By Mike Pearson
“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 …”
On June 23, 1972, the United States Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed the Title IX Amendment, but not once in the landmark legislation were the words “sports” or athletics” mentioned in the 37-word edict.
Fifty years later, current and former women’s athletes are flourishing, not only on the fields and in the arenas, but in the business world and other worlds beyond.
In 2022—the golden anniversary of the Title IX Amendment—the University of Illinois will celebrate this historic moment, recognizing not only athletic achievements by Illini women, but also celebrating their wide-ranging career successes.
AN HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF LEGISLATION
Title IX regulations were in many ways derived from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ground-breaking law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of color, race and national origin in programs that are federally funded. Shortly afterwards, Congress recognized that it also needed to reform the issue of sex discrimination, so in 1970 a House Subcommittee on Education scheduled hearings. Congresswomen Edith Green of Oregon and Patsy Mink of Hawaii teamed to author the statute, calling upon Indiana Senator Birch Bayh to introduce it to his cohorts.
When Green and Mink added Title IX-like provisions onto another piece of legislation in 1972, their motivations primarily concentrated on reforming the educational system. It did not start as an action to enable women to participate in athletics.
It wasn’t until 1974 that legislators focused on sex discrimination in athletics. Nearly 10,000 public comments were submitted, many of which opposed the new law. Pressure from University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal prompted Texas Senator John Tower to amend an exemption from the law to revenue-producing sports, but it did not pass. Congress, however, did later adopt an amendment to practical provisions regarding particular sports.
In 1975, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Office for Civil Rights released its regulations for Title IX enforcement and its relation to athletics. It read: “No Person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, be treated differently from another person or otherwise be discriminated against in any interscholastic, intercollegiate, club or intramural athletics offered by a recipient, and no recipient shall provide any such athletics separately on such basis.”
By 1980, Title IX oversight concerns were permanently assigned to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Four years later, in the Grove City v. Bell case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title IX applied to education programs that directly received federal funds. That restored the law’s coverage to all of an institution’s activities and programs, including athletics.
THE HISTORY OF WOMEN’S ATHLETICS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS
In 1972, when the Title IX Amendment was established, no varsity intercollegiate programs for women existed at UIUC.
One hundred and two years earlier, in 1870, the first woman was admitted to the University of Illinois. A calisthenics program for women was introduced four years later by Miss Louise Allen, UI’s first physical education instructor and the university’s first female full professor. She also served as director of the School of Domestic Science. In 1895, the university established the Department of Physical Culture for both genders. Ella Morrison directed the women’s program. Organized athletic activities for women started at the U of I during her tenure.
Historians point out that the sport of basketball was played by women in an organized fashion in 1896, nine years prior to the men beginning competition.
Gertrude Moulton and Jeannette Carpenter helped establish the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) in 1902 for the purpose of promoting mental and moral efficiency through physical development. They believed that it taught coordination of mental and muscular faculties. Their aim was to promote athletics and the betterment of health among the university’s women.
In 1915, Louise Freer was appointed director of Physical Training for Women. Though sports weren’t intercollegiate, campus competition existed in basketball, field hockey, softball, bowling, tennis and swimming. In 1923, the university conferred its first bachelor’s degrees in physical education for women.
Laura Huelster assumed duties as the director of physical education for women in 1950. During her distinguished 16-year tenure, the number of faculty tripled from just 16 to about 50. In 1966, just prior to leaving her post to concentrate on teaching, Huelster hired Karol Anne Kahrs to coordinate the department’s athletic program. That same year, the National Organization of Women (NOW) was created.
By 1970, Kahrs’ budget grew to $5,000 and she was encouraged by Huelster to develop intercollegiate competition.
“Laura thought that women ought to have that opportunity,” Kahrs told an interviewer in 2014. “I spoke to a lot of groups when I first came, principals of high schools and that kind of thing, and they didn’t want females doing sports. They thought of women as secretaries, nurses, librarians and teachers … that was it. They thought it wasn’t healthy, that women wouldn’t be able to have children.”
In the late ’60s, there were 35,000 students at the University of Illinois, with approximately one third being women. They primarily majored in education and library science, with very few in engineering and business. On campuses across the United States, there was growing unrest among students about the war in Vietnam. In May of 1970, Illinois students organized a campus-wide strike and protests became increasingly violent. The National Guard was called in and, as a result, several hundred students were arrested. Out of the antiwar crusade grew the women’s rights movement. Women weren’t satisfied as to how they were seen in society and being treated under the law.
The passage of Title IX in 1972 significantly changed the course of women’s athletics.
“When Title IX passed, kids were excited and very appreciative to come and try to be part of that,” Kahrs said. “They didn’t ask for a lot; didn’t want a lot. They just wanted an opportunity to play and compete.”
However, in 1970, campus coeds were forced to draw upon their own expenses to compete. Faculty and graduate students served as coaches and they often drove their teams to competitions in cramped university vehicles. There were no official school uniforms.
The landscape changed dramatically in 1972 when then UI Chancellor Jack Peltason created a task force to study the implementation of varsity athletics for women. In February of 1974, the committee—chaired by Huelster—recommended to the Chancellor that the school add seven women’s teams to the long-existing men’s program. A budget of just more than $83,000 was approved. At that time, the men’s budget was $2.4 million. In early June of ’74, Kahrs was appointed by director of athletics Cecil Coleman to oversee the women’s program.
“One day at a Board (of Trustees) meeting, I asked them what the university was expecting,” Kahrs said. “They said we want to be reputable and win our fair share, but we really haven’t thought about it. There was a lot of concern about how much money it was going to take to be in compliance. That was a wake-up call.”
A maximum of 76 tuition-waiver scholarships were granted to UI women athletes for the first time. Volleyball, swimming, gymnastics, basketball and track received 12 each, while golf and tennis received eight apiece.
Kahrs immediately began to search for her coaching staff, with a maximum salary of $3,000 per individual. Other than UI political science professor Steve Douglas—a former standout basketball player at Kansas State—nearly all of Kahrs’ initial hires were graduate students.
In addition to helping establish competition schedules for the new teams, Kahrs made it her business to meet as many people as she could.
“I got to know all the people in the community and went to all the social events I could go to,” she said. “For example, I had to have a group of 120 volunteers to run a track meet. We made it a practice not to overemphasize winning. We didn’t have any idea whether we were going to be good or not good. But I knew that we could be.”
The Fighting Illini women’s program had only moderate success in 1974-75. In a banquet sponsored by the Champaign-Urbana Altrusa Club, a total of 52 women’s athletes were presented Varsity I letters. They were the first group to receive monograms.
In 1977, basketball’s Mary Pat Travnik was rewarded with women’s sports’ first full scholarship, triggering a paradigm shift that would eventually result in a more even playing ground with the men.
On June 13, 1981, history was made at the annual NCAA convention in Miami as delegates voted 137-117 to include women’s athletic programs within the NCAA governing structure. The action sounded the death knell for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Seven months later, Illinois and eight other Big Ten schools voted to affiliate their women’s athletic programs with the conference. The University of Minnesota, a school that had close ties with the AIAW, held out for two additional months, but eventually joined its counterparts. At that juncture, the UI women’s athletics’ budget had increased to more than $359,000.
When 39-year-old Mike Hebert joined the Illini staff in July of 1983 as Illinois’ head volleyball coach, it sparked a run of success that no other UI women’s program had yet experienced. A 5-25 record in the Fall of ’83 improved to 18-15 the following year. In 1985, Herbert’s team shook the foundation of Illini athletics, winning its first 30 matches behind freshman sensation Mark Eggers. During a span of eight years from 1985 through 1992, Illini volleyball won more than 82 percent of its games, four Big Ten titles, and earned a pair of NCAA Final Four appearances.
Kahrs struck hiring gold again in January of 1985 when she convinced Gary Winckler to take over duties as Illinois’ women’s track and field head coach. In 23 seasons, his teams won 11 Big Ten championships and was named as the conference’s Coach of the Year 11 times. During’s Winckler’s tenure, Illini athletes won 266 individual Big Ten titles and 51 of them earned All-America recognition.
During the decade of the 1990s, several Illini athletes became tremendously successful. A conference-record four U of I women’s stars earned Big Ten Athlete of the Year honors during the 1992-93 season, including volleyball’s Kirsten Gleis, track and field’s Tonja Buford, golfer Renee Heiken and tennis’s Lindsey Nimmo.
On May 15, 1995, Kahrs was instrumental in hiring Theresa Grentz as Illinois’ head women’s basketball coach. Over a dozen seasons (1995-2007), Grentz became UI’s winningest hoops coach, guiding the program to the school’s only Big Ten title (1997) and advancing to post-season play 10 times.
Soccer and softball were added as varsity sports in 1997 and ’99, respectively.
As the calendar rolled around to the 21st Century, success in many sports continued for the Illini. In 2003, Illinois athletes swept both the Big Ten’s Jesse Owens Male and Suzy Favor Female Athletes of the Year awards. NCAA hurdles champ Perdita Felicien was the women’s award winner. During that first decade, distance runners Cassie Hunt and Angela Bizzarri both won Big Ten cross country titles, while Bizzari also claimed NCAA title honors. Other superb athletes of the early 2000s included swimmer Barbie Viney and softball superstar Jenna Hall.
The ‘teens decade of the 2000s was interspersed with numerous success stories, but perhaps the highlight came in 2017 when a number of women’s stars were chosen for Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. Kahrs, gymnast Nancy Thies Marshall, track and field’s Tonja Buford Bailey and Perdita Felicien, golfer Renee Heiken Slone and volleyball’s Mary Eggers Tendler were all honored. Twelve other women have since evolved into equally legendary status.
The 2020s have seen major upgrades to women’s facilities. In addition to women’s basketball’s practice facility receiving a major enhancement, the soccer and women’s track and field programs now claim Demirjian Park as their new home. Softball will soon move into its new $6 million Fred and Alice Martin Softball Training Center. Women’s golf has had the privilege of preparing for its competitions at the Lauritsen/Wohler Outdoor Golf Practice Facility since 2015, while women’s tennis has had the Atkins Tennis Facility for several years. Atkins hosted the 2013 NCAA Division I Women’s and Men’s Tennis Championships.