June 17, 2012

Women persevered, even when doors were closed

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com

Go away, Sharon Reishus was told. Don't come back.

click image to enlarge

Sharon Reishus, former chair of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, recalls not being able to use the weight room even though she threw discus for girls’ track.

2010 MaineBiz photo

You can't use the high school's weight room. It's for boys only. Even though she was a discus thrower on the girls' track team, it did not open this door.

Reishus was one of thousands of young women in high school or college who were dismissed as competitors and treated like second-class athletes. They faced this discrimination for decades before Title IX became law in 1972, and their struggle continued for years afterward as school administrators slowly changed -- or resisted changing -- their outdated perceptions of what girls can do.

Even after passage of Title IX, which required equal educational opportunities for girls, including in sports, young female athletes had to plead with school principals or go before school boards to get basic funding. Some had to raise their own funds to participate.

One of the first female college coaches in the country, at Bates, recalls the absurdity of attending an NCAA meeting held at a Playboy Club, with Bunnies serving drinks during the social hour.

Even when playing sports, girls were told not to play the way the boys did -- no diving for basketballs or grunting when serving in tennis, it's demeaning. Play like a boy and you'll lose your femininity.

Many of these girl athetes became models of persistence. Cyndi Meserve Bona was one. She left Livermore Falls for Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. In 1974, she became the first woman to play on a men's NCAA basketball team. More recently, Bona played for a Maine Seniors women's basketball team that won a national championship.

Lisa Nowak forced open another door in 1996 with help from the Maine Human Rights Commission. She became the first girl in the state to wrestle, earning a spot on the Mt. Ararat High team in Topsham. She won the opportunity, not only for herself, but for girls who followed.

Add Reishus to the lengthy list. She was a senior in 1980 at Dallas High School in a rural community in northeastern Pennsylvania not far from Wilkes-Barre.

"I was quite good and I really wanted to get better," she said. "I wanted to win. Using the weight room would help me."

Reishus, now a resident of the small Maine town of Somerville, about 15 miles east of Augusta, took her case to an assistant principal. She got nowhere. "He rolled his eyes, smiled, and walked away. I was very angry and very frustrated. Title IX was eight years old. I knew it was a federal law."

Now, on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Reishus hasn't forgotten the door that stayed closed for her. If her physical strength didn't improve that year, her resolve certainly did.

In 2010, she stepped down as chairwoman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, seven years after she was appointed a PUC commissioner. She is now 50 years old and thinking about competing in the Maine Senior Games for the first time. Picking up where she left off, so to speak.

Reishus isn't looking for a parade, citation or even a pat on the back. That she and so many others could finally play and compete was most important. That they were given second-rate playing fields, less meal money, cheap uniforms and minimal equipment compared to the boys was not their fight at first.

"Girls were going to play sports," said Paula Hodgdon, 82, a former longtime field hockey coach at the University of Southern Maine. "It was going to happen. Title IX helped make it happen sooner."

Hodgdon was able to play at her high school in Morristown, N.J., in the 1950s. She was lucky. Relatively few school districts offered sports to girls. Hodgdon was fortunate, too, that she arrived at USM when Doc Costello was athletic director. He believed that female teams had as much need for a state school's limited resources as the males.

(Continued on page 2)

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