The Fight for Fair Play

For more than 70 years, expectations for Stanford’s female athletes were meager, until a 1972 law changed everything. Here’s the story of Stanford women who toiled in obscurity until, finally, they didn’t.

September/October 2016

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Women athletes with different sporting equipment inside a gymnasium

Photo: '69 Quad

On a bright April morning in Sonoma, Guyla Runyan Cashel, ’48, sits on the front porch of her son Jim’s house and flips through the sports pages of the 1948 Quad, a remarkable testament to mid-20th-century collegiate priorities. Each of the football team’s nine losses has a page. There’s also junior varsity football, flip, freshman football, flip, track, varsity and freshman tennis, three teams of baseball, swimming, golf, rugby . . . flip, flip, flip. After turning through 52 pages of sports in all their myriad masculine expressions, Cashel says, “Ah, here it is! Women’s Sports. Are you ready for this?” She begins to count. “One, two, three. Three pages. That’s it.”

Actually, it’s six pages, if you count a two-page photo of unidentified modern dancers and a page devoted to the women’s physical education staff. The other three pages show young women posed or practicing basketball, field hockey, fencing, volleyball, swimming and something called dry skiing. There are no names or exploits listed, just a few vague sentences on coordination gained and teamwork achieved.

Cashel isn’t pictured, but she played basketball, which was offered as a women’s PE class. She remembers playing just one intercollegiate game, at Cal. As one of the nine Stanford players on the court that day, she was grateful to be playing in the center because, being nearsighted, “I didn’t have to hunt for the basket.” She flips back to the men’s pages and marvels at the imbalance. “It’s amazing to think how accepted, how welcome women athletes are now,” she says. “Something massive changed, didn’t it?” 

That massive change was, of course, Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds. But the law’s impact wouldn’t be felt on campus until the mid-1970s, when Stanford, ahead of most schools, embraced it rather than dodged it. It may be hard to picture now, through the afterglow of the Cardinal recently winning its 22nd straight Division I Directors’ Cup—the award given annually to the nation’s top overall athletic program—but for most of the 20th century, Stanford was a place where female athletic aspirations often died from lack of sustenance. 

Roble Gym, throne room of women’s PE, and Encina Gym, headquarters for men’s intercollegiate sports, were separated by far more than the mile of dorms and classrooms; they were light years apart in philosophy, stature and especially money. At Encina, sports built character, and winning ignited school pride. At Roble, recalls Elizabeth McCleary Primrose-Smith, ’69, a 1963 Pan Am Games gold medalist who experienced a profound competitive comedown swimming for Stanford, “Sports were exercise, period.” The men’s budget, which derived primarily from football and basketball gate receipts, dwarfed the women’s, which came from the university’s general fund. In addition to Quad real estate, female athletes were shortchanged on coaching, facilities, travel, competitive opportunities, uniforms and respect. If they had equipment, it was often the men’s discards. 

“When the boys got these nice, sleek aluminum hurdles, we got their old wooden hurdles,” recalls Ally Hudson Richter, ’72, who took a track class—the closest thing to a women’s track team at the time—for three years. “Half of us spent time at Cowell [the student health center] getting splinters pulled out of our butts.”

“I don’t think girls today have any clue about what it was like back then,” says Anne Connelly Gould, ’72, MA ’80, a tennis player who would coach the Cardinal to its first women’s national title in 1978. “Now they expect scholarships, they expect coaching, they expect to travel.”

Fifty or more years ago, female athletes were conditioned by society to expect little, and that’s what they got. 

It’s well known that Stanford played Cal in the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game, in 1896, winning by a score of 2-1. But that event turned out to be an anomaly, and not just because it was well-documented, well-attended and well-celebrated. A few years later, school administrators decided intercollegiate competition was too dangerous to the bodies and/or too corrupting to the souls of young women and put a stop to it. For decades going forward, women seeking exercise or recreation had a solid buffet of PE classes to choose from, but competition was limited to intramurals and annual “Sports Days” with local colleges such as Mills, Cal and San Jose State. By the mid-1960s, there were a few teams, including field hockey, basketball, swimming and tennis, that competed in the Northern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NCIAC), but the seasons were short and the van rides to Chico State endless.

Women's basketball team from the mid-1890sEARLY ADOPTERS: Stanford women played intercollegiate basketball briefly in the mid-1890s. (Photo: Department of Special Collections & University Archives)

For the few truly accomplished female athletes who came to Stanford, the school had little to offer—though it seemed happy to take some credit for their success. Chris von Saltza Olmstead, ’65, the winner of three swimming gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics, retired from swimming before she got to Stanford. She doesn’t recall ever dipping her toes in either the women’s pool at Roble or the men’s at Encina, yet she is claimed in the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. Sharon Geary Gee, ’54, another Hall inductee, never swam for Stanford either, but she did train there. Donning a bathing suit and coat at her room in Roble dorm, she’d make stealth forays to the Encina pool—Roble’s was closed in the winter, as she recalls—to get in an early morning workout before the arrival of male swimmers, who liked to swim nude. 

“I’d take my clothes with me, and I’d change underneath the grandstand to make my 8 o’clock class,” says Gee. “My hair was wet, but such is life.” While there was always a caretaker around, and men’s coach Tom Haynie came out occasionally to supervise her, “I did an awful lot on my own,” she says. Despite the lack of support, Gee would win three golds at the ’51 Pan Am Games in Buenos Aires and earn a spot as a relay alternate for the ’52 Helsinki Olympics.

Even those star athletes who did compete for Stanford on occasion found the school’s commitment to their sport wanting. When Julie Heldman, ’66, a top junior tennis player, arrived from New York City in the fall of ’62, she was happy to see that the Roble courts were right across from her dorm, but there was no organized team and no other top-level players around. “It was hard to find anyone to play with, and it was basically catch as catch can. Anybody who’d show up, I’d play with them,” she says. When Janie Albert, ’67, another top junior, arrived the next year, the two elite players barely saw each other except at the few tournaments they played in. For Heldman, the sting of losing to Albert in the finals of the 1964 U.S. Collegiate Championships in Greensboro, N.C., was made worse because Stanford paid only half of her airfare while, as Heldman recalls, it paid both ways for Albert, who lived in California. (In 1970, Heldman became one of nine players to launch the Virginia Slims Series, the precursor to the Women’s Tennis Association.)

Still, Heldman got a better deal than golfer Shelley Hamlin, ’71, who won the national collegiate golf championship in Athens, Ga., as a senior. Hamlin says Stanford refused to pay any of her travel costs to the event. Her father, who was already paying all of her tuition and room and board, offered to make a $500 donation to the athletic department to cover the cost of the trip so he could at least get a tax deduction. But he was told that such a gift might end up going to the football team. “So I won the individual title,” says Hamlin, “and Stanford got the trophy and all the credit, and my father got the bill.”

Ride playing tennisON THE BALL: Ride was a top player in 1971. (Photo: Stanford Athletics)

Lack of funding was a persistent irritant to athletes. In the wake of Heldman and Albert, the tennis team, which officially practiced just twice a week, drew a steady stream of experienced players, including future astronaut Sally Ride, ’73, MS ’75, PhD ’78, the team’s top player in 1971. That year Ride and three other players were denied travel funds to compete in a tournament in Ojai, Calif. If that wasn’t aggravation enough, they were then denied permission to pay their own way—because they didn’t have a chaperone. When the players found a Santa Clara coach willing to serve in that role, women’s PE relented, “but we still had to pay all our expenses,” recalls Anne Gould, one of the four players who piled into a VW bug for the trip. Fed up with the department’s stingy budget, focus on noncompetitive PE classes and lack of interest in drumming up challenging competition, Ride left the team, which she called “potentially the best team in the nation,” before the ’71-’72 season. “It’s not only not good practice, it’s bad practice to play against girls who can’t even serve,” Ride told the Daily in 1972.

In truth, women’s PE was not set up financially or philosophically to accommodate excellence or ambition. Aside from its minuscule travel budget—just $1,600 in 1972, according to the Daily—it was staffed by physical education instructors who had little to no training in coaching, and who operated under the idea that sport should be fun and recreational and never “work.” When Stanford’s teams started competing intercollegiately in the 1960s, the job of guiding those teams fell on those teachers.

Shirley Schoof, who came to campus in 1964 to coach the bowling team and teach various PE classes, was pressed into coaching the field hockey team in 1967 by women’s PE director Pamela Strathairn, ’45, MA ’49, EDD ’62, even though Schoof didn’t know the game well. She had no assistant, and some years so many players turned out that she had four teams to manage and schedule. Yet by relying heavily on highly skilled players from back East, Schoof’s teams did well against their California competition.

In 1972, Strathairn asked Schoof to add coaching the basketball team and teaching basketball classes to her list of duties, which by then included teaching a full day of tennis, badminton and swimming, and coaching field hockey in the fall. Schoof said no thanks. She had never played the five-man game that women and girls now played; she didn’t even know how to shoot. Strathairn tried flattery. “Look how well you’ve done with the field hockey team!” she exclaimed. When Schoof still refused, Strathairn threatened to drop women’s basketball altogether. Finally, Schoof relented.

It would be the worst three years of her life. The players coming into Stanford in the early ’70s not only knew a different game than she did; they wanted to win. “I went in with the attitude of playing every single person on my team and letting them do the best they could do. Winning was not the whole thing,” says Schoof. “I had some major battles in basketball because I wanted to rotate the whole team in. We lost most of our games when we were playing at Roble. We were horrible, just horrible.”

Schoof, who was not paid any stipend for coaching either field hockey or basketball, started suffering migraines and developed a peptic ulcer so bad her doctor suggested she change her lifestyle. So she quit coaching basketball. “To this day,” she says, “I don’t even enjoy watching basketball, because it brings back so many painful memories of me trying to coach when I had never been trained to do it.”

About the time Strathairn was threatening to drop women’s basketball, an unheralded bit of legislation that would convulse the collegiate sports universe was making its way through Congress. Title IX has become synonymous with gender equity in athletics, but neither sports nor athletics is mentioned in the 37-word statute, part of the United States Education Amendments of 1972: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” The legislation’s primary sponsors, Reps. Edith Green and Patsy Mink and Sen. Birch Bayh, were focused on addressing discrimination in educational opportunities for women, who were routinely denied admission to graduate professional schools, and paid and promoted far less than male professors. President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on June 23, 1972, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued regulations about Title IX enforcement with regard to athletics, giving high schools and colleges receiving federal funds until July 1978 to comply. (Many schools were in no rush to do so: At the end of that month, HEW would receive nearly 100 complaints alleging sex discrimination in athletics.)

While several entities tried to limit the influence of Title IX through (mostly unsuccessful) amendments and court challenges, Stanford embraced the spirit of it from the start. Indeed, it seems there was some institutional movement toward leveling the playing field even before Title IX was passed. In a videotaped interview from 1995, held in the university archives’ Women’s Athletics at Stanford Collection, Joe Ruetz, who served as athletic director from 1972 through 1978 and died in 2003, recalled that he was questioned about his attitude toward women’s athletics in his first interview for the directorship, which took place in the summer of 1972 before a panel of faculty, administrators and boosters. Ruetz, a university fundraiser who represented a departure from the typical ex-football-coach-turned-athletic-director model, admitted to the panel that he didn’t know much about women’s sports. But he acknowledged there were a lot of great female athletes out there, and that “the camaraderie” and “relationships you build” in athletics “mean an awful lot and [shouldn’t] be sex-restricted.” Richard Lyman, who had been appointed university president in 1970 and whose wife, Jing, was a national advocate for women’s economic empowerment, hired Ruetz that August. “Dick Lyman was very instrumental in getting this whole thing going,” said Ruetz. “He was strongly in favor of a women’s athletics program. He was strongly in favor of moving toward that.”

Levinson passing the basketballPASSING GAME: Levinson played basketball at Stanford in the mid-1970s. (Photo: '75 Quad)

It would be a few years before athletes noticed any changes. Kathy Levinson, ’77, a four-sport star at Winchester High in Winchester, Mass., chose Stanford in part because she could play basketball, field hockey and tennis. But she was disappointed by the level of competitiveness she found in the first two sports. “For the most part, the players were in charge,” says Levinson. “On one hand, it felt so inappropriate that you were going to a school like Stanford and you’re having to coach yourself. On the other hand, maybe it helped me later in life taking charge and figuring stuff out.”

The field hockey team, coached by Schoof and assistant Carla Soracco, ’60, and led by a host of skilled easterners like Levinson, would make it to the national tournament in both 1975 and 1976. In other years, a major road trip was to Davis for a weekend tournament. “That was a big event for us, to eat at the Nut Tree and stay at a Motel 6, four girls to a room, the kind of rooms where you put a quarter in and it shakes your bed,” says Levinson. A favorite team prank was to sneak out at night and rearrange the letters of the motel marquee to read “Welcome Stanford Field Hockey.” “We did a lot of silly stuff players just don’t do anymore,” says Levinson. “Because nobody was on scholarship and we weren’t taken seriously by the university, there was a lot more team bonding than I think there might otherwise have been.”

Us-against-the-Man bonding aside, female athletes of the early 1970s were increasingly unhappy with the stark inequality of Stanford sports. They had read The Feminine Mystique; they had snapped up the first copies of Ms. magazine; they had watched Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. “We were getting our consciousness raised,” says Mariah “Maggie” Burton Nelson, ’78, a center on the basketball team. “Billie Jean led the way in terms of sports, but that era was a time when women were starting to question everything. Can a woman be a governor? Can women go into outer space? Everything was up for question and up for a different sort of answer. Plus, as smart Stanford students, we learned about Title IX.”

Gymnasts practicingGYM TIME: Recreational gymnastics in 1960. The sport finally won varsity status in 1978. (Photo: '60 Quad)

In Nelson’s freshman year, ’74-’75, a graduate student named Gay Coburn arrived as Schoof’s assistant in basketball and became the de facto head coach. The team still played in cramped and rundown Roble Gym, where a crowd of more than 100 spectators was considered overflow. “Away” uniforms consisted of a red pinny that tied like an apron over the white “home” uniform T-shirt. If you got hurt, you were on your own. “Honestly, the biggest injury risk was running into the wall, which was right behind the basket,” says Nelson. “You had to throw your foot against the wall and bounce back off of it. They finally put a mat up on the wall—that was the big safety measure, so you could slam into the mat instead of slamming into the wall.” After home games, Nelson recalls, Coburn would serve both teams punch and cookies. “While I respect that she wanted to teach young women that a game is just a game and you can respect and socialize with your opponents off the court, I remember thinking, I don’t think the men are doing this.

Nelson found the state of women’s basketball to be old-fashioned, depressing and, given that Title IX had passed more than two years earlier, unacceptable. She and teammates Sonia Jarvis and Stephanie Erickson, both ’77—and, separately, women from other sports—beat a regular path to Ruetz’s office to demand the same things the men had: uniforms, locker rooms, access to Maples Pavilion and the weight room, trained coaches, scholarships. “We got the impression that they were annoyed by us,” says Nelson of the athletic department staff. “And that was really kind of the point.”

Nelson didn’t know it, but Ruetz and Strathairn had spent the summer of 1974 comparing budgets, hashing out differences and laying out a plan for merging the two departments. Gary Cavalli, ’71, who served as Stanford’s sports information director from 1974 to 1979, vividly recalls one staff meeting in the fall of 1974 in which Ruetz laid out a new trajectory for Stanford sports. Addressing a group that included Cavalli, Strathairn and the three or four other male administrators in the department, Ruetz said, “There are a lot of schools around the country that are trying to find ways to avoid complying with Title IX. We are not going to do that. In fact, our goal is to have the best women’s athletic program in the country.”

That year, Cavalli says, he was one of maybe a dozen SIDs around the country who wrote press releases on women’s sports. “Most of my colleagues would laugh at me: ‘What are you doing, sending out stories about field hockey? Field hockey!’”

In the fall of 1975, Stanford became one of the first schools in the country to merge its men’s and women’s athletic programs by creating the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER). While some schools, including Texas, Tennessee and UCLA, built successful women’s programs in the 1970s by initially maintaining departments separate from the men, a merger meant vast improvements for Stanford’s female athletes: They would eventually move to the men’s facilities on the east side of campus; space would be carved out for them in the Encina locker room; they would have access to the varsity weight room; and they would start getting training in line with what the men got. And, for the first time, women would be granted athletic scholarships, though that first year there were only nine of them—four in swimming, three in tennis, and two in golf. “All of a sudden, it was the big time,” says Gould, who was hired to coach the women’s tennis team in 1975. “We were practicing at stadium courts, we had uniforms, we had balls, we had scholarships.”

Women swimmers would now work out at the new deGuerre pool complex alongside the men under coach Jim Gaughran, doing the same workouts totaling six to eight miles a day—about three to four times the distance they used to churn out at the Roble pool. “The men weren’t always happy about it, but it was marvelous for the women,” says Gaughran. “As soon as women started getting scholarships, it changed everything. Female Olympic swimmers used to be around 15 and 16 because they had to let [the sport] go once they got to college. And we thought, look how fast young women are! After Title IX, we started training those gals, and they kept getting faster and faster. We finally saw what we were missing in all those years before.”

1975 team posing for a team photoUP AND UP: In 1975, women’s basketball forerunners included, top row, right from Nelson (No. 12): Coburn, Jarvis, Erickson and Schoof. Kneeling, second from left, Levinson. (Photo: ’75 Quad)

2015 team posing for a photoNEW DIGS: The women's basketball team in 2015. (Photo: Shirley Pefley/Stanford Photo)

In the fall of 1976, women’s basketball got a full-time coach with an impressive résumé—Dotty McCrea had been an assistant with the three-time national champ Immaculata College—and moved into Maples. That meant some inconvenient early-morning practices, but that didn’t bother Nelson. “I remember being thrilled to be there,” she says. “I had always been told I had potential, but I never really had good coaches. So I was just a sponge. I was so thrilled to have that intense training. Dotty taught me how to not let people push me around. I still don’t let people push me around. That’s a good skill to have.”

What Ruetz started, Andy Geiger expanded and accelerated after he took over as athletic director in 1979. By 1985, women’s tennis had won three national titles and swimming had won two. But the basketball team was losing more than it won and drawing few fans. “I thought basketball ought to be as good as swimming and tennis,” says Geiger. “If it had a cardinal and white uniform, it ought to be good.” He set his sights on replacing McCrea with Tara VanDerveer, a 32-year-old who had established a national power at Ohio State by winning four consecutive Big Ten titles. VanDerveer was wary: The challenges of making a conference also-ran—one with high academic standards, no less—nationally competitive were enormous. But those challenges appealed to the competitor in her. “I came here because Andy basically said, ‘I want to have a great women’s basketball program,’” says VanDerveer. “He was committed to it.”   

Within five years, VanDerveer’s team had become a hoops power, drawing national TV coverage, selling out Maples and adding more trophies—including the first of two NCAA titles—to Stanford’s growing hardware pile. Volleyball, which didn’t exist until 1972 (see sidebar), soon followed into championship territory, winning the first of its six titles in 1992. Since 1978, when tennis won its first (of now 19) titles, Stanford women’s teams have won 63 national titles in 11 sports; the men have added 47 in 10 sports.

Volleyball players going to the netA GOLDEN SPIKE?: The 1975 Quad predicted a 'bright' future for the budding women's volleyball team. (Photo: '75 Quad)

Paying for all these sports hasn’t been easy. Perhaps the biggest challenge for both Ruetz and Geiger was funding scholarships. Early appeals to the Buck Club, the organization that funded men’s scholarships, to help with the women were met with resistance and even outright hostility. “A lot of men who were involved with the Buck Club at that time were not supportive,” says Linda Meier, ’61, one of the founders of the Cardinal Club, the group formed in 1978 to raise money for women’s scholarships. “They felt that we were maybe going to dilute their support base, when quite to the contrary, it enhanced and increased
it dramatically.”

The Cardinal Club, which increased its membership from 12 to 1,200 in its first three years, raised money with creative events such as a four-city telecommunicated auction that drummed up nearly $1 million in 1984. But Geiger lobbied hard for the two clubs to merge, which they finally did in 1987. “I thought it was really important to begin to get the idea that we have Stanford athletes, and let’s stop talking about gender,” he says. “The politics were very difficult and it was pretty unfriendly. But we eventually got it done.”

The other critical feats of fundraising that Geiger oversaw during his nearly 12-year tenure were the increase of the athletics endowment from, as he recalls, $4 million to $54 million, and the 1982 establishment of the DAPER investment fund, which has grown to $80 million from an initial investment of $300,000 by Frank Lodato, ’49, MA ’56, and 32 other investors. (According to Stanford Athletics, the total endowment is now worth $570 million, with the fund.)

Women athletes from the pre-Title IX era are proud that Stanford was an early adopter of Title IX, and they are happy that today’s female athletes, who enjoy first-rate facilities and world-class coaching, along with campus-wide respect, can’t even imagine the hardships and slights they endured. But there is envy too. “Oh, I’m jealous,” says Primrose-Smith. “I’m probably more pissed off now than I was back then, just seeing how things have changed and how wonderful it would have been.”

There have been losses to go with the gains. Nobody plays three varsity sports anymore; even two is rare. All sports are year-round and so job-like in their time commitment that some college athletes have tried to form unions. In part because rising salaries in women’s sports have made those jobs more attractive to men, and because a large majority of athletic directors are men who tend to hire other men, women’s representation in the college coaching ranks has plummeted. According to a long-running biannual study of women in college sports, conducted by Brooklyn College professors emerita R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, the percentage of women coaching women’s sports has dropped from 90 percent in 1972 to around 43 percent in 2014, while the percentage of women coaching men remains minuscule. 

Nelson, who enthusiastically came out as gay when she was at Stanford, feels that today’s scholarship athletes, perhaps fretting over future endorsements, don’t feel the same freedom to be themselves. “I would have predicted in those early, heady, feminist, gay-liberation days that a lot of female athletes and coaches would have come out in the intervening decades,” she says. “That is starting to come true, in 2013 to 2016, but still a lot of scholarship athletes do not feel free to be themselves, whoever they are.”

But no one would turn back the clock. The success of women’s sports has had a profound impact on Stanford’s culture, and not simply because sports are a much bigger part of Stanford’s identity—and brand—than before Title IX. “I wouldn’t say women’s sports is the only driver, but it was certainly part of the forces that have driven Stanford to this culture that the university has now—we want to be the best at everything,” says Cavalli. And where women athletes were once mocked and marginalized, they are now revered. “I’m actually astounded by the respect that male athletes give female athletes here,” says volleyball player Hayley Hodson, last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

That respect and reputation benefit even the women who swam or played at Stanford before those things took root. In 1995, a few former Stanford athletes dug up the names of 2,200 women who had participated in sports in some form before Title IX and invited them to a ceremony at the Arrillaga Family Sports Center to retroactively receive the Block S given to all Stanford varsity athletes. Allyn Price Taylor, ’72, who swam for Stanford at Roble, framed the certificate and hung it up in her East Palo Alto law office, where it stayed until she retired a few years ago. “I got a lot of bang for the buck with that,” she says. “People would say, ‘You swam for Stanford?’—knowing that Stanford has had so many great swim teams. I’d just nod and let them think I was that good.”


Stanford plays Cal in the first women’s intercollegiate basketball game.

Women gain the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

President Richard Nixon signs Title IX into law.

The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issues Title IX enforcement regulations.

Stanford merges its men’s and women’s athletic programs.

Women’s tennis team wins the first of its 19 national championships.

The Buck Club and the Cardinal Club, which fund men’s and women’s athletic scholarships, merge.

Women’s basketball team wins its first national championship, a big boost to Stanford sports cred.

Stanford wins its 22nd Division I Directors’ Cup.

Kelli Anderson, ’84, is grateful that Stanford women’s rugby had a trainer present when she dislocated her hip during her one and only rugby game in 1981. 

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