You go Girl!

July 9, 2012

I couldn’t have had a more idyllic childhood.  Living in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, I could safely ride my bike anywhere.  I was labeled a “tomboy” because I didn’t like to stay inside and play dolls with the girls.  Rather, I played football, baseball, and basketball with the boys.  An outstanding community summer recreation program gave me the opportunity to learn and play many different sports.  I’d leave home in the morning with my baseball glove on the handlebars of my bike and return only for lunch and supper.

There was just one problem.  As a girl I wasn’t allowed to be in the Little League or on any other official teams.  My games were restricted to playgrounds and vacant lots.  I never questioned why I was denied the same privileges that boys had.  That was just the way it was in the early 1960’s.  It was the same in the church.  Women were not allowed to be ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church, so it never seemed strange to have only male pastors. 

In junior high school I participated in organized sports, but they were quite limited.  I played field hockey, softball, and basketball, but it wasn’t until high school that we graduated to 5 person basketball.  For many years girls were thought to be too weak to withstand the rigors of full court basketball, so we played 6 on 6.  2 guards played defense, 2 forwards played offense, and 2 rovers were allowed to play full court.  Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Continuing with field hockey, basketball, and softball through high school, I added volleyball when it became a new sport during my senior year.  I never wondered why track, cross country, soccer, ice hockey, gymnastics, swimming, and golf were never offered to girls.  Until 1972.

On June 23, 1972, 2 weeks after I graduated from high school, President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX, whose 37 words forever changed women’s sports, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  Although the law was intended to increase educational opportunities for women, and athletics is not specifically mentioned, Title IX is most often associated with women’s sports.

My life might have been very different had I been born 10 years later.  Although my high school was in a league, there were no district, regional, or state championships in 1972.  There were no college athletic scholarships for women, nor was there Olympic women’s basketball until 1976.  If I’d had the opportunity, I would very likely have pursued a college scholarship and maybe ever considered sports as a profession. 

Immediately after Title IX was passed, I briefly played field hockey and basketball in college, but the coaches were poor, the players were not motivated, and I decided to devote my full energy to music.  Now I live out my passion for sports through long distance running, triathlons, and golf.  Guess when women were first allowed to participate in the Boston Marathon, which is one of my favorite races?  1972.  It’s only been in the last 40 years that women were deemed capable of running 26.2 miles.  Actually, many women have more endurance than men, and the longer the race, the more level the playing field. 

Why is Title IX one of the most significant laws ever passed in our country?  As a direct result of Title IX, participation of women in high school and college sports has increased dramatically in the last 40 years.  The Women’s Sport Foundation reports that 294,015 girls competed in high school sports in 1972.  In 2011 that number was 3,173,549 girls, a whopping 1,000% plus increase!  The benefits of Title IX reach far beyond simple gender equity, however. 

  • Research shows that participation in sports increases confidence and boosts the self-esteem of women 
  • Girls who play sports get better grades than those who do not participate
  • Teenage girls are more likely to finish college, not be obese, avoid drugs and alcohol, and not become pregnant
  • Sports emphasizes the value of teamwork, which is a critical skill in today’s world
  • Sports fosters personal discipline and provides a learning laboratory for coping with both victory and defeat
  • Sports teaches young women about diversity, inclusion, and conflict resolution

One of the most interesting results of Title IX is that it has contributed to more women in the work force and women moving in much greater numbers into traditionally male-dominated professions.  Female athletes, especially those who participate in what have traditionally been boys sports, are more likely to do well in science than non-athletes.  The result is that the number of women seeking law and medicine degrees jumped from 7% and 9% respectively in 1972 to 47% and 48% in 2010.  I imagine that the numbers for women attending seminary are similar.

Every few years since 1972 various groups would mount challenges to Title IX but without success.  The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare created regulations regarding enforcement of Title IX, and the Office for Civil Rights issued guidelines in response to concerns that schools were cutting men’s programs to reach proportionality.

When I see the myriad of athletic opportunities that girls have today I thank God for Title IX.  Many young women push their athletic limits and have been able to make a career of sports, including college scholarships, Olympic participation, fame, and wealth.  In addition, many more girls and women participate in recreational sports today than they did 40 years ago.

We have work to do, however.  A 2005-2006 study indicated that women made up 55% of the student body of NCAA schools but only constituted 45% of the student athlete population.  Girls still have 1.3 million fewer chances to play high school sports than boys.

We also need to reach out to young girls and encourage them to be physically active.  According to the cover story of the May 7 issue of Sports Illustrated, if a girl does not participate in sports by the age of 10, there is only a 10% chance she will participate at age 25.  In addition, there is still a physical activity gender gap today: 39% of young boys exercise 6-7 days a week, but only 26% of girls do.

Most Christians are familiar with Galatians 3:28, where the apostle Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  This verse has been around for almost 2,000 years, yet it’s taken a little boost from Title IX to fully live out those words.

The United Methodist Church led the way among Christian denominations when the General Conference approved full clergy rights for women on May 4, 1956.  I think of Bishop Leontine Kelly, who died at age 92 on June 28.  Kelly, who in 1984 was the second elected woman bishop and the first African American woman bishop in the history of The United Methodist Church, was a trailblazer for the rights of women and especially women of color.  Bishop Kelly, who was also a founding member of Africa University, always claimed that leaders must be bold risk-takers who are always on the cutting edge. 

At the same time, the stained glass ceiling is still there.  The General Commission of Religion and Race, General Commission on the Status and Role of Woman and National Association of Commissions on Equitable Compensation issued a 2012 study, The State of Female and Racial/Ethnic United Methodist clergy in the U.S.  The study showed that between 1997 and 2008 the number of congregations led by female clergy increased by 45%.  However, the study also indicated that female clergy are less likely than their male counterparts to lead the largest congregations, even with the same seniority. 

The report examined the job status of female clergy from 2000 – 2008 and discovered that in 2008 females were less likely than males to be appointed to churches of similar or larger size than the churches they served in 2000.  Female clergy are more likely to move out of parish ministry into extension ministries or to go on leave.  In addition, female clergy still earn less than their male counterparts with the same seniority.

I yearn for the day when all clergy will be appointed to churches that reflect their gifts, experience, skill level, and ability to make disciples and grow congregations.  I also long for the day when every girl has the opportunity to become whatever she want to be, whether an Olympic athlete, a fighter pilot, a truck driver, a nurse, a politician, a pastor, or a plumber.

I am grateful to my parents, who urged me follow my heart; to my male childhood friends, who shoved and pushed me around but let me play with them and taught me to persevere and be tough; to faithful Christians who encouraged me to follow my call; and to Title IX, which has given opportunities to millions of girls and young women to follow their dreams.  You go, girl!


4 thoughts on “You go Girl!

  1. Wonderful, Laurie! I’d add only one more group to your list of thanks: the women and men who labored in the trenches to get Title IX passed. Their courage and determination changed so many lives!
    Thank you, as always, for great insight. You are such a blessing.

  2. You’ve reminded me of a time some ten years ago when a small-group conversation at Olivet UMC about modern education took a turn to school athletics. One woman in the group, in her late seventies at the time, remarked on the different opportunities that girls in school now have that they didn’t have when she was growing up. I asked what sport she would have competed in if she’d had the chance and I’ll never forget the real pain that showed on her face for the sake of an opportunity denied when she almost tearfully said, “track.” For the one who has benefited from privilege – white, male, straight, other — it can be truly startling to learn how devasting exclusion can be.

  3. Yes, Laurie “you go, girl”. I grew up in the era of true 6 on 6 basketball, 3 forwards and 3 guards relegated to one half court each. We were too fragile to run the full length of the court…but of course we could give birth and “keep house.”
    I am absolutely certain that my working life would have been very different if careers beyond teaching, nursing, office work and “housewife” would have been open to women back in the day.
    So yes, let’s celebrate the opportunities open today and those who made them a reality for our children and grandchildren.

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