Exercising Women’s Rights


Title IX Celebrates 40 Years of Supporting Women in Sports

Early feminist crusades measured equality in sport as one of the fronts by which women could validate their equality to men. While the collective population proclaimed that women were incapable of coping with the rigors and physicality of competitive sport, 19th-century women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton quashed this myth by arguing, “We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy in romping, climbing, swimming, playing hoop and ball.”

In 1972 women finally got the opportunity to explore Stanton’s theory with the passage of Title IX, a landmark federal law included in the 1972 Educational Amendments. This vital piece of women’s rights legislation guarantees gender equity and equal access to education for women including equal opportunities to participate in high school and college athletics.

Authored and introduced to Congress in February 1972 by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana and subsequently signed into law by President Richard Nixon in June of that year, Title IX is best known for its impact on women’s high school and collegiate athletics—even though the law makes no specific mention of sports.

Prior to Title IX, women’s athletic opportunities were limited or non-existent and scholarships for college women were few and far between.

“Growing up within that time period, the only athletic opportunity to participate in a sport was cheerleading,” recalls Janet Timmerman, Executive Director of the History Center of Olmsted County.

One of Rochester’s own residents, Sister Joyce Rowland of the Sisters of Saint Francis at Assisi Heights, was instrumental in the law’s formation. She was a member of a distinguished group who drafted Title IX and worked diligently with Senators Hubert Humphrey, Al Quie and George McGovern and Dr. Bernice (Bunny) Sandler—the “Godmother of Title IX”—to make it a reality.


Former teacher, counselor and administrator for Rochester Public Schools Diane Ilstrup taught during the law’s enactment.

“Public school districts had to perform a self-evaluation, with obligations to modify practices that did not comply with Title IX,” Ilstrup recalls. “I remember being part of the process in Rochester. From the beginning, our philosophy in Rochester was to get as many girls to participate as possible.”

Ilstrup remembers a large female population at both Mayo and John Marshall High Schools who were eager to play. There was no problem getting girls to participate; the issue, often, was how many to cut.

“It is my belief that the Mayo High School twins Kelly and Coco Miller put the icing on the cake for girls’ sports in Rochester,” she says. “Through their example, the general public in Rochester became much more aware of the skills of and success of Rochester girl high school athletes. Some of my very best students were female athletes.”

Bob Koerner, former area teacher and women’s high school sports coach, offers views from the perspective of coaching well after the influx of Title IX.

“I had the opportunity to experience the results of Title IX as a coach after it had been enacted for 9-10 years. Most of the groundwork had been done by area high school coaches and school districts to assure opportunities for female athletes.”

Opportunities for women’s involvement in sport within education were almost non-existent for centuries. Since the enactment and 40-year tenure of Title IX, women have truly found a place as equal participants in the world of sport and in the public arena.