50 Years of Women in Athletics at SCU
The sporting life
From a pair of castoff tennis rackets—to nationally known programs and penalty shots heard ’round the world.
Three hours a week. That’s all the Santa Clara women were asking for: the use of Seifert Gymnasium for just three hours on a Tuesday night.
You would have thought they were asking for the moon. And in some ways they were.
“The boys had a picket line around the gym,” remembers Marygrace Colby, who was Santa Clara’s first director of women’s athletics. “They were upset that we had the gym one night a week from 7 to 10.”
Women playing sports was an alien concept back in 1964, only three years after the first female students were admitted to the previously all-male university. Women not only didn’t have the keys to the gym, few understood why they could possibly want them.
The embryonic athletic activities Colby oversaw weren’t considered competitive sports, but “play days” that included serving punch and cookies to opponents. Female students donned coats when they left the tennis court so that no one would see them in their tennis outfits; pants were allowed in the bowling alley, but not on campus.
Completely incomprehensible was the vision of a world in which a female Santa Clara grad was on the cover of every magazine and newspaper in the country, stripped down to her sports bra and celebrating a world sports championship.
|The coil: Women practice their swing in a 1964 golf class. Photo courtesy Marygrace Colby
To tell the story of women’s athletics at Santa Clara is to tell the history of women’s sports in America. The humble beginnings, the now-laughable restrictions, the growth, the struggles, the triumphs, and the occasional complacency.
In 1963, a 30-year-old Colby was hired to “direct and instruct women students in various recreational and athletic pursuits. Recreation was the emphasis,” Colby says. “Athletics was a dirty word.”
It was a vague description of a job with even vaguer resources: a $500 budget and two broken tennis rackets that Colby plucked from the garbage can of the Sacramento-area high school where she had taught physical education. Colby supplemented her budget with funds from her $7,000 annual salary.
In the beginning was tennis, volleyball, and basketball. But the women’s basketball team had to practice in the parish hall at nearby Saint Clare’s, until Colby gained the rights to a Tuesday female-only “gym night”—when the male students were locked out to prevent intermingling. The basketball team started out with a 13-0 record; however, it took three years to compile the record because it was so difficult to schedule games against other opponents. One weekend those opponents included Cal, Stanford, and San Jose State. Santa Clara women beat them all.
Next up: Swimwear
|On your mark: A swimmer on the 1976-77 team waits for the starting gun. Photo courtesy Marygrace Colby
Colby’s mission wasn’t universally popular. The student newspaper, The Santa Clara, ran an editorial saying that the women “were a detriment to the spirit of Santa Clara athletic events” and that the school could do without them. Women weren’t initially allowed into the male rooting section at football games or into the swimming pool, because the men wanted to swim nude.
Despite the opposition and budgetary constraints, Colby’s program steadily grew and she began to hire other coaches. By 1969 there was a swim team—the swimmers wore swimsuits—that tapped local talent at the world-renowned Santa Clara Swim Club, such as Olympian Cathy Jamison ’69, who competed at Mexico City in 1968 and led Santa Clara to national championships in 1969.
In 1971, Santa Clara became a charter member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the new governing body for women’s sports. The NCAA absorbed women’s sports programs in 1982, and, at Santa Clara, men’s and women’s sports programs were brought under one director in 1986.
In 1972 federal legislation was passed prohibiting gender discrimination in institutions receiving federal funds. That law, Title IX, was meant to open up high school and collegiate athletics to women on terms equal with men. Colby—who had to learn to tape ankles and minister to injuries because women didn’t have access to trainers—saw the future possibilities.
“Male coaches accused me of being a ‘women’s libber,’” she says. “But I preferred the term ‘advocate.’ I challenged the administration to develop the programs that they have today.”
|Taking possession: Ann Von Tisenhausen '85 steals the ball. Photo courtesy SCU Athletics
Empowered by the new law, Santa Clara women’s athletics began to expand. By 1974, 700 Santa Clara female students were involved in 75 different activities that fell under the “recreational and athletic pursuits” umbrella, including Powder Puff football, sewing, bowling, and traditional sports like basketball and golf. The women’s intercollegiate soccer program wasn’t started until 1980, but within a few years it became one of the University’s most successful programs and emblematic of the potential for women’s sports. (See "Respect the game.") It also arguably created a ripple effect of excellence in women’s athletics that extended to other sports.
With increased interest and opportunity came inevitable struggles. There was a contentious push for female athletic scholarships in 1978. In 1988, four coaches filed a Title IX complaint against the University after they lost their jobs. Title IX was also part of the conversation in the most difficult choice in the history of Santa Clara sports: the decision to drop football in 1993.
NCAA legislation passed in 1991 required schools to play all sports at the same division level. Santa Clara played most sports at Division I level, but not football: That was Division II—a distinction Santa Clara shared with only seven schools nationally. Administrators deemed that football was not financially feasible for the University; still some critics chose to blame Title IX and the growth of women’s athletics for its elimination. In that way, too, Santa Clara is a microcosm of women’s sports, illustrating the ongoing friction between advocates for the growth of women’s sports and those desiring to protect football—which, despite widespread belief, does not always support itself or other athletic programs, as was the case at Santa Clara.
She shoots, she scores
|Player of the year: Brandi Chastain '91 was an outstanding force on the field. Photo from The Redwood
Santa Clara is also the springboard for the most iconic moment in women’s sports history. In 1999, internationally known soccer star Brandi Chastain ’91 knocked home the winning penalty kick in the Women’s World Cup final, a watershed event for women’s sports that packed the nation’s largest stadiums with fans and drew enormous ratings.
The movie Bend It Like Beckham put Santa Clara women’s soccer squarely on the world stage: In that film, Jesminder Bhamra, the daughter of Punjabi Sikhs in West London, dreams of attending SCU. It was released in 2002, during an era when women’s athletics were expanding quickly around the globe. As other countries followed the lessons of Title IX, Santa Clara became shorthand for female athletic opportunity.
On the volleyball court, Santa Clara women took that to the bank in 2005 with their first appearance in the Final Four—and their first ever All-American, Cassie Perret ’06. To get to the tourney, SCU’s attackers were in double-digit kills in upsetting defending NCAA champion Stanford.
What do they play?
|Scholar and athlete: Cross country captain Noelle Lopez '09 was SCU's first female Rhodes scholar. Photo courtesy SCU Athletics
Under the aegis of SCU Athletics, there’s basketball, cross-country and track, golf, rowing, soccer, softball, tennis, volleyball, and water polo. For softball, a state-of-the-art facility is scheduled to be completed next year, and women won’t have to ask permission to use it.
The world has changed in the past half century, since the request for three hours of gym time almost caused a riot. The woman who started the ball rolling and dribbling—and who earned an M.A. from Santa Clara in 1991—hopes that today’s Santa Clara female athletes can appreciate how lucky they are—and what went before them.
In recent years, Santa Clara produced its first female Rhodes Scholar—when cross-country runner Noelle Lopez ’09 was named a recipient in 2008—and held its first female athlete jersey retirement ceremony. In 2009, Melissa King ’93, the basketball team’s all-time leading scorer and arguably greatest player, was honored at the Leavey Center. This past May, Katie Le ’12 became the first Bronco to compete in NCAA women’s tennis singles.
But progress still isn’t always smooth. June marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX. This spring, when Brandi Chastain was being honored by the California State Assembly as part of a celebration of the federal law, a Southern California lawmaker used the occasion to criticize Title IX’s mandate of gender equity, saying it was unfair to men. Chastain attempted to object. As usual, Santa Clara was a part of the larger story.
To see the story of women's soccer at SCU, see Respect the game.
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