One could argue that it started with Little League. In 1950, a 12-year-old girl named Kathryn Johnston asked her mother to cut off her braids, adopted the nickname "Tubby" and pretended to be a boy in order to go out for the Corning King's Dairy team in upstate New York. She made the cut, and eventually confessed to her coach, who allowed her to stay on. One year later, when Johnston aged out of the team, a national kibosh was instituted, nicknamed "the Tubby Rule": girls were officially banned from Little League. This held fast until 1972 (especially odd, considering the American Girls Professional Baseball League had been around for at least a decade by then), when another 12-year-old named Maria Pepe sued her local Hoboken chapter for the right to play. The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court the same year that landmark anti-gender discrimination law Title IX was passed (and came back in Pepe's favor two years later).
Today, June 23, 2012, is the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's signing of Title IX, a federal institution best known for the establishment and creation of high school and college sports programs for women: "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."
What does this mean? For one thing, this is one of the few times Barack Obama's main title is the proud sometimes-coach of daughter Sasha's basketball team, which he tries to do as often as his dumb whatever-other-side-job permits him. What does he do again? I forget. To commemorate Title IX's birthday, President Obama wrote in Newsweek magazine about the massive effect it's had on female leaders as "a springboard for success... [Women who have received opportunities via Title IX now] pioneer scientific breakthroughs, run thriving businesses, govern states, and, yes, coach varsity teams."
In 1972, the year it was passed, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports (and it took 20 years for some American high schools to catch up and institute female sports teams); as of last year, the count is at over 3 million. But tennis star Billie Jean King, who rose to superfame after beating Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 in what was referred to as "the Battle of the Sexes," insists that there's a lot more work to do:
"I think the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. It's important to understand the fight that so many people had to [go through] for all of us. And young women need to understand that we're still not there. We don't have the professional leagues. We don't have anything compared to the guys. We don't get the support from women — they don't buy season tickets. Guys buy tickets and worry about who is going to the game later; they understand it's about writing checks and supporting the community. Women's sports are a microcosm of society, and women need to support women.
"Every generation passes the baton down," she added in closing. "Now it's your turn."
Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.