Constable: As Empowering Girls show begins in Rosemont, recall women's struggle in the '70s
The Empowering Girls for Life show starting Friday in Rosemont features 37 speakers such as softball legend Jennie Finch, Olympic gold-medal gymnast Laurie Hernandez, and Jessica Mendoza, a softball star who broke barriers as the first female analyst on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts.
But to really appreciate the concept of "empowering girls," it helps to go back to the 1970s before Title IX.
Empowering Girls for LifeWhen: College recruiting session 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, at Rosemont Dome, 34 Jennie Finch Way, Rosemont; speakers and vendors 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12, at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, 5555 N. River Road, Rosemont
Who: 37 speakers including Olympic gold-medalists, softball legends and business leaders
Cost: $35 daily, $35 for VIP pass, $100 for three-day pass with VIP pass
"I didn't play varsity sports until I was a senior because we didn't have sports teams," begins Carol Hutchins, 61, the winningest coach in college softball history and one of the speakers at the Rosemont event. "I was a cheerleader because that was the closest I could get."
Title IX, the landmark civil rights law signed in 1972, banned gender discrimination in schools and opened the world of organized sports to females. Given the chance to be an athlete, Hutchins thrived at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, where a sophomore boy named Earvin Johnson was building the skills he'd use to become "Magic" some day.
"I used to shoot baskets with him in high school," says Hutchins, who went on to become a star softball player and captain of the women's basketball team at Michigan State University, where Johnson became a legend.
One day, during a scheduled practice for the women's team at the main gym on Michigan State's campus, Hutchins and her teammates were interrupted by a Hall-of-Fame basketball coach who wanted the gym for his visiting men's team.
"Girls," Hutchins remembers the coach saying. "You're going to have to leave because nobody gives a damn about women's basketball."
That lack of respect eventually led to a lawsuit, Hutchins v. Board of Trustees of Michigan State University, forcing schools to live up to the ideals of Title IX.
"We were clearly second-class citizens," remembers Hutchins, who also went on to become the head softball coach at the University of Michigan in 1985, a position she still holds. "We had to fight for everything we'd get."
That struggle still continues, says Bill Conroy, organizer of the Empowering Girls for Life event. Conroy, who lives in Orland Park, founded the Beverly Bandits traveling softball team in 1999 after the Little League program he was with required his organization to start a program for girls. He recruited girls from the suburbs and eventually across the nation, winning eight national championships in 20 years.
One of those young players on the 2013 championship team was Alexis Mack, who is now a speedy left-fielder starting her senior year at the University of Oregon. Mack, the master of ceremonies at the conference, used to ride with her parents from Ohio to play on Conroy's team. She also was part of Conroy's award-winning coaching staff for the 2017 championship team. She remembers meeting her role model.
"I heard Jessica Mendoza speak when I was young," Mack says, noting that she identified with the superstar. "There was someone else out there just like me."
Mendoza, generally acclaimed as the greatest female softball player, benefited from the battles fought by Hutchins and others to become her own trendsetter as the first female member of the ESPN baseball broadcast team.
"People broke barriers down for her to get there, and she broke down barriers to get there," Hutchins says.
Mendoza, a Stanford University graduate, will speak Saturday at the conference and work Sunday night's Aug. 12 Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Other speakers include Kendall Coyne, the homegrown hockey hero of the 2018 Olympic gold medal-winning USA women's hockey team; ESPN sportscaster Victoria Arlen, who won three silvers and a gold medal swimming at the 2012 Paralympic Games; MIT grad and entrepreneur Anna Mracek Dietrich; and Christine Christopoulos, corporate partnership coordinator for the Chicago Bears.
"I hope these young girls find someone at this convention to inspire them," Conroy says. He has witnessed the power of inspiration, as 432 of his players have gotten scholarships to NCAA Division 1 colleges, and another 436 have played at smaller schools. But challenges remain.
"We still have sexism. We still have racism," says Hutchins, who was there at the start. "I'm teaching them it's OK to be strong women."
Even with the most successful women, the focus can be on their appearance, instead of their accomplishments.
"It's not OK. But I think we can continue to grow," says Mack, who is studying journalism and marketing.
Things have improved from the era when women were told to be grateful for whatever scraps they got.
"They used to say, 'Be happy you get to coach a team and these girls get to play. What's the problem?'" Hutchins says. "They still say that. But they don't say that to me."