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Fresh take on Billie Jean King, ’70s feminism, sports — and Title IX

May 16, 2011 – 1:35 PM

By Laura Pappano

In the new May/June issue of The Women’s Review of Books, I wrote about Susan Ware’s new book, Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (UNC, 2011). You can read the view here.

The book is timely, given mounting evidence that Title IX is poorly enforced (think “roster management”) and too weak (or perhaps complicated) a tool to enforce gender fairness in the face of the sports industrial complex.

Title IX was helpful. But it hasn’t solved the problems of either access or equity. In taking us back to the 1970s, the growth of women’s sports, and the example of Billie Jean King — an entrepreneurial force as well as a great tennis player — Ware may be offering a nudge. It may be time for new strategies.

A few things to note:

— WOMEN DEMANDED ACCESS EVEN BEFORE TITLE IX — NOT BECAUSE OF THE LAW. After decades of genuflecting before Title IX and citing the stunning growth in women’s sports participation since — girls’ participation in high school sports rose 979 percent, from 294,000 to 3.17 million, between 1971 and 2009 — Ware reminds us that most of that increase happened before Title IX had taken effect in 1978.  HS participation figures, Ware says, “show that the sharp upward climb peaked in the following sports in 1977-1978: basketball, field hockey, gymnastics, swimming and diving, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball.” Participation in basketball, field hockey, gymnastics and outdoor track and field that year were at “an absolute all-time high.” College follows a similar pattern.

–FEMINISTS AND FEMALE ATHLETES MUST BE ON THE SAME TEAM. In the 1970s, feminists and female athletes battled the same barriers of pay, access, and status—but generally looked past one another. While they gained from one another, they could also work at cross purposes, as athletes failed to understand their power as high-profile symbols, and well-organized feminists left athletes to figure out battle plans on their own. Sports issues ARE women’s issues.

— WOMEN’S SPORTS ARE BIGGER THAN TITLE IX.  Pinning growth of the women’s sports movement on one law is inaccurate — and politically risky. After all, critics of Title IX love to claim that women aren’t truly interested in sports, and that the law has artificially created and fueled an enterprise that wouldn’t otherwise exist.  How much better and truer to see, for example, the success of UConn Women’s basketball team not as lucky beneficiaries of a single law but as part of a forward momentum, a drive that gained power from Billie Jean King, from feminists, and from Title IX?

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