On the 45th anniversary of Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972
“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 education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . .”
Report From the Field: 1977-78
Half a decade after the enactment of Title IX, in my senior year of college, a graduate student organized my university’s first women’s track team. I had been on the first girls’ cross country team at my high school and was glad for another opportunity to train and run, even at such short distances. When I joined the college team, what I knew about being on a team I knew from high school: the boys’ and girls’ teams sometimes practiced together and, when schedules allowed, cheered each other on at meets. And the introduction of the girls’ team meant the introduction of spin-the-bottle at team parties. It was all good.
College was different. In high school our team almost always won our meets – we were one of the few schools that had enough runners to actually qualify as a team. In college the problem wasn’t the size of the team, but the need to enter a minimum number of events. When coach asked for a volunteer to learn to run hurdles and no one else spoke, I volunteered. He was pleased, my teammates were in awe, and I was ready to try.
However, the athletics department wouldn’t give him the key to the equipment room. I was instructed to go to the gym during the men’s practice and use whatever equipment they were not using. Coach had a grad class during the times the men’s team practiced, so he could not go. Instead, he instructed me beforehand on warm-ups, the setting of the hurdles, the placement of my feet between the hurdles, and what to do with my arms, legs, and torso going over them.
My first day of practice set a pattern for every other practice. Because of my own class schedule, I arrived after the men had already started. No one greeted me, no one showed me where the equipment was stored. I found it myself and got out the three hurdles they weren’t using, brought them to one end of the gym, and, with my coach’s words in my head, paced off the spacing of the hurdles, set them up, and began the routine he had prescribed. No one in the gym ever spoke to me – not my classmates, not their coach. I, in turn, never spoke to them. They seemed not to even look at me, and after the first few minutes of that first session, I never looked at any of them.
I have no idea what I was to those young men in that gym, long ago, who did not acknowledge that I shared a sport with them. But I know I made them nothing to me. I was alone in the room, me and my two or three hurdles, with my coach’s words in my head while I counted off my pacing, and with my own words crafting my report to him. In memory, I see only my narrow end of the gym and my few hurdles, and I hear only the sound of my sneakers hitting the floor.
At each women’s team practice I described my latest solo session to my coach, and he offered his advice. Once when I was home for some reason, I walked across the street to the high school’s track that encircled the football field, set up the two hurdles that had been left out, and practiced. Except for track meets, it was the only time I ran the hurdles on a track’s surface. And while I think it is true that the only time my coach ever saw me jump a hurdle outside of a race was during warm ups at meets, I know it is true that the only time I ran a full set of hurdles was during a race.
Running hurdles is an amazing sport. To run at and over the first hurdle is not such a big thing, to land and keep going and set yourself up for the next hurdle is everything. Again, and then again, and again. To line up with other young women and launch out to hurdle myself over those metal bars as they multiplied out in front of me was to experience a shock of physical accomplishment.
On reflection, I know my younger self was fueled by curiosity and desire, and I feel neither anger nor indignation on her behalf. What I feel instead is gratitude for her stubbornness, appreciation that in those quiet practices I learned how to adjust my stride and place my feet, learned how, in midair, to judge the quality of my effort and shift my physical and mental attention so that with each landing I was already at work on the next hurdle. And in my races, when I had run my accustomed few hurdles and began on the others, I learned I was not bound by the limits of my experience. I could take what I knew from three hurdles and go beyond: during my practices I may have learned how to take to the air, but during the meets I was introduced to the deep well of my endurance. It is a well I have returned to, and will continue to turn to, again and again.