Standing Tall for Women's Rights

Courtesy Mariah Burton Nelson

In 1972, the same year that Congress enacted Title IX, prohibiting sex discrimination at schools receiving federal money, Mariah Burton Nelson asked to try out for the basketball team at her Phoenix high school. The coach told her he'd let her on the team--provided he could personally bind her breasts.

Incensed, Nelson opted instead to play for the Phoenix Dusters in an Amateur Athletic Union league. She and her teammates proceeded to win the Arizona state championship.

Since then, "Maggie," as she was known at Stanford, has been fighting--and winning--battles on and off the court. A 6-foot-2 center, Nelson was a mainstay on Stanford's early women's varsity teams in the mid-'70s and later played professionally. Now a successful writer and speaker about gender issues in sports, Nelson says her own experiences in athletics inform her perspective.

During her freshman and sophomore years at Stanford, she says, the women's basketball team was coached by an inexperienced and unpaid (but kindly) graduate student. The team purchased cotton T-shirts and high tops, taped their own ankles and played a handful of games before 20 or so fans at Roble Gym. Neither Nelson nor any of her freshmen teammates had ever heard of an athletic scholarship, much less received one. Nevertheless, Nelson, the three-time captain of the fledgling team, set the still-unbroken record for the most rebounds in a single game (20) and averaged 19 points a game her senior year.

Following her Cardinal stint (the final two years she describes as the high point of her career), Nelson went on to play professionally for the Women's Basketball League, which she jokingly calls "the league no one's ever heard of." She spent less than two years on four teams in the United States and in France. During that time she was traded twice, falling from grace once presumably because she refused to attend "charm school" with her teammates from the California Dreams, she says.

Nelson, who lives in Arlington, Va., has since written four books and contributed to such publications as Glamour, Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In her latest book, The Unburdened Heart, she departs from sports and addresses the topic of forgiveness. Specifically, she discusses a coach and mentor who molested her in high school. She says the process of studying and writing about forgiveness plus the act of forgiving him have made her more humble. She now recognizes that people often act out of pain, dysfunction or ignorance. "I'm not that angry young feminist anymore," she says, but quickly adds, "I'm still a feminist."

And, today, the Stanford women's basketball team boasts two national championships, awards scholarships to all its players and plays to crowds of thousands at Maples Pavilion.

--Leslie Talmadge, '86