Four generations of women reflect on Title IX

Sunday, August 12, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:29 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 13, 2012

Forty years have passed since Title IX was signed into law. In that time, the perception of female athletes has transformed from a cultural taboo to a societal norm.

Title IX is a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that mandates public schools offer each gender equal opportunities. Noel English, MU's Title IX coordinator, oversees the university's compliance with Title IX.

"The act was a part of a bigger movement for more opportunity and sex equity," English said.

The amendment applies to all facets of education but has been most visible in the world of athletics. English said Title IX prevents students from missing out on opportunities due to their genders. Although females cannot participate in specific sports, such as football, their interest levels must be met with a proportionate opportunity to compete in intercollegiate sports.

This legislation has resulted in dramatic changes throughout the past four decades. However, the challenges faced by females before Title IX have largely gone unnoticed by younger women. The contrasting experiences of women from different generations illustrates the evolving perception of female athletes.

‘Back in My Day’

Judy Knudson, 71, graduated from North Platte High School (Nebraska) in 1959. Growing up, Knudson never had the opportunity to experience organized sports. In the pre-Title IX era, females were expected to meet a certain standard of femininity.

“The girls were the cheerleaders. That’s just what you were supposed to do,” Knudson said. “Just like if girls went to college, they became teachers or nurses.”

Knudson said she felt confined to domestic duties by the strict gender roles of the 1950s.

“My parents were just wringing their hands and pulling out their hair over me because I was like, ‘How come the guys in my high school class can go out and work on road crews in the summer, and I can’t? I’m stuck babysitting,’” Knudson said.

Knudson never received the opportunity to participate in high school athletics. In the coming years, females began to assert their desires to compete in organized sports. 

Ten years after Knudson graduated, Linda LaFontaine, 61, created Festus High School's first girl's track team.

LaFontaine’s interest in athletics began in fifth grade. Her teacher, Charles Nickell, provided free time on the track as an incentive for good behavior.

Nickell introduced his students to track and field to prepare them for a government sanctioned physical fitness test. These tests were part of a government health initiative in the 1960s aimed to improve the fitness of young boys and girls in America.

From a young age, LaFontaine said she enjoyed running. However, when she was a freshman at Festus High School, the only sports available to women were volleyball and cheerleading.

Without the aid of any school faculty, LaFontaine started the first female track team of fewer than 10 girls. Their practices consisted of running 100-yard dashes until they couldn’t run any more.

The male track and field team provided a little guidance, teaching the girls proper stretching and warm-up exercises.

“The boys helped us, but I think they were kind of laughing behind their grins,” LaFontaine said.

Although the team successfully organized about three meets with local schools, the girls had to make their own ribbons.

“I think some people were pretty excited that something different from volleyball was happening,” LaFontaine said. “But there were some who were not.”

Her senior year, LaFontaine received the Girl’s Athletic Award, which was typically given to volleyball players.

“It was a total surprise to me, and it was a total surprise to the gals on the volleyball team,” LaFontaine said.

After she received that award, the volleyball girls were waiting for her in the hallway and told her she did not deserve it. LaFontaine said the volleyball player who was expecting to get the award was much larger than her.

She asked LaFontaine to meet her out in the parking lot in the back alley to see who the real athlete was.

“For the next month or so, I was looking behind my shoulder hoping that if she was coming up behind me I could outrun her,” LaFontaine said.

Jennifer Mast, Rock Bridge High School’s athletic director, graduated from the Columbia high school in 1994. 

Mast said she has had an interest in athletics since a young age. In addition to encouragement from her uncle, Mast had a natural propensity towards athletics.

“I remember the first time I tried to shoot a layup in P.E. class, and it just kind of clicked,” Mast said. “Then I was like, 'I want to play basketball.'”

She began playing organized basketball in fourth grade and continued until her senior year of high school. As a sophomore, she was a part of Rock Bridge’s first softball team. Softball was the tenth and last female sport Rock Bridge added.

“We had a very good opportunity compared to the women behind us,” Mast said.

Mast said female athletes were looked upon positively. For females, athletics was just another part of the high school experience.

Kate Gallagher, a junior on the MU women’s golf team, graduated from Savannah High School in 2010. She said she could not imagine her life without sports. Growing up in Savannah, she spent her summers on the golf course with her older brother.

Rather than pay for a babysitter, her parents would drop Gallagher and her brother off at the country club and pick them up whenever they called.

“Our rule was we could play until the lightning bugs come out, then it was too late,” Gallagher said.

She has also played basketball, baseball, softball, soccer and golf all of her life.

“I played anything I could get my hands on," Gallagher said. "Whatever was in front of me, I would try.”

Gallagher said her mother tells her that she takes the opportunities provided by Title IX for granted.

As a result of Title IX, Gallagher received an athletic scholarship.

Although Title IX does not require the same number of scholarships to be given to each gender, it mandates that the amount of scholarship spending on male and female athletes be proportionate to the participation rate of each gender. 

In other words, if 40 percent of an institution's population is female, approximately 40 percent of scholarship money should go to women.

She is one of five golfers on MU’s team that receives a partial scholarship. She said the scholarship is built around her academic scholarships.

After seeing the opportunities provided today, Knudson and LaFontaine said it is hard for younger females to realize the barriers older generations faced. Although they missed out on participating in organized athletics, they have seen great progress in a relatively short amount of time.

“It’s just the blink of an eye almost," Knudson said. “It’s amazing the amount of progress that has been made, and they aren’t done yet.”

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.

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