Shawn Vestal: Spirit of Title IX took root at St. George’s as equality debate raged
In 1969, representatives from Spokane schools met to discuss a radical idea: forming track and field teams for girls.
Just intramural squads, mind you.
“An eventual move to varsity status for girls’ track remains purely in the minds of proponents,” a Spokesman-Review article stated.
Girls had been running track in clubs and in various informal venues for years, and pressure to expand offerings in the schools was growing. Still, the notion that schools might provide teams for girls – let alone the idea that schools might be obliged to do so – struck some as extra-extracurricular.
“Many have spent a good deal of time sniping at schools’ lack of action,” the S-R article said, “although schools generally have enough trouble convincing the electorate they need funds for books, let alone girls’ track.”
The following year, Ray Peterson was hired to teach math and coach three sports at St. George’s School, the private prep school in north Spokane. One of the sports was track; he posted a sign inviting anyone interested to come out for the team.
“Turned out it was all girls,” said Peterson.
All girls. What a concept. And what girls they turned out to be.
Forty years ago, Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972. One provision of the act, Title IX, requires schools to offer equal educational opportunities, including school-sponsored sports, to girls and boys. That law, in conjunction with inexorable cultural forces, helped lead to an explosion of athletic opportunities for girls; today, some 3.2 million girls participate in high school sports, compared to 4.5 million boys, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The law was almost immediately resisted. Senators proposed exempting football from the equation in determining equality between girls and boys programs. The NCAA sued to overturn it. Coaches associations sued to overturn it. These debates continue, in one form or another, though polling shows large majorities of Americans support the principle of Title IX.
In the years leading up to Title IX’s passage, there was a groundswell of efforts to expand opportunities for girls. Parents of girls began insisting that their children be treated equally. That meeting among Spokane schools in 1969 was provoked largely by the activities of Curran Dempsey, the mother of a “girl track prospect” at West Valley.
St. George’s would not be directly affected by Title IX since it doesn’t receive federal money. But the groundswell was happening there, as everywhere.
Julie Hansen South was in seventh grade when Ray Peterson posted his notice inviting students to come out for the track team. She’d played on the girls basketball team but hadn’t considered track and field. At that first meeting, she recalls, the small group of girls who showed up began dividing up the different events among themselves, having very little idea of what they were getting into.
“In the early years, there were questions about, could women even do some of these things,” South said. “Could women throw far? Could women run a marathon? Could women lift weights?
“If I lift weights, will I grow a beard? That was a real question.”
Peterson wasn’t a track and field expert. He’d been “a pretty good half-miler” at West Valley High School, but only briefly, and he’d coached one junior high team before this. But what he brought to the team was perhaps more important: enthusiasm and a refusal to allow limited facilities and equipment to stand in the way.
“I consider him our magic ingredient,” South wrote in an email.
In the first years of the St. George’s girls track team – known as the Dragon Track Club or the St. George’s Striders – the athletes made their own uniforms. They lifted weights made of iron bars and coffee cans filled with concrete – without growing beards. They studied technique in books. The starter gun was a .38 with blanks.
“We had three hurdles,” Peterson said. “That was it. There was nothing. There was nothing. You just made do with what you had.”
What they had, apparently, was more than enough.
Saturday: “The big schools didn’t like getting beat by us.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.