The National Women’s Law Center is rallying today to support girls’ athletics. They asked bloggers to write about their involvement in sports and how it positively affected their lives. The question they asked: What did you win by playing sports? The following is an excerpt from The Accidental Feminist, an essay I wrote that was to be included in a friend’s anthology about feminism. Although she abandoned the project a couple years ago, I’m glad to be able to share a portion of my essay in this post.
What did I win by playing sports?
My journey starts with Title IX. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 states: No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid. Athletics has created the most controversy regarding Title IX, but its gains in education and academics are notable, as more and more women are receiving post-graduate and professional degrees. Before Title IX, many schools refused to admit women or enforced strict limits.
I was six years old when Title IX became law. I had no idea that it even existed until I was in college; or that it was largely due to this that I was able to be a junior high and high school athlete; or that I was allowed the same opportunities to participate in athletics as the boys in my school. I’m not even sure I was aware that sports participation for girls in schools had been an issue at the time. What I did know was that I loved competing. And until I reached the age of ten, I could beat almost every boy in my class in sprints. That did change some once I was in high school, yet I managed to claim the girl’s track MVP title all four years. My sisters excelled in athletics, too. In fact, I recall my father telling me at one time that the high school football coach told him that he wished we three girls were boys.
Title IX paved the way for young girls to actively participate in organized sports, which I believe builds strength, confidence, and an eagerness to engage in competition, not shy away from it. We compete every day, in one way or another. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but I believe this about competition: When you lose, you pick yourself up and try again. This attitude has helped me to overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of tragedy. I face rejection constantly as an actress, but I have developed a thick skin (though admittedly, not as thick as I’d like). I know that if I attend enough auditions, I’m going to book jobs, so I keep doing it. I am a cancer survivor, and I wholeheartedly believe my competitive (or perhaps my fighting) spirit and the refusal to give up helped me regain my health.
The opportunity to compete empowers you to believe you can meet the goals you set. Because I was able to compete with members of the opposite sex at a young age, and then able to compete like them in the sports arena, I always felt women were as valuable as men. I was as competent, as smart, and as capable of accomplishing and doing anything they could. And so, my first foray into actively pursuing equal opportunities, where I saw girls blatantly excluded, occurred during my eighth grade year at St. Paul’s Catholic Grade School in Tell City, Indiana.
St. Paul’s housed grades K–8. Part of that Catholic education included attending Mass once a week during the school day. At that time, all the acolytes were boys. When I was in eighth grade, my friend Mariah and I decided that we wanted the opportunity to be altar servers, so we asked Father David Coats if we could do this. We felt that it was unfair that the boys could participate in the service this way and we couldn’t. Father Coats, being well ahead of his time, agreed that we should be able to serve. His decision caused quite the uproar.
The boys in our class were terribly upset that we would dare infiltrate their male domain, so much so that they called a meeting about it, which Mariah and I attended. In the end, we were allowed to serve. Mariah and I were the first girl servers at our church. After that, several other girls decided they wanted to try it, too. I only served once or twice, and that was during the school week, not during weekend Mass, but we’d made our point, and we were satisfied. Today, I’m encouraged because wherever I attend Mass, I often see girl servers, which perhaps will be an impetus for change (hopefully sooner rather than later) in the Catholic Church regarding women’s ordainment as priests. But that discussion is for a different essay.
Title IX allowed me to discover my potential, not just as an athlete, but also as a human being. Participating and excelling in athletics prepared me for dealing with and conquering life’s challenges and gave me the confidence to live life on my terms and to follow some of my dreams, no matter how unrealistic they may seem to others or how scary they may be to me.
Ladies, how has participation in athletics positively impacted your life?