Ruth Bass: Girls of summer, winter and autumn
In sports-crazed Westfield, Mass., in 1951, high school girls went to boys’ baseball games, boys’ track meets, boys’ football games and boys’ basketball games, yelling their lungs out for the team. During gym classes, the girls played basketball and were required to run around the boys’ track to warm up for field hockey. After school, they played a little intramural basketball. They tried out for cheerleading.
When anyone asked about expanding girls’ access to games, even playing other schools, the school administration shook its collective male heads and said that kind of competition wasn’t good for girls. Their constitutions were different. They were too delicate. The community, rabid about its sports, was focused only on the boys and primarily on the football team.
In the mid 1950s, young women at Bates College played all kinds of sports. But the word was intra-mural. Dorm teams played dorm teams, fiercely, especially in basketball (a half court game that looks ridiculous today but was, again, intended to protect the fragile female from too much running). Intercollegiate competition was limited to male baseball, basketball, track, football. The only way women could compete with other schools was to join the highly touted debating club.
In the late 1960s, in Richmond, Mass., a selectman listened to the town appointed recreation committee’s plans, including a request for funds to fix the Little League field, and quietly wanted to know what was planned for the town’s girls. My daughters, he said. Some at the table were amazed. No one provided an answer.
Somewhere in the 1980s to ‘90s, a man named Murphy in Greenfield, Mass., father of more than one daughter, apparently had had enough of the boys of summer. The result is Murphy Park, a girls’ softball complex with four playing fields, parking, restrooms and the financial support of the community.
In the same time period, girls’ teams sprang up in high school, teen-aged females turned out to be superior at any number of sports, and television admitted that women’s tennis was fun to watch. Some companies would even buy commercials for it. The previously fragile bodies of the "weaker" sex survived the opportunity to compete with no apparent difficulties.
Today’s girls, including the ones throwing no-hitters and skidding into second at the Babe Ruth event in Pittsfield, would probably be horror struck at the idea that if they’d been born a few decades earlier, they not only wouldn’t be coming here from Colorado, Kentucky, Washington and other states, but also wouldn’t have a park to play in.
A federal law called Title IX, passed in 1972, changed it all. Widely known for its effect on sports, Title IX had a number of facets. But for women’s games, it clearly stated that schools receiving federal funds must provide girls and women with equal opportunities for sports competition.
Various schools tried to sidestep the law, some of them suggesting that football should be excluded from the equation. Twenty-four years after the law passed, when Brown University was accused of discriminating against female athletes, the college’s defense was that women were not as interested in sports as men. Brown was not alone in its protests -- colleges and universities all over the country resisted this mandate for years.
But girls and women burst onto the sports scene. An internet source says fewer than 300,000 girls went out for varsity sports in high school in 1971; by 2001, 2.8 million were on varsity teams. A similar picture emerged at the college level.
That’s why girls playing Babe Ruth softball in Pittsfield would find the old way unbelievable -- almost everyone they know is into a sport.
It turns out that millions of girls are not too fragile to run, jump, swim, shoot, hit, spike, skate, slam dunk and wrestle. But it took a long time for even some of the planet’s smartest people to learn that.
Ruth Bass loved half-court basketball because it was all there was. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.
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