Review of Playing for Equality

LeBlanc, Diane, and Allys Swanson. Playing for Equality: Oral Histories of Women Leaders in the Early Years of Title IX. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. Pp. 208. Notes, References, Index. $29.95 softcover.

Reviewed by Erica Zonder

As Title IX approaches its 45th anniversary, it seems timely to read about the experiences of the early pioneers and leaders in women’s physical education and sport. To that end, Playing for Equality: Oral Histories of Women Leaders in the Early Years of Title IX is a collection of oral histories of eight women who have, according to the authors, “promoted sports as an instrument for pursuing human rights” (p. 1), and further, have impacted and been impacted by the passage of Title IX. The book is organized chronologically according to each woman’s year of birth and spans over 100 years. And, as the authors note, the oral histories themselves have been “edited and recast” in third person to create coherence (p. 2).


McFarland, 2016

Each of the eight women featured have a unique voice, even when there is overlap in terms of their education, mentors, and leadership positions with AAPHERD and other organizations. Each woman’s early years and upbringing are included in their chapter, which contributes to our understanding of their worldview. In particular, several of the women grew up during the sport-restrictive years of the NAAF-WD, which “protected” women from the physical and mental health risks of sport. These resolutions, passed in 1923, derailed women’s intercollegiate athletics for decades and many of these early pioneers faced obstacles in promoting women’s physical education and competition. Other issues they faced included lack of funding, inequality in Olympic participation, and yes, understanding and navigating the early years of Title IX.  As women are still marching for equal rights and fair treatment today, evidenced by the millions who marched on January 21, 2017, these stories illustrate the progress women have made in terms of equality in sport.

Through these narratives, we learn that Catherine Allen (b. 1909) was keenly aware of gender roles and while she recognized the importance of cooperation within her large family, she was also fortunate enough to have a father that took her on business sales calls, encouragement to pursue music, and ample opportunity to engage in “vigorous play” (p. 10).  Because of the NAAF-WD, women at the time were “trapped in a long tradition of non-competitive play” (p. 14). As a teacher, Allen therefore emphasized recreation–and providing as much activity as possible–for both sexes. She also taught dance, coached a version of basketball for girls (six girls per side restricted to one-third of the court), and incorporated her talent on the accordion into classes. Like many of her peers in this collection, and unlike many women during this era, Allen went on to complete graduate work, including a Ph.D. And, like many, she moved on to a position in administration and worked at many institutions that were at the forefront of developing physical education curriculum. When reflecting on her career, Allen stated, “if a person’s greatest capability is to play, that’s magnificent” (p. 30).

Ruth Schellberg (b.1912), like Catherine Allen, had a family that was supportive of her educational goals. Schellberg got involved with the Camp Fire Girls at a young age, which paved the way for her love of canoeing. She ultimately led over 400 women on canoe trips, or “wilderness sojourns.” Schellberg also earned a doctorate in physical education and she created an outdoor recreation program at the University of Nebraska before moving on to an administrative role at Mankato State (now Minnesota State University, Mankato). There, as she developed outdoor education courses for graduate students, she also faced the challenges of turning women who had never played intercollegiate sports into coaches for intercollegiate teams. And while she continued with her canoe trips throughout her life, Schellberg said her greatest accomplishment “was to stimulate women students’ interest in intercollegiate athletics” (p. 39).

Celeste Ulrich’s (b. 1924) mother worked, and while unusual at the time, it seemed “natural” to Ulrich (p. 43). Ulrich had a background in Girl Scouts, which instilled in her the belief that she could do anything if she was willing to work hard and to suffer “social ostracism” (p. 45), including later facing the “myth” that women physical educators were lesbians. Ulrich also completed a Ph.D. and played a role in the establishment of the National Joint committee on Extramural Sports for College Women (NJCESCW), which eventually led to the establishment of the AIAW. The AIAW governed women’s intercollegiate athletics until it gave way to the NCAA. Ulrich was at the forefront of the implementation of Title IX, and strongly supported mergers between female and male athletic departments.  This creation of one athletic department for both sexes led to overlapping positions that needed to be eliminated, with women often on the wrong side of the employment decisions. Ulrich also contended that women entering the coaching profession were less interested in making the sacrifices necessary to be successful, such as the time demands, resulting in women’s teams being coached by men. And while the authors characterize Ulrich’s views on working women as “prescient” in the 1990s (p. 60), her belief that women should know their limitations is perhaps instead an outdated notion by someone who was a product of her generation. Ulrich’s narrative ends on a down note, as she said, “some of the things I might have hoped for just didn’t work out. There was almost always a good reason . . . so I don’t feel that the world turned against me” (p. 61).

Fay Biles (b. 1927) was working for her father by the age of ten. She “lived to play sports” (p. 64), and as a student she even formed Duke’s first field hockey club. She then went to organize women’s teams while an instructor at Kent State in Ohio – a “struggle” in light of the NAAF-WD’s resolutions, as well as the sexism of the era. Biles utilized the emergence of television as a public relations tool to spread the word of the benefits of physical education and of being a physical education educator, and later as a teaching tool to deliver lecture material. Her Ph.D. dissertation looked at “self-concept” and fitness and was considered “groundbreaking” (p. 73). Biles also emerged as a mediator and leader during the horrific shootings at Kent State in 1970. And, she ultimately became the first female to serve as a Vice President there, leading successful fundraising initiatives. Biles is still considered “a force ahead of her time” (p. 89).

Dorothy McIntyre (b. 1936) also worked at an early age, while “playing Tarzan in the woods” (p. 91). As an educator, she taught a variety of activities and attempted to raise the “competitive spirit as best she could,” navigating “play” days vs. “sport” days (p. 96), ultimately securing a bus (that she herself drove after getting a bus driver’s license) to travel to games with other schools. She was influential in getting girls’ athletics sponsored by the Minnesota State High School League, and eventually served as an executive within the organization. According to McIntyre, Title IX didn’t create changes in terms of competitive sports for women and girls, as competitive events were already happening in the 1960s, but it “put the legitimacy and force of the federal government behind an existing movement” (p. 103). McIntyre’s inclusion in this collection, as a high school educator and advocate, is important because Title IX and equality issues are not just intercollegiate issues, but also K-12. Her biggest regret was the aforementioned merging of the separate departments into one, as many young women would “never experience playing on a team with a woman as their head coach” (p. 110) due to the resulting loss of jobs for female administrators and coaches. This is an interesting contrast to Celeste Ulrich’s support of mergers and later criticism of women who she believed could not, or would not, meet the demands of a coaching career.

Doris Corbett’s (b. 1947) family also encouraged her education. She grew up in a religious, middle class household in a racially segregated town and said, “one did not live without knowing and experiencing discrimination” (p. 133). She was later recruited as an instructor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., her early time there coinciding with the passage of Title IX. She completed her doctorate at University of Maryland while working at Howard full-time, in the discipline that is now known as the sociology of sport – it did not exist at the time. And while at Howard, she put together a committee that initiated the women’s athletic program and coached the women’s basketball team. Like with many new athletic programs in this early Title IX era, she faced a lack of both funding and acceptable facilities. She was also aware that gender equity could not “mask” ongoing racial inequality, but she stated, “As a person of color I had hope . . . largely Title IX focused on people, not people of color” (p. 143). Corbett was a contributor to the important 2003 report by the Women’s Sport Foundation, “Title IX and Race in Intercollegiate Sport,” that examined participation and graduation rates among NCAA athletes of color (p.152), and she further reminds us that the fight for social justice must be mindful of the intersection of gender and race.

The book also offers the narratives of 5-time Olympian Willye White (b. 1939) and Olympic rower Anita DeFrantz (b. 1952). White was a coach and active in the Chicago community, including acting as the Director of Recreation Services for the Chicago Park District. White’s Olympic career spanned three separate decades and her narrative, therefore, largely focuses on the impact that the Olympics had on her life. Her educational and career goals were often interrupted by training and competition. DeFrantz was in college during the passage of Title IX and rowed in the 1976 Olympics. And while Title IX might ultimately have provided “institutions with the tools to define the programs [and] levels of competition” (p. 166)–an insight that is offered in relation to DeFrantz’s explanation of Connecticut College’s rowing team being “outclassed” by schools like Princeton–ultimately her narrative details her Olympic journey as well as her excellent work with the IOC. Both women were impressive in their own right, but their narratives do not seem like a natural fit for this collection – the other six women were all educators in the more traditional sense, although some of the other pioneers, such as Catherine Allen, Fay Biles, and Doris Corbett, had international influence or worked with the Olympic movement in some capacity.

When putting together these narratives, the authors attempted to “as much as possible . . .  let the oral histories speak for themselves” (p. 7) and further, they recognized a need to document “the often heroic yet sometimes mundane acts of resistance that our interviews revealed to be essential contributions to the fight for gender equity” (p. 5). The result of this is a fascinating look at the lives of the early pioneers – how they navigated, “without maps or models,” gender and race and sport in the years before Title IX. If there is a flaw in this book, it is the lack of a narrator or framework that can link these histories together into a larger theme or message (beyond the preface and introduction). And while creating such broad strokes is not the authors’ intent, ultimately the book is perhaps less helpful as an educational tool or major contribution to the field, and more of just a very interesting and enjoyable read.

Erica Zonder is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College.  She earned a J.D. from the University of Michigan and a Masters of Science in Sport Management from Eastern Michigan University.  She can be reached at and can be followed on Twitter @EricaZonder.

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