I have played a variety of roles in my decades-long pursuit of advancing girls’ and women’s sports. My motto of Why not me? has led to so many successes for our female athletes. So you can understand why I found it so interesting that earlier this week after Jude Schimmel led the University of Louisville team to their win in the NCAA tournament, she commented, “I knew I had to be a leader. At that point, we needed somebody to step up and I said, ‘why not me?’”
My favorite role along the way, though, was that of Tarzan. Growing up on a farm in the 1940s and 50s, Tarzan was a strong role model in the movies. The neighborhood kids and I would go into the woods behind the farm where we would act out the roles and I was always Tarzan. I liked yelling the loud cry that would rally all the elephants and jungle animals to rescue someone in distress. As kids, we didn’t care who was male or female because we didn’t have gender rules. That’s why Tarzan was one of my first heroes and one that I tried to emulate. I’ve often thought that held me in pretty good stead because I like to be a voice for a good cause.
Becoming An Advocate for Change
After graduating with my 13 classmates from Hawkeye High School, I went on to become the first person in my family to go to college and it was at Luther College where I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I loved teaching for 13 years and through it I found the opportunity to help take down barriers for young women who wanted to play sports, learn and develop their skills. This was during the 1960s, an era where few supported the girl who wanted to play. For three decades prior, girls’ programs had been completely cut due to an organization’s success in convincing the schools that sports were hazardous for girls’ health. Sports should be for fun and without stress. Many voices began to advocate for change and I was one of them because I first wanted to create opportunities for my young women. My colleagues and I began to develop girls’ sports clinics and programs that we could offer around the state of Minnesota. Soon, people were asking me to be a part of committees and national organizations with a similar focus. Why not me? I thought. So I did.
I took on everything I could find in terms of leadership roles. I even took it upon myself to get my bus driver’s license. The boys’ sport teams could travel far and wide. At that time the girls’ sports were just recreation teams and we were only allotted one trip a year. When I asked my principal why the boys had buses provided, I was told it was because the coaches drive the bus and it didn’t cost the school anything. With my farm background, I could drive just about everything with four wheels, so I found the head bus driver and he guided me as I practiced driving. Six days later I passed my test and came back to the principal with license in hand. From then on, I took my young women all over the state for gymnastics, volleyball, track and whatever else they wanted to play. Being in the driver’s seat of change is one of my roles, too. You have to be willing to put your hands on the wheel and, if necessary, take yourself where you want to go.
Establishing Seasons and State Tournaments
Minnesota was a national leader in bringing girls’ sports back into our schools. Our success stemmed from developing circles of like-minded people, from friends and teachers to administrators and parents. We each found our own talents and put them together and made changes that some critics said would be impossible to make. As we made progress on many fronts, I was asked by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) to be a member of the executive staff as an associate director. Even though I had no idea what was ahead, I thought why not me? So, in 1970, I became the first woman to be employed on the executive staff by the MSHSL. Within two years, we held the first girls state tournament in track and field and added six more by 1978 for a variety of team and individual sports.
Shortly after I joined the MSHSL, Title IX passed in 1972. Up until then, we had already been creating the first girls’ sports programs in the 60s and early 70s. It’s important to note that Title IX was not the cause of girls’ and women’s sports in many states and certainly not in Minnesota. But it was a strong encouragement. It was a federal law that backed up what we were trying to do. Title IX was timely, and it was like having a very strong friend walking along with us. It confirmed that this was a national commitment and that we weren’t going away. Together we wanted to make it happen as easily and cooperatively as possible.
Even so, roadblocks to advancing girls’ sports were in the way. One was the positioning of the sports seasons. Prior to the implementation of girls’ programs, the budget and use of facilities were tied up with boy’s programs. As girls’ basketball programs were developed, however, some of the schools were scheduling their local girls’ basketball seasons in the fall. This seemed logical because the boys would be playing football at that time and the gyms would be open. But when we studied the future statewide sports programs, we saw that volleyball also needed to have a good season in the gym. I would go into the schools where girls were playing fall basketball and propose switching girls’ basketball to winter. This notion wasn’t a popular one, to say the least. Ultimately, it was up to the MSHSL board of directors to determine the season for girls’ basketball and the decision was made unanimously that it would be winter. By the next year, in 1976, we held our first MSHSL State Girl Basketball Tournament at the Met Center in Bloomington. Next season will mark the tournament’s 40th anniversary.
Daughters of the Game
This is such a fascinating story surrounding the advancement of girls’ and women’s sports, and especially the role of basketball in the family of girls’ sports, that I have been involved in writing two books about it.
Marian Bemis Johnson and I co-wrote Daughters of the Game: The First Era of Minnesota Girls High School Basketball, 1891-1942. It was inspired by the ‘black hole’ era of the 1940s-1970s, when there were little or no interscholastic sports programs for girls. Marian had come across pictures of her mother playing basketball in the 1920s and it made her wonder why she couldn’t do the same thing in the 50s. She discovered that a national organization convinced schools across the country to drop all girls’ sports programs due to health concerns for girls from strenuous activities. This is the history that Marian began to uncover and we compiled it in this book. We also wrote a historical fiction book called Two Rings: A Legacy of Hope. It tells the story of the struggles of girls and women through the eyes of a high school girl doing research for a school paper and finding that she and other women must stand up to right wrongs and ask, “why not me?”
In order to make Daughters of the Game exactly the way we wanted it, we formed our own publishing company, McJohn Publishing, and set up our website at www.daughtersofthegame.com. We did this so we would be able to publish a book with all the history and all the pictures because it was our own company. Doing something like that forces you out of your comfort zone and requires you to learn and explore new fields and rules. My circle of friends was again key to our success. In 2002, I retired after 55 years in education and then co-wrote two books and became president of our own publishing company – hardly what one would call retirement. But the history had to be preserved, so why not me?
We know that tremendous, wonderful, strong women throughout history have worked to accomplish and demand changes. As pioneers and advocates, they have changed the face of the world. Our responsibility is to ensure that their stories are told, in oral history and in print.
Learn from your foremothers. Three of my personal heroes are Sacagawea, Amelia Earhart and Ann Bancroft. Find women whose lives interest you and discover what made them courageous and committed to a cause. And ask yourself, why not me?
Featured Image: From 1970s Rosemount State Softball Championship, reflecting the reason girls must be able to play[sc:dorothy-mcintyre]
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