For 39 years, her nameplate adorned an office door in the athletic department at Washington State University.
Perhaps it should be forever present next to women’s locker rooms on the Palouse campus, because it was the efforts of Joanne Washburn and 12 other coaches and 39 athletes who made it possible for their doors to open to women athletes.
Washburn, a women’s sports pioneer in every way who spent nearly half her life as an administrator and instructor at WSU, died Tuesday in Pullman. She was 83.
“Jo Washburn should be remembered as a giant in college athletics history,” WSU director of athletics Pat Chun said in a school news release. “She fought tirelessly for gender equity and ultimately impacted change that continues to benefit generations of student-athletes.
“Jo’s legacy and impact will be forever felt at Washington State University and throughout college athletics.”
In 1979, Washburn, the women’s athletic director in the separate women’s athletic department from 1965-82, joined in a landmark lawsuit against the school in an attempt to right wrongs they felt hadn’t been properly addressed by the school following the passage of the federal Title IX anti-discrimination law in 1972.
In a story in The Spokesman-Review in June 1997 on the 25th anniversary of Title IX, Washburn and Sue Durrant, the women’s basketball coach at the time of the suit who also was a party to it, were asked what was wrong with women’s sports at WSU in the 1970s.
Without hesitating the story said, they answered simultaneously, “Everything!”
“Everything was wrong to the standpoint as no women’s coaches were hired as full-time coaches,” Durrant said. “There were no full-time assistant coaches. There were no separate locker rooms for women athletes. They simply changed in the main women’s locker room.”
Rick Dickson, the WSU director of athletics at the time, was quoted in the article saying, “Not only did they make the decision, but they really walked the walk.”
The trial with 90 witnesses and 500 exhibits lasted more than eight weeks.
After 10 days of deliberation, Whitman County Superior Court Judge Philip H. Faris ruled women athletes had been discriminated against.
A separate S-R story in September 1997 after the trial ended reported WSU “has agreed to settle a discrimination complaint brought by three women who said they were denied promotions because they complained about budget-cutting plans and salary inequities.”
“The settlement,” it said, “includes a rare admission that the university was at fault.”
In the article, Geoffrey Gamble, vice provost for academic affairs, said, “WSU has recognized that there were serious concerns within the College of Education and we addressed some of those issues,” noting his statement was agreed to by the women.
The settlement included payments of $70,000 to $80,000 per woman to adjust for past salary discrepancies, the story said.
Washburn, whose name will always be linked to WSU and Title IX compliance, was a victim of the July 1982 merger of the men’s and women’s athletic departments, losing her AD position.
“I got fired,” she said in the June 1997 S-R story. “I remained teaching at WSU as tenured faculty. They just put you out to dry.”
As women’s athletic director, Washburn presided over unparalleled growth in the program that supported eight varsity sports – volleyball, basketball, field hockey, skiing, tennis, track and field, gymnastics and swimming – and saw its budget grow from $2,000 to eclipsing $1 million.
The school now supports nine women’s varsity sports with cross country, golf, rowing and soccer replacing field hockey, skiing and gymnastics
Washburn was inducted into the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I’ll always be grateful to Jo for giving me my first opportunity in collegiate athletics administration,” WSU Hall of Famer and longtime Senior Woman Administrator Marcia Saneholtz said following Washburn’s death.
“She was a passionate advocate for equal opportunity for our women student-athletes and many of us have been proud to carry her legacy forward. Student-athletes across the state and beyond continue to benefit from her vision and advocacy.”
Following her time as an administrator, Washburn became a full-time associate professor in the WSU Department of Physical Education (1983-93), then was an associate professor in the department of educational leadership and counseling psychology from 1993 through her retirement in 2004. In the early 1980s, she was founding director of WSU’s sport management program, which continues to thrive today.
A native of Lynden, Vermont, Washburn was a graduate of the University of Connecticut and earned a master’s degree in 1963 from WSU.
She also spent two years as the head women’s basketball and volleyball coach at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake before returning to Pullman to begin her administrative career.
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