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UD Women’s Volleyball team coach Kimberly Lambert makes a point during the Fifty Years of Title IX: Saluting Women’s Sports event, part of the Women and Gender Studies 50th anniversary series.
UD Women’s Volleyball team coach Kimberly Lambert makes a point during the "Fifty Years of Title IX: Saluting Women’s Sports" event, part of the Women and Gender Studies 50th anniversary series.

Changing the game

Photo by Christopher Ginn

UD student-athletes examine Title IX’s impact and look to the future

Sometimes a few words make an enormous impact. Take the opening text of the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, better known as Title IX:

“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.”

Those 37 words opened the doors to new educational and professional opportunities for women. And they completely changed the game for female athletes. 

In 1971, fewer than 30,000 women played sports at the collegiate level, according to a report by the Women’s Sports Foundation. Fifty years later that number was 218,479. At the high school level, the growth has been even more dramatic — in 1971, fewer than 295,000 women played on high school varsity teams; in 2021 the number was 3,240,000.

“Title IX is one the most important pieces of legislation that has afforded girls and women the equal opportunity to participate in sport. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my participation in sports and what it has taught me,” said Chrissi Rawak, the University of Delaware’s director of athletics. Rawak joined UD as the first female athletic director in 2016. 

At a recent special event hosted by the Department of Women and Gender Studies, players and coaches from UD’s women’s basketball and volleyball teams discussed the changes in women’s sports they’ve seen, areas for improvement and the impact athletics has had on their success off the court. Volleyball head coach Kimberly Lambert and assistant women’s basketball coach Bri Hutchen and their respective student-athletes Eileen Gex, Lily Rogers, Savannah Seemans and Tara Cousins talked about female players and coaches as role models for younger athletes, the role of media and social media in promoting women’s sports and the challenges facing female professional athletes.  

Their conclusion: While women’s sports have come a long way under Title IX, the fight for gender equity in athletics is far from over. 

“Last year was the first year that our March Madness national tournament was given the branding and name of March Madness,” said Cousins, a member of the basketball team. “Before it was only the men’s side being March Madness, and it was always the Women’s National Championship. We’re all competing for a national championship.”

During the event, Savannah Seemans, a member of UD's women’s volleyball team, explained how being a female athlete has helped her as a civil engineering major.

"I've grown through playing my sport. I've found confidence. I've found leadership skills," she said. "I've been in situations where I know I can handle this, and being in those situations and understanding that I am still powerful — I still have my worth — even though I am the only girl here, and I'm going to show them what I have to offer and how smart I am."

Savannah Seemans, member of the University of Delaware's women’s volleyball team, explains how being a female athlete has helped her as a civil engineering major during a recent event examining the impact of Title IX on women's sports. : https://capture.udel.edu/media/1_oz3fs6mh/

The panelists cited an increased media coverage of women’s sports and a rise in the number of female coaches, especially at the youth level, as some of the positive differences they’ve seen during their careers. 

“To have a coach that’s a female, to see them being strong and not just be the team Mom or be the water girl is really important,” Hutchen said. 

“We have seen a lot more representation of our sport on television,” Lambert said. “I do wish that it was not on ESPN Plus that requires a subscription, but the fact that we have TV cameras at all at our matches and that they’re streamed is huge.”

Rogers mentioned the variety of sports now available to young girls as a plus. “I started playing soccer when I was a young kid because I don’t think there were any other sports offered, at least not in third or fourth grade. Now there’s women’s flag football, women’s rugby and women’s ice hockey.”

Players and coaches pointed to social media as a driving force in sports today, although with both positive and negative consequences for female athletes.

“The exposure that it gives, whether it be all good or all bad, sets a standard and a norm for young girls who are growing up and seeing us,” Cousins said. “I didn’t have social media growing up, so I went off of what I saw on TV, which was a lot of football and men’s basketball, male dominated coverage.” 

The event was the opening night of the Women’s History Through Film series, a class that has been taught at UD for more than three decades. Professor Marie Laberge said although the panelists were all born long after Title IX was passed, the panel’s insight into the issues was outstanding.

“The diversity of the answers and specific details the panelists provided showed they were very clear about their concerns,” she said.

Said Rawak, “I am so incredibly proud of both our women’s basketball and volleyball programs for being candid about their experiences and the opportunities given to them while paying their respects to the women who blazed the trail before them. They still have that strong desire for wanting more for women and girls in sport, and that itself is inspiring.” 

The event is part of a year-long celebration of the Department of Women and Gender Studies 50th anniversary of teaching about, studying and advocating for the rights of women and all marginalized people. For information about other “50 Years Strong” events, please visit the department’s website.

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