Playing Tennis Before Title IX

Playing Tennis Before Title IX

By Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh

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 of the Education Amendments of 1972 enacted into law June 23, 1972
Billie Jean King wins the Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs in 1973.

I was playing tennis with someone recently who asked if I had played when I was growing up. I replied yes, and he asked if I had played for my high school tennis team. He was the same age as I, and of course had played on a tennis team in high school. Our experiences, however, were quite different.

We have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which passed a year before I graduated from Cooperstown High School. At a time when there seem to be so many steps backwards in women’s rights, I know firsthand that that legislation has been a critical success in leveling the playing field for young girls. And decades of sports programs for girls created the pathway to this Spring’s equal pay settlement awarded to the US women’s soccer team.

What was it like growing up in our community, pre Title IX? It involved watching your brothers participate in
organized sports — T-ball, Little League, and school athletics. Girls were not allowed to participate.

At Cooperstown, seventh grade girls had to purchase a blue “romper” uniform to wear in gym class and use for school sports. There certainly wasn’t athletic wear available. It wasn’t until 1971 that CCS girls were “allowed” to wear pants to school; prior to that, only dresses and skirts. Those rompers were purchased about 3 sizes larger than needed in seventh grade so we could “grow into them” and not have to spend money on another one before graduation.

Until 1969, the high school in Cooperstown was located on Chestnut Street where the Cooper Lane Apartments are located today. It was an old school and there was only one gymnasium, and of course boys had priority to use the space. In the wintertime for basketball season, we girls had to quickly change into our rompers, throw on a winter coat, run out the back door of the school, hop on a school bus which drove to the old Clark Gymnasium in Cooper Park.

Then we would run into the gym, up the stairs, play about 15 minutes of basketball and run back out to the school bus, return to school, and quickly change into a dress for the next class period.

Basketball for girls consisted of 6 players, 3 guards and 3 forwards, with guards not able to cross the center line, and only forwards allowed to shoot.

One can assume it was considered too exhausting for girls to run a full court. Girls soccer was in its infancy and
we didn’t have matches, we had “play dates.”

The one sport I really wanted to play was tennis, and Billie Jean King was a role model. There was a boy’s tennis team at CCS but none for girls. CCS was a small rural school, but those of us who enjoyed sports knew about the Title IX legislation being proposed. In early 1972, I went with a friend to speak to the principal about the proposed legislation. Title IX would not pass until that June, but the principal, to his credit, spoke to tennis coach. My friend and I were allowed to try out that spring for the tennis team.

I can’t say the coach was welcoming and walking on the court for a varsity team tryout in my junior year was daunting. Eventually, rather than sitting on a bench or be subjected to what I would call “unpleasantness”,

I left the team. But one year later, my idol, Billie Jean King, 29 years old, beat 55-year-old Bobby Riggs. And, thirty years after that famous Battle of the Sexes tennis match at the Houston Astrodome, my own daughter played on the Section III Championship Team for CCS.

Editors note: This article is a reprint from The Newsletter of the League of Women Voters of the Cooperstown Area, Summer 2022.

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