WESTCHESTER, N.Y. — Irvington High School girls basketball coach Gina Maher attributes the success of women's sports directly to the Title IX law, which gives girls the same rights as boys in school sports. And Maher knows something about success: In her three decades of coaching her teams have won three state championships.
"Title IX [enacted June 23, 1972] has been incredibly important to the progress of women in sport," Maher said. "The face of female sports has changed drastically. As time progressed we have been given equal time and, more importantly, equal respect. We now play in front of packed gyms and are given the same coverage as the boys teams. Females now have the opportunity to play all sports on many levels and even receive college scholarships.
It was 40 years ago this week that Title IX of the Federal Education Amendments of 1972, a bill authored by Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii and Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh and known as The Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, opened the doors for female athletes.
The bill states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Title IX meant public schools and colleges were required to give female athletes the same access to sports as their male counterparts.
Mink, the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress, knew something about shattering the glass ceiling that had restricted women. She was also the first woman elected to Congress from Hawaii and in 1972 became the first Asian American to seek the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
Maher recalled the early days of girls high school sports, when the rules of the game limited the progress of players and coaches.
"In the early 70s, girls were just getting accustomed to playing five-man ball," Maher said. "Prior to that, they played what was ironically called "six-man ball", which was basically two half-court games of 3-on-3. Women were not allowed to cross the center court line. You played either offense or defense, not both. You see, back then they didn't think women were strong enough to run up and down a court for an entire game."
Pioneer female athletes were also subjected to other rules that limited play and were meant to segregate them from the sports' mainstream.
"The girls wore dress-like uniforms, were only allowed to dribble twice and usually played before an empty gym," Maher said. "We also were not given equal gym time with the boys and basically allowed to use the facilities only after the boys were finished. The number of sports offered to girls was also far less than the number for boys. Most schools had honor teams, not varsity teams, and played very little inter-scholastic games. [Today] we are given the same opportunities and enjoy the same experiences as our counterpart male teams. As they say, 'We've got game.' "
Ask a young female athlete today about Title IX and many have never heard of a time when girls and boys didn't have equal rights in sports. But Marley Giddins, one of Maher star players and state champions, knows she has inherited a fuller life because of the law.
"Title IX is extremely important for female athletes, as it played an influential role in enabling women to play sports," Giddins said. "It was also a big step when it comes to gender equality. Sports are a big part of my life, so the law really made a difference for me. If I had been an athlete before the law, I would feel enraged at the lack of equality and frustrated at not being to fully pursue sport that I am passionate about."
And that's the reaction Mink, Maher and other pioneers of women's sports in America hoped to hear when Title IX was enacted 40 years ago.