.
"By 1975-76, (schools) had to start showing some progress in terms of Title IX," Margaret said. "That was the end of my sophomore year and they awarded me a small amount of scholarship money. Tuition was $4,000 and I got $500.
"I was excited and grateful, but all of us (women) were incredibly aware that the men were getting much, much more and that drove even more change. We started getting better training facilities and the travel improved. They also gave us better uniforms and they bought us shoes for the first time."
Margaret and her teammates had to buy their own shoes before that, and they had been issued nothing but homely tunics for uniforms. She has pictures of her pre-Title IX look that she's shown to Kathryn. They always get a good laugh.
"I like hearing my mom's old stories," Kathryn said. "It was such a different time. The goals for girls are much more reachable now and I can have high aspirations. It's hard to think that it was so different just a couple of years ago."
"Thanks for saying 'a couple,' " she said to Kathryn, who also plays softball and runs cross country.
Staying busy with sports has kept Kathryn focused in school, and has given her a healthy perspective on life.
"I always feel that even if other things aren't going so well, sports is something you can always fall back on to make you feel good about yourself," Kathryn said. "It's nice to know that if you work really hard, you can be good at something."
Margaret learned that lesson, too.
Being a hardworking, successful athlete gave her the ambition and confidence to be a hardworking, successful businesswoman. She was an executive at Quaker Oats before becoming president of the Sky.
"Women just ahead of me didn't have the opportunities I had and for that I'm so grateful because sports did everything for me," Margaret said. "I was so shy in high school and as I got confident on the field and on the court, it shaped my whole leadership style. I became much more interested in leadership positions and I became much more outspoken. It gave me a lot of confidence.
"Playing sports changed me from wanting to be just a participant to an active leader, and that meshed over into other areas of my life."
Before there was basketball for Tamika Catchings and her older sister Tauja, there was volleyball.
The Catchings sisters got lessons from two other sisters, their aunts Paula and Tracy.
Paula and Tracy both played volleyball in college. They are the younger sisters of Tamika and Tauja's mother, Wanda.
"It was always neat to hear about my aunts' involvement in sports," Tamika Catchings said.
Wanda could never share those kinds of stories with her daughters.
She graduated from her Texas high school in 1971, a year before Title IX was passed. The most competitive girls got while playing sports during her time there was in gym class.
"All my sisters got to get involved in sports at a competitive level," Wanda said. "But I just missed out on that. I remember being kind of bitter, kind of envious because I really feel like I could have done that, too. I would say, 'If only I were younger.'
"I used to compete against the boys, just running around in the streets and things like that. These were boys who were on the track team and I was beating them. I used to be like. 'Gosh, I really could have been something, maybe like Jackie Joyner-Kersee.' But there were no opportunities."
No wonder Wanda encouraged her daughters to try anything and everything. After having no opportunities, she wanted to give them every opportunity, and there were plenty by the time they were old enough to play.
"Tauja and I did soccer and dance and gymnastics and softball," Tamika said. "Then volleyball and basketball. I'm thankful for all the opportunities I've had to play sports, and I do feel like it's because of what my mom went through. That's why she had us involved in so many different sports."
Wanda was also hoping to help Tamika's self-esteem by immersing her in sports. Tamika was born with a hearing impairment and is forced to wear hearing aids. She spent many years when she was younger being embarrassed about them.
"Being able to compete in sports and show how good she was really helped Tamika and her confidence because people didn't really pay attention to her hearing anymore," Wanda said. "I mean, the boys would call her on Saturday mornings to tell her to come to the basketball court to play. They wanted her on their team. That gave her the confidence that, despite her hearing, she could fit in."
Tamika and Tauja didn't necessarily fit in for long. They were heads and shoulders above the rest before they left high school.
After being named Illinois Ms. Basketball as a sophomore and leading Stevenson to the Class AA state title that season, Tamika knew that a college scholarship was well within her grasp. She went on to greatness at Tennessee while Tauja played at Illinois. Tamika is now considered one of the all-time greatest players in WNBA history and has also won multiple Olympic gold medals.
"The women like my mom who went through the struggles they went through are why women like me are able to do what we do today in sports," Tamika said. "It's hard to imagine exactly what my mom went through, having no opportunities. I never knew about all of her struggles until now. That was hard.
"Sometimes, people ask me why we still have to celebrate Title IX 40 years after. It's for my mom and all the women like her who came before us. That's why we celebrate it."