On October 22, Notre Dame will be celebrating 50 years of Title IX by honoring the 250 women who played varsity sports at the university during the first five years of Title IX being signed into law.
As the ink was drying on President Nixon’s signature that put Title IX into law, Father Hesburgh opened the doors at Notre Dame to welcome the first class of women after 130 years of it being a male-only University. The year was 1972.
In simple terms, Title IX banned discrimination on the basis of sex at colleges and universities. It impacted college admissions, financial aid, sports, research, and campus life.
Congresswoman Patsy Mink, a third generation Japanese American, supplied the fuel for this movement. She was motivated by discrimination that she experienced while trying to attend medical school. Congresswoman Edith Green, Senator Birch Bayh and Mink are credited for authoring and introducing the amendment to the House.
Despite a large portion of our population having no knowledge of this important legislation, so many have benefitted. The truth is, stories of discrimination against women from as recent as the 1960s and 1970s read more like fiction than fact.
Consider the story about the Radcliffe College women’s varsity basketball game (in 1959) being interrupted and forced off the court because the men’s basketball team wanted to practice.
Are you kidding me??!!
In 1966, Bobbi Gibbs was denied application to the Boston Marathon because as race director Will Cloney declared, “This is an AAU Men’s Division race ONLY! Women aren’t allowed and furthermore NOT physiologically able.”
Gibbs didn’t take no for an answer. She found her way to the start of the Boston Marathon on April 19, 1966 and crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 21 minutes. She obliterated the notion that a female is too frail for distance running.
It was thought that a woman baked cookies and didn’t run marathons. Why couldn’t she do both?
Prior to the time of Title IX, it was difficult for a woman to become a doctor, a lawyer, run a business, and live on her own. Many women couldn’t get a mortgage or even have a credit card in their own names.
In 1975, Susan Flanigan, the salutatorian at Elyria (Ohio) Catholic High School, became a pioneer for women’s sports at Notre Dame. She was a member of the very first tennis team, which was the first varsity sports team for women at Notre Dame. Father Hesburgh was at the helm then and Moose Krause was athletic director.
The women’s tennis coach, Kathy Cordes, a physical education major from I.U., led 15 dedicated women into the first varsity tennis season at Notre Dame in 1976. That season produced 7 wins, 2 losses, and 1 tie due to darkness (which the Irish were winning when the game was called).
Notre Dame was the only college that Susan had applied to. Her brother, older by six years, and her sister, three years ahead of her, both attended Notre Dame. “It was a big deal to be one of 600 women on campus in a field of 6,000 male students,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “ I do know that not all Notre Dame alumni were happy with the change to include women and there were not enough women’s restrooms!”
While there were no scholarships available for women at the time, Susan said, “I did feel like we were accommodated, but not taken seriously. We didn’t have a budget for uniforms, rackets, or shoes.”
She had an accounting teacher who maintained a strict policy regarding attendance. He lowered a student’s grade by one letter if three class periods were missed. Susan, because of participating in tennis matches, missed three of his classes and suffered the consequence of a lower grade in his class despite her appeal. Anchored in his policy, he didn’t budge. The lower grade stood.
Even so, Susan feels Notre Dame provided her, “some of the best years of my life. I did develop a wonderful work ethic, which I carried forward to my job with Price Waterhouse in North Carolina. Notre Dame opened doors for me and provided lifelong friendships. It played a huge role in my life.”
Due to some health challenges, Susan, now 65, doesn’t play tennis anymore. She does have a multitude of fond memories from those days when she became a fierce competitor after being told, “You hit like a girl.”
It drove her to “Practice! Practice! Practice! I loved to play guys and beat them.”
When she was just 16 years old, she even taught tennis to the Oberlin High School principal: “It was hilarious; a wonderful experience.”
“I’ve had a recurring dream to come back to Notre Dame,” she added.
That dream will not only come to pass on October 22, but it will include receiving a Notre Dame letter jacket — almost 50 years after playing for the Irish and long overdue.