To Be a Female Athlete: The History of Defiance (Part 2: 1970-1999)

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” – Pat Robertson

Part 2: 1970-1999

As we talked about previously in Part 1 of this series, women’s sports is forever tied into the fabric that makes up the feminist movement. You cannot have one without the other. In this next part, we will address the years between 1970-1999. This time period reflects the Second-Wave of feminism and the beginnings of the Third-Wave. These changes were reflected in female sports, and female sports reflected in these changes.


The 1970’s was a decade of progress for women at home, at work, and in sports. This decade turned revolutionary as the ERA, Title IX, abortion rights, employment rights, and other social changes would turn into the foundation of the most recent surge, or as some say, the “Second-Wave”, of feminist and gender equality movement.

Leading the charge was the National Organization for Women (NOW), who spearheaded the ERA and other changes. They were formed in 1966 and stood up to the Senate in a battle to demand attention of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). The ERA passed in 1972, and it added to the constitution that women had equal rights as men when it came to property, employment, and divorce.


However, this second wave was not without its opponents or backlash.

 “I listen to feminists and all these radical gals — most of them are failures. They’ve blown it. Some of them have been married, but they married some Casper Milquetoast who asked permission to go to the bathroom. These women just need a man in the house. That’s all they need. Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they’re mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They’re sexist. They hate men — that’s their problem.”

-Jerry Falwell

Men and women alike were fighting back against the movement. Phyllis Schlafly was probably the most famous female opponent. When you think of Phyllis, think of conservatism on crack. For decades this woman fought against progressive ideals. Anything that would threaten her WASP world was a threat to her and she attacked it with the viciousness of a bulldog.  She hated communism, women’s rights, and was extremely homophobic.

Phyllis attacked the ERA in 1972, by writing The Phyllis Schlafly Report, saying it:

  • Threatened traditional families
  • Removed legal protections for wives
  • Subjected women to the draft
  • Removed barriers to women in combat
  • Promoted abortion on demand
  • Opened the way to homosexual marriage
  • Required that public bathrooms be unisex

The states technically had until 1979, and then later 1982 to ratify the ERA but there were several that missed the deadline and the movement behind Phyllis was a key reason. The biggest issue she was able to get traction on was the draft issue. 36 states ratified, 4 of those rescinded their previous ratification, 8 states only got one house at a time to pass it and they need both, and the rest never passed.  There is still movement to try to get the remaining states to ratify.

The 1970s were however, a golden decade for women’s sports. After fighting to be allowed to play at all, but only granted partial and modified opportunity, the 1970s was the decade that the female athlete could finally take a breath of air the men did.

I want to think on this for a moment. In the major sports such as football, basketball, softball/baseball, hockey, etc, men have had opportunity to play and master these sports for 100 to 150 years, depending on which one. Individual sports such as golf, tennis, and swimming are a bit older but men still had complete reign. They had training, coaching, equipment, attention, and encouragement to become great at what they do.

Up until this point, women have had about a half percent of that. They were told they can’t run because it might damage their reproductive organs. If they broke a sweat they might be put on medication for hysteria. Then they were forced to wear “feminine” clothing. I don’t know about you but trying to play basketball in a full skirt or bloomers would be quite warm and uncomfortable. It’s like playing a pick up game in a full suit and only for the reason that it would be “unsightly” for women to wear more active and comfortable clothing. The 1970s is the decade the female athlete was truly re-born.

In 1970, women’s basketball finally adopted a 5 man full court game and went away from the modified rules. Down goes Frazier! I mean 9 man basketball with position isolation. We can move now!

In 1970, Patricia Barzi Palinkas was the first female football player to play on a men’s semi-pro team.

In 1970, an Italian professional soccer federation, ran an international women’s soccer tournament without support from FIFA. Italy later that year became the first country to pay female players at least at part-time.


Title IX

Title IX gets its own section. It’s the single most important piece of female athletic related legislation. You basically can divide the timeline of women’s sports into two sections: Before Title IX and After Title IX. If you have ever played a women’s sport at any public school, you can thank Title IX. You can thank it for Serena Williams. You can thank it for Britney Griner. You can thank it for anything world-class female athlete today.

It started in 1972, when Birch Bayh had been working on the ERA and he found the opportunity to bring to the floor Title IX, which would rectify the loophole in school funding to equalize access for females.

Birch stated, “We are all familiar with the stereotype of women as pretty things who go to college to find a husband, go on to graduate school because they want a more interesting husband, and finally marry, have children, and never work again. The desire of many schools not to waste a ‘man’s place’ on a woman stems from such stereotyped notions. But the facts absolutely contradict these myths about the ‘weaker sex’ and it is time to change our operating assumptions.”

Before Title IX only 1 percent of athletic budgets were earmarked for college female athletics. After it passed, the number of female athletes increased 600 percent in college sports.

Let us pause for a moment again to realize that 1972 was only 45 years ago. It has only been 45 years since schools were legally required to fund female sports on the same level as men. That is not that long ago. It is remarkable to see how far we have come in a short time with these additional resources. I think it proves that women can do anything if they are given the opportunity.


Title IX also had an effect on other opportunities for women in an academic and social setting in schools. Before Title IX, rules were strict about things such as curfews and separate entrances. At the same time, they were not allowed to take certain classes that men were allowed to take such as auto shop and more ‘masculine’ courses. They were instead encouraged to take more classes geared towards ‘feminine’ courses such as home economics. Additionally, women were required in some places to score higher than men just to get into school in the first place.


Before and After Title IX:

  • Before Title IX there were 310,000 women playing sports in the US in high school and college. Now there are nearly 4 million. That’s a 1190% increase in 45 years.
  • Before Title IX only 43 percent of female students went to college. In 1994, that increased to 63%.
  • After Title IX, more than 80 percent of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies participated in some sort of sport in school.




Back to the 1970s

In 1973, NCAA scholarships were offered to women for the first time.

In 1974, Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, which is an organization that seeks to advocate for female sports including grants, mentorship programs, and research.


In 1976, women’s basketball finally become an Olympic Sport and the USSR beat the United States to take the Gold Medal. Although the US settled for Silver, Team USA has lost a total of 1 game in Olympic play since then. One of their players, Nancy Lieberman, eventually played in the WNBA and now is an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA.


Women’s football in the 70’s got some traction as well, when in 1974, the NWPL (National Women’s Football League) was founded and included teams from Dallas, Columbus, LA, and Detroit. In 1978, the NWFL expanded into 3 division, until teams from the Western Division split, to form the Western States Professional Football League. The remaining teams later split in the 80s and eventually went into flag football.




The 1980s was the decade of leg warmers, day glo colors, and Olivia Newton John telling us to get “physical.” It’s now stuck in your head. You’re welcome. The decade proved to be an overall revolution for how people viewed personal fitness. One could argue that now that our foods were becoming extremely processed, we suddenly were aware that it’s important to move our bodies to stay in shape.


The 80s also was breeding ground of both progress and backlash against the feminist movement.

“Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.” – Rush Limbaugh, 1988

The movement got broader as it embraced affirmative action and gender based quotas in employment and education. The idea was that the feminist movement should represent ALL women.  This would be the seeds of the Third Wave of feminism.

However, there began to be a split in the ideology of the movement between liberal feminism, the idea that women should be treated as equals to men, and difference feminism, the idea that the sexes are different and that women should be respected but different from men.


On the sports front, Title IX’s effects on women’s sports was starting to trickle in. In 1982, the NCAA finally allowed for a championship tournament including the first women’s Final Four. It included 32 teams and Louisiana Tech beat Cheyney in the championship game.


Women’s soccer had a breakthrough decade as well when in 1985, The US national soccer team was formed. This took a few years to get off the ground as the team had existed for 3 years before playing together. They played their first tournament in Italy and went 0-1-3. In 1989, Japan was the first country to have a semi-pro women’s soccer league.



The 1990s saw female athletes take huge strides in the development of their sports and the recognition they deserved. Being a “90’s woman” meant being fearless. This was the decade of “You Go Girl”, Clueless, and the Spice Girls.


In fact 1992 was named as “The Year of the Woman”. That year was important for women in politics as First Lady Hilary Clinton was the strongest and most influential First Lady the US had seen until that point. Additionally, women were making headway in Congress as 4 women were appointed to the Senate in one year.

Yearofthewoman wiki

The feminist movement saw the firm footing of the Third-Wave. Third-Wave feminist saw flaws in the Second-Wave and wanted to seek inclusion of all women, including women of color and LGBT women. They saw the feminism view point of the Second-Wave, as being too white and upper middle-class. Bell hooks has been a voice of this wave for many years and discusses her book in 1995 in the video below.


The 90s saw some confidence in the sports arena. Basketball was beginning to catch on fire. On of the best coaches to ever coach basketball, Pat Summit, was the first woman to be awarded the John Bunn award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990. This was a huge honor as it was open to either men or women. It was revelation that women can be on par with men if not even better.

The progress continued as women’s basketball had several small professional leagues fail to this point but by the end of the decade would establish itself as a solid entity. In 1995, the American Basketball League (ABL) was founded with 10 teams. It performed surprisingly well initially, including my old home team, the Portland Power. I attended a Power barnstorm scrimmage before their first season and loved it. My favorite player was Natalie Williams who I saw dominate in college at UCLA. She was the definition of a physical player.

I found an old interview of hers from high school. I’m digging the hair.

The start of the ABL peaked interest of the NBA who wanted to capitalize on the new energy behind the sport. In 1996, they created the WNBA with 8 teams. This would eventually lead to the ABL folding in 1998, but their presence proved to be a valuable piece in the sport’s history.

The WNBA had the backing of the NBA which meant it started teams in NBA cities, using the same networks, arenas, and structure. They followed the ABL’s idea of playing in the summer to avoid competition from the men’s game. The league has slowly built itself up and recently celebrated 20 years.


1996 was also a huge year for the sport as Team USA took home gold in the Olympics to create a fever pitch backing that the WNBA and the sport took advantage of. Additionally, in 1999, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame opened with 25 people inducted.

The 90s also was a great decade for softball as it was added to the Olympics in 1996. The US team dominated the field and this lead to more interest in the sport back home. Stars like Pitcher Lisa Hernandez became household names. She even had her own bat, which I of course used while playing in Little League.


Women’s football had a bit of lull in the mid 80s until the late 1990s. In 1999, the NWFL came back with a tackle format after being a flag league for many  years. Additionally,  the WPFL came back the same year but with the idea of promoting teams on barnstorming tour.


Historical Female Athletes

As we did in the first part of this series, we will now look at some of the phenomial female athletes who broke down barriers between 1970-1999. These women are simply incredible.  In the next part of our series, we will address the years 2000-2017. Enjoy the videos below!

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Jackie Joyner-Kersee was one of the best track stars of all time. She won medals in the heptathlon and long jump in 4 different Olympic games. She also did it while overcoming asthma.


Cheryl Miller

Cheryl Miller is one of the best female basketball players of all time. She was an absolute star at USC and even got drafted by a men’s league, the USBL until she suffered knee injuries. She also happens to be the sister to NBA legend Reggie Miller and created a career out of broadcasting after her playing days. She is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.


Sheryl Swoopes

Sheryl Swoopes was my favorite basketball player growing up. She dominated in college and could score at will and was exciting to watch. She was the first player drafted in the WNBA draft. She was the first female basketball player to have her own shoe, which of course, I had a pair of. She is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.


Janet Evans

Janet Evans is one of the most celebrated swimmers of all time. She won 4 gold medals in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. She specialized in long distance free style and was named Female World Swimmer of the Year in 1987, 1989, and 1990.


Lisa Leslie

Lisa Leslie was arguably the best center to play the game in women’s basketball. At 6’5 she could score, she could move, and she could even dunk. She won 2 WNBA Championships and 2 Finals MVP’s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s