Shirley Chesterfield-Stanton remembers putting countless miles on her own car, driving places as far away as Seattle to compete at various college track meets. Meanwhile, boys were boarding a chartered bus — a luxury not yet afforded to most women’s teams.
Chesterfield-Stanton competed in volleyball, gymnastics and track at Montana State University — 11 seasons in all from 1972-76. But she never received a varsity letter like her male counterparts; women weren’t allowed to.
In its infancy, Title IX wasn’t perfect. Although most high schools and colleges had begun to add a fair number of women’s athletic programs in an attempt to level the playing field, discrepancies still remained. Now, 40 years after the civil rights law was enacted, it’s difficult to imagine a time when girls didn’t have the opportunities that exist today.
“As the saying goes, ‘We’ve come a long way, baby,’” said Chesterfield-Stanton, Capital High’s longtime girls track and field coach. “A lot of really good things have happened as a result of Title IX.”
Title IX was passed by the U.S. Congress on June 23, 1972. The law stated that boys and girls are required to receive equal educational and athletic opportunities in schools receiving federal funds. Today, 40 percent of girls participate in varsity sports, compared to just 3.7 percent prior to Title IX. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the number of female college athletes exceeds 190,000 today — about six times the pre-Title IX rate — and sports scholarships, once a rarity for women, are now commonplace.
“Sports are everything to me,” said Helena High senior Kyndal Williams, who recently signed to play volleyball at MSU-Billings on scholarship. “They taught me a lot of important life lessons and gave me the chance to meet new people. Sports taught me how to work hard and if you work hard enough at something you can really achieve anything you want.
“Sports are huge and now sports are paying for my college education.”
Before Title IX, the primary activities for young girls nationwide were cheerleading and square dancing. Female college athletes received just 2 percent of college athletic department funding. Now, not only are a wide variety of sports offered to girls at the high school level, but there are more opportunities to continue their athletic career beyond that — in college, as well as elite levels like the Olympics and professional leagues. Locally, Helena High and Capital offer nine sports for girls and nine for boys, and at last count between 300-350 girls participated in athletics at each school.
“As of right now I just play softball, but I played basketball up until my junior year,” said Capital senior Anna Morgan. “It’s really helped me because it’s a good way to make friends and it helps out physically. … I’m looking to play college softball down in Arizona somewhere after I graduate.”
Prior to Title IX, girls here in Helena were able to participate in golf, tennis, track, gymnastics, swimming and cross-country. Basketball was offered — the girls at Helena High actually competed before the boys in the early 1900s — but it wasn’t a sanctioned sport and it was only half-court; girls were believed to be too fragile to run.
“It was not frowned upon, but it definitely was not looked upon as being very feminine,” Casey (Chilton) Molloy said of the stigma present a half-century ago toward girls who played sports. “We weren’t supposed to sweat, we were only allowed to play half-court, we weren’t supposed to run far or it would cause damage to us if we did.”
Molloy holds the distinction of being the first female to win a state championship for Helena High once track became sanctioned. She won the 100- and 200-meter races in 1972 and now advocates the benefits of playing sports on a daily basis as a P.E. teacher at CR Anderson Middle School. Molloy, 57, believes one of the biggest benefits of Title IX was self-esteem building.
“It says that women can do just as well, they can have higher expectations,” said Molloy, whose daughter Caitlin competed in hurdles and sprints at Washington University in St. Louis, a Division III private school.
Although her daughter did not compete on scholarship, she is thankful that those exist now for women.
“They didn’t have those scholarships available in my time and they did for the men,” Molloy said. “If you went on to compete in college it was at your own expense, so that’s another positive of Title IX.”
In Helena, basketball became sanctioned immediately after Title IX’s. Prior to that, girls participated in the sport through the Girls Athletic Association. Volleyball was added in 1983, followed by fastpitch softball in 1986 and soccer in 1991. Gymnastics was dropped for both genders in Helena in the 1980s.
Jim Opitz, the activities administrator for Helena Public Schools, believes Title IX is a blessing for this and future generations of young women. He only wishes it had been enacted sooner.
“My little sister may have been the best athlete in our family,” Opitz said. “She attended high school in the 1960s and missed out on something which she would have excelled. I also had two daughters and I think most fathers who were athletes would want that experience for their kids as well.
“If sports develop character, then why would we only develop half the population’s character?”
A 2010-11 report by the National Federation of State High School Associations notes that basketball was the most common girls sport for the year in terms of the number of schools offering it, with 17,767 schools. As for participants, more girls competed in track and field than any other sport, with 475,265 participants — still well below boys’ 11-man football, with 1,108,441 suiting up. The most recent numbers show 14,116 girls competing in prep sports in Montana, compared to 18,467 boys in the Treasure State. Volleyball is the state’s most popular girls sport in terms of number of athletes, with 3,605 participating.
Studies have shown that sports are beneficial to girls in many ways. Those who compete are less likely to smoke, drink and do drugs, and participation in athletics has also been linked to reduced incidences of osteoporosis and breast cancer later in life. Female athletes have also proven to have a greater success rate academically than those not involved in sports, and a study found that of 401 executive businesswomen surveyed, 82 percent reported playing organized sports while growing up (school teams, recreational leagues and intramurals included).
Even with Title IX, things are not necessarily 100 percent equal for both sexes today. According to the website titleix.info, each year male athletes receive more than $136 million more than their female counterparts in NCAA scholarships, largely because of football participation. Surprisingly, as of 2008 only 43 percent of women’s team coaches were women themselves, compared to 1972 when that number surpassed 90 percent.
Still, there’s no denying the strides that have been made in the last four decades. Local athletes who competed prior to Title IX and those who played shortly after recently shared their sports memories and reflected on the current state of girls’ athletics.
A league of their own
Sue (Little) Stanaway didn’t realize at the time she was doing anything groundbreaking. The local ski racer, who graduated from Helena High in 1963, was a National Junior Olympics qualifier in the mid-1960s. She was on the ski team at the University of Colorado before a broken leg her sophomore year ended her college career.
Stanaway noted skiing was a male-dominated sport when she was in high school, although she did compete against a few other females around the state. Still, she trained mostly with men.
“I was one of the first females to letter at Helena High,” said Stanaway, who also competed in barrel racing. “(Playing sports) just wasn’t what girls did. I grew up with two brothers and just kind of did what the boys did.”
One brother, Roger Little, made the U.S. Olympic Ski team in 1972.
Stanaway is thankful that opportunities for women have expanded since then. Her daughter played on a championship-winning soccer team at Capital and went to Gonzaga on an athletic scholarship.
“Obviously we didn’t have girls teams of any sport, so we didn’t have the camaraderie and hanging out together,” Stanaway said. “Back in my day it was all just individual (sports).”
One of the more common individual sports for girls back then was track. Chesterfield-Stanton ran the sprint events at Butte High, which had started adding more girls sports prior to Title IX.
“When I was in high school, Butte was ahead of the curve on this,” she said. “We were given a uniform of a light-weight white T-shirt and pair of purple shorts, but we had to provide our own spikes. The weight room and training room were in the boys’ locker room, so the women didn’t have access to any of that.”
After a successful state track meet Chesterfield-Stanton’s sophomore year, she remembers sitting in the PE office with the track coach, who received a call from the school’s athletic director. The AD offered to get the girls whatever equipment they needed, something Chesterfield-Stanton remembers to this day. It was the type of recognition girls weren’t used to receiving as far as athletics were concerned.
In college, Chesterfield-Stanton said she was “fortunate to get in on the start of Title IX.” The volleyball program at MSU was still very new, and consisted of girls who had never played the sport competitively before, since the state didn’t yet offer it at the high school level.
“I had no clue how to play the game,” Chesterfield-Stanton said. “I remember our first college game. I was a setter, and every time I touched the ball, they blew the whistle. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.”
It was the same at Carroll College, where Ann (Lehman) Seifert was a member of the school’s first official volleyball squad. Seifert said she joined the team simply so she could do something to stay in shape.
“I would have loved it if they had track or cross country then,” she said. “I was looking for something to do at Carroll.”
Like most of the other girls on the new team, their volleyball experience had consisted of backyard play.
“The coach had not coached before, most of the girls hadn’t played,” Seifert said. “It was more a matter of getting started that year … everyone kind of learned together. The second year there weren’t very many games, but we did do some traveling.”
Seifert later became a volleyball official in her 20s and 30s, and that’s when she noticed the sport really take off. While suddenly there were more sports for young girls to choose from, however, she never felt like there was a major attitude shift. When she was competing in high school track and cross country in the 70s, Seifert said she never felt there was a negative stigma toward athletic women at the time.
“It wasn’t quite like that,” she said. “Girls who were good at track, they were really accepted and were really inspiring to some people. It definitely wasn’t anything where they were considered unfeminine. It was still a cool thing to do sports.”
Seifert, 55, always believed it was a given that girls could compete in the same sports as boys — at least she never saw gender equality as an issue in Montana.
“Maybe we just didn’t question it as much,” she said. “Nobody was counting up the number of sports for males and females.”
While she’s thankful that Title IX has opened doors for many young women to make a career in sports, Seifert wishes it hadn’t taken a law for women to be recognized as equals.
“I’m guilty of being one of the people who has probably taken it for granted,” she said. “I just never really thought much about it. I guess in the end, I thought it was something that always should have been that way. That’s just the way it should be. We shouldn’t have had to go through all that.”
Bonnie Sheriff, who graduated from Helena High nearly 10 years before Title IX was passed, isn’t certain the law was well received with everyone.
“I don’t think the men were too happy about it. In fact, I’m quite sure they weren’t,” the former Helena AAU track star said. “As far as gym space and things, they now had to share it. Of course we were happier than heck.”
Sheriff later became a coach at Western Montana College (now Montana Western), and saw the benefits of Title IX first hand.
“I think it just kind of strengthened the whole student body really, by recognizing them as equals,” said Sheriff, who still resides in Dillon. “I do think it was a great thing, but the way it was put into action maybe ticked some people off.”
Many of today’s female athletes aren’t sure where they would be without sports and Title IX. Williams, who jokes that she was a gym rat just a week after being born, can’t picture a life without them. The three-sport athlete has had success in volleyball, basketball and track for the Class AA Bengals.
“Today our generation is extremely lucky to have the opportunities we have as females to succeed in athletics,” she said.
At the Great Falls Optimist Track Meet two weeks ago, where girls from all 14 AA schools descended on the Electric City, it was a sight to behold. The Montana State football team was scheduled to take the field immediately following the event for its spring scrimmage and, after the last race had concluded, several of the Bobcat players ran out to begin their warm-ups. What they hadn’t realized, Chesterfield-Stanton said, was that the triple jump was still being contested and the pole vault hadn’t been taken down. The girls just kept going about their business, ignoring the big men in helmets and shoulder pads. For the next little while, it was still their day.
“It was the girls meet and they were gonna do the meet,” Chesterfield-Stanton said with pride. “Usually with women, everybody would be hustling out of the way. But everybody stood their ground and did what they were there for.
“It was really neat to see, as a female coach, that none of the girls moved out of the way.”
Title IX epitomized.
IR reporter Curt Synness contributed to this report.