Women’s Equality Day: Title IX

  • Published
  • By Capt. Devon Messecar
  • Battle Management Directorate
In the midst of summer, you're probably running your kids to all sorts of sporting events, practices or loading your trunk with athletic entertainment for family adventures up north. As Women's Equality Day approaches Aug. 26, you may reflect on the differences in athletic opportunities for your children today as compared to your time while in school. A major aspect of that change was the advent of Title IX. While Title IX applies to all athletes, both male and female, the initial proposal and eventual implementation of Title IX in 1972 had a lot to do with women's equality.

For some of us younger military professionals and interns, we don't have much recollection of the 1970s, but I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a former honorary commander of Hanscom Air Force Base, Maureen Sullivan, who does.

Today Maureen splits her time between the Bedford Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of Bedford, coaching, fundraising, her grandkids and much more. Title IX played a big part in Maureen's athletic success. Like many young women of the time, Maureen wanted to be a cheerleader when she was in high school between 1970 and 1974. Even though she taught many of the cheers, Maureen did not make the team. A coach who saw her athletic potential in other areas convinced Maureen to consider something different. She wound up playing basketball for four years, which translated into her collegiate success later in life under Title IX.

It is hard to believe that there was a time when universities such as Notre Dame turned down a well-qualified female athlete like Maureen Sullivan because "women weren't really playing sports" there. Notre Dame didn't field female varsity sports until 1976. That didn't stop Maureen; she eventually made Boston College her home, sporting the basketball outfit of the times; a wool skirt, collared shirt and bloomers!

Maureen really saw the implementation of Title IX as a junior and senior at Boston College. At the time, Maureen admittedly did not realize the significance of Title IX and the importance of a scholarship. Truthfully, she tells me, her parents saw the greater impact when they received the bill from Boston College, much smaller after she received her athletic scholarships. Even though Title IX was passed in 1972, it took some years before universities actively recruited women for their athleticism and not all schools fielded varsity athletics for women teams right away.

What Title IX has done over the years is still considerable. According to the women's sports foundation, girls really want to play sports, too. Female participation in high school sports has grown an astronomical 900 percent since 1972. This is an incredible statistic that will likely lead more women to make healthy choices later in life.

But has equality been achieved in other areas?

Watching Wimbledon this year, I realized the great strides women made in tennis -- such as the infamous Billie Jean King, winner of the 1973 "battle of the sexes" tennis match. Along with Serena Williams, Billie Jean was the pinnacle in women achieving an equal Wimbledon purse. Well, Maureen will tell you that the Wimbledon purse is still a controversial topic since women still only need to play three sets to win versus the men, who must play five. But don't be fooled, women are willing to play all five.

Did you know that there was also a point when a married woman tennis player was only known by her husband's initials and surname? That didn't change until 2009.

And of course, being in the season of road biking, did you know that women still aren't allowed in the Tour de France?

And Maureen made sure I also noted that cheerleading still isn't considered a sport.

As a coach at Bedford High School for the basketball and cheerleading teams, Maureen continues to advocate for women's equality. She strives to ensure that her girls who are flipping, tumbling, and cheering, in what appears to be more like choreographed gymnastic routines, get their recognition as a sport by the National College Athletics Association. The intense training, competition and athleticism, inherent to the "sport," make cheerleading seem like an obvious fit with the NCAA program. But it hasn't been that easy to garner the official title of "sport."

Why is the title of "sport" be important?

Well, Title IX has not always had strong advocates. Some men's teams at collegiate institutions were ceased based on Title IX's suggestion of "proportionality," other schools simply added women's teams. The question is whether or not the adoption of competitive cheerleading as a legitimately recognized NCAA sport could help the "proportionality problem" some schools are facing.

The only sure thing is that there's still a way to go to achieve the right kind of balance no matter who you talk to about Title IX. As it currently stands, equal footing has been garnered in some key areas in female athletics and though your children's generation might not realize how far we've come, I expect they'll look back one day, when they have kids of their own, and realize how lucky we are... just as my good friend, Maureen, does today.