By Dr. Mark DePue
Nineteen seventy-two was the year a bill passed that changed American society forever, yet today very few of us know how or why that is the case. The legislation, known as Title IX, ushered in the most important change in the lives of American women since 1920, when the 19th Amendment guaranteed their right to vote.
Today, if you drive past any soccer field in the spring or fall or visit any Y swimming pool or basketball court, the impact of Title IX is on full display – millions of young girls participating in all manner of sports, and in the process enriching their lives.
Ellyn Bartges grew up in Hinsdale, Ill., in the 1970s in a sport-loving family. Her father, Kent, was the quarterback and punter at West Virginia University back in his day, and he expected his children to be just as passionate and competitive as he was about sports. As far as Kent was concerned, it was Bartges’s older brother who was supposed to be the next star athlete in the family. But while he had some athlete skills, it was Ellyn who possessed both the talent and the competitive drive needed to excel in sports.
Little did Ellyn know that she would soon become something of a pioneering athlete, playing in Illinois’s first Girl’s State Basketball Tournament in 1977. That only happened because Congress had passed Title IX, which prohibited sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that received federal money. Schools were now obligated to provide the same level of opportunities for females as they did for males. And because of good coaching and plenty of talent, Bartges found herself playing for Hinsdale High School in the state basketball tournament.
Despite the team’s disappointment when they were denied a victory due to a last-second technicality, the tournament was a life-changing experience for Bartges. She also remembers attending a tournament game in Iowa the following year, an event that made a deep impression on her. Iowa, Bartges discovered, had a decades-long tradition that surrounded its annual high school girls’ basketball tournament in Des Moines. That tradition began in 1926, and by the 1970s the tournament was one of the highlights of the sports year in the Hawkeye state.
Following high school, Bartges earned an undergraduate degree from Iowa State University and began a graduate program at Penn State University. By 1988 she was the assistant woman’s basketball coach and later the head woman’s softball coach at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. By 1994 she was ready to move on and returned to Illinois. Eight years later she resumed her quest to earn a graduate degree. When deciding what her master’s thesis should focus on, she chose a topic close to her heart – Title IX – and began interviewing many of those involved in the early days of women’s basketball in Illinois.
Bartges went on to work on a doctorate degree and added to her collection of oral history interviews, eventually conducting thirty-six in the process of earning her Ph.D. in 2014.
Phebe Scott was one of the women Bartges interviewed. Born in 1922, Scott remembered all too well the limited opportunities girls had when she was growing up. While in high school, she participated in “Play Days” at Fort Collins High School in Colorado, enjoying basketball, field hockey, and softball. But that was nothing compared to the choices the boys enjoyed. Undeterred, Scott made the most of her opportunities, becoming a university administrator and important supporter of women’s sports. In 2007 she was honored by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators with their prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.
Here was Scott’s view of the importance of Title IX.
Charlotte West, born in 1932, also came of age when girls had few opportunities to showcase their athletic talent. That did not prevent her from carving out a career in sports, however, and she spent her life dedicated to women’s athletics, going on to coach college basketball, swimming, and golf, while also becoming an eloquent ambassador for her cause. Bartges’s interviews with West became the foundation for her Ph.D. dissertation.
No longer are Illinois’s girls and women in the dark ages. They now have an opportunity to excel in their chosen sport, and in the process learn critical lessons about hard work, perseverance, teamwork, and leadership. The women that Bartges interviewed believe there is still work to be done to advance the cause of women’s sports, but universally, they sited Title IX as the catalyst for the tremendous advances since 1972.
Mark DePue is head of the ALPLM’s Oral History Program. You can hear more of Bartges’s interviews in the Oral History Program’s Sports Stories collection at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.