June 17, 2012

Women persevered, even when doors were closed

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com
Columnist

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their struggle continued for years afterward as school administrators slowly changed -- or resisted changing -- their outdated perceptions of what girls can do.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.

Jo Dill returned to her hometown of Kennebunk some 40 years ago to teach physical education. Field hockey was the new sport at the high school and Dill was the new coach. Sixty girls tried out for the team. Dill went to the school board and asked for help. She had no assistant coaches, little equipment and few uniforms.

"They gave me $150," said Dill. "They didn't get it. There was so much interest, such a turnout."

The extra money couldn't possibly pay for what she needed.

About the same time, Deb Smith signed up for the new girls basketball team at Penquis Valley High in Milo. At the end of the season, the team gathered for its awards presentation. Instead of the ubiquitous plaque or trophy, Smith got a paper plate. Her coach made the awards, writing phrases like Most Valuable or Most Improved in felt marker on the plates and attaching a piece of ribbon to each.

"I didn't care," said Smith. "That meant the world to us. I think I finally threw mine away about 15 years ago." She had kept them for 25 years.

In 1971, Carolyn Court was the only girl at her high school in Wethersfield, Conn., who wanted to run. She wasn't allowed to use the track when the boys practiced. She coached herself, running around the block where she lived.

There was a state track meet for girls in Connecticut, but Court needed a qualifying time. She contacted the directors of a large invitational meet, asking to enter the girls 440-yard dash or the 880-yard run. Can't, she was told. Those events weren't part of the meet. But if she got someone to pay to sponsor the event, she could run.

"I think they thought that would be the end of that," said Court, a retired Bates College coach. "I said, 'OK, I'll do that.' " She got $50 from her father and the Wethersfield Fire Department. She got her qualifying time for the state meet. She was Connecticut's 440-yard champ in 1971. A year later she was the 880-yard champ.

"I was very shy then. I didn't raise my hand in class. But I wanted to run so much, I went to the principal and I went to the school board. I just wanted to be the fastest girl at my school. I ended up being the fastest girl in the state."

She couldn't register for road races because she was a female. She ran without a number, stepping off the course just before the finish line, where her father waited with his stopwatch. She'd duck under the ropes and go home. She got no recognition and no prizes. The time her father kept was her reward.

Court came to Bates College in 1979. She started the women's cross country program and later, women's track. She was one of the few female coaches in the country in any sport and served on an NCAA rules committee. One of the first meetings she attended some 30 years ago was at a Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis.

The work sessions were very productive, Court remembers. During the social hour, Playboy Bunnies in their scant costumes served drinks. Yes, it was a bit absurd to her.

"In the NCAA's defense, this conference was scheduled two years out when there were no women on the committee," said Court.

Patsy Wiggins, a Maine journalist, grew up in White Bear Lake, Minn., some 40 years ago, and joined her school's Girls Athletic Association, which offered competition on an intramural level. Never mind that she didn't compete against girls at other schools. She was a happy girl.

"I was into team sports big time. I found my scrapbook the other day. I was looking at my letter. It was the same big, white "W" the boys got. I only wish I could have played football. I showed my sons when they were young how to throw."

She laughs. She plans to attend Deb Smith's Not Too Late summer basketball camp at Southern Maine Community College for women over 50. "I want to stay active. I want to see how well I can play again."

Dill knows the feeling. She is coordinator of the Maine Senior Games, through the Southern Maine Agency on Aging. Three years ago, seven of every 10 competitors were men. Last year, she saw more women. The lingering effects of Title IX are behind the increase, she believes.

Last Saturday morning, nearly a dozen women showed up at Ann Dunn's basketball court in a quiet neighborhood in Scarborough. It wasn't a social outing. They had come to practice, 3-on-3. They took few breaks, mopping their sweaty faces with towels.

All were over 50, some nearing 60. They haven't forgotten what it was like when Title IX opened up their world.

They don't want you to forget, either.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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