Ahead of the game
Illinois State advocated for women before Title IX
by Beth Whisman
It has been nearly 37 years since the passage of Title IX. The groundbreaking and often controversial legislation was enacted to ban sex discrimination in publicly funded schools, mandating equal athletic opportunities for women and men.
Title IX was a national endorsement of what had long been recognized and nurtured at Illinois State through the leadership of a courageous cohort. The same year Title IX passed, the University hosted the country’s first merit-based National Intercollegiate Basketball Championship for Women.
Two early Redbird leaders who fought for women in athletics and physical education were Phebe Scott and Laurie Mabry. Backed by significant campus support, they had already made advances in women’s athletics before Title IX was signed into law by Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972.
Mabry and Scott are humble about their historic role in pushing women’s athletics to the next level of intercollegiate competition. Mabry recalls the tournament as “just one event I helped organize more than 30 years ago.”
A living legend who played in the event remembers it a little differently. University of Tennessee Lady Vols Basketball Coach Pat Summitt described it as a true turning point for female athletes. “The fact that we got to participate, I feel like that was the beginning of something that would lead to greatness,” Summitt said.
Summitt is not alone in her praise. Scott and Mabry are respected as pioneers across the country and on campus. They deflect such praise, singling out President Emeritus David Strand (1978-1999) as an integral player who helped change attitudes in the University’s Physical Education Department long before the nation recognized or embraced women as athletes.
“We seemed to get along all right,” Scott remembered.
“It was for them a learning experience, and it was for us a learning experience. And so I think faculty…ought to be commended for their willingness to try something new.”
Scott headed the Women’s Health and Physical Education Department from 1966 to 1973, and chaired the men’s and women’s combined department from 1973 to 1976. She became a national leader in the promotion of women’s sports, serving as president of the Division of Girls and Women’s Sports, which is now the National Association for Girls and Women’s Sports.
But first, Scott was a tomboy. She spent a lot of time playing tennis as a girl in Massachusetts. In high school she learned about “this funny game called basketball.”
Scott loved the competition, even if the game was technically different from the boys’ version. The court was split into thirds. Girls were only allowed to move within their section of the court, and they had to pass the ball after a few dribbles. The separate rules and social attitudes that often barred girls from competing in team sports puzzled Scott.
“I can remember thinking as a young woman that if sports were so good for boys…developing leadership qualities and so forth, then why wasn’t it good for girls? So that started me on this whole trail of trying to find out why we didn’t participate. That was in the 1960s.”
Scott was disappointed by the answers she found, most of which had to do with female health. “We had been told for years and years that women were of a delicate nature, and were not made to participate in heavy activity. To do so would be a problem for their health, in particular a problem with reproduction. And we believed all that!”
Scott came to the University in 1966 after serving in academic positions at Bradley, North Dakota, and Ohio State. When Illinois State offered the chance to get involved in sports, she was excited to continue her mission. She helped coordinate “Sports Days.” Female students who wanted to play showed up from several schools, and played for the love of the game.
“We were very successful,” she said. “But then you must remember that when we had a basketball season, we only had about three games played off campus. So it wasn’t hard to have a winning season.”
By the time Scott took over the women’s Physical Education Department, Illinois State boasted several hundred women in the program. Many schools reported only about 100 women working toward a degree in physical education. That gave the Redbirds an advantage once modern intercollegiate competition began.
That day came in part because Illinois State faculty and students were spreading their influence long before Title IX passed. The University was sending teachers into school systems across the country with a progressive attitude about women’s physical health, wellness, and even a healthy dose of competition.
“I think Illinois State did a lot to help this whole business of changing philosophy and changing thoughts about the place of women in sports for the rest of the country. A number of our students became coaches and administrators in various parts of the country,” Scott said. “And I think they did have a lot to do with the rest of the country kind of looking around and saying ‘I guess this isn’t so bad after all!’”
Scott used her passion to influence sports and scholarship programs across the nation. However, she never got her own shot at having an athletic career.
“I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to try. But I enjoyed seeing the kids come up through college and have the opportunity to participate in a high degree of skill. In fact we had some women at Illinois State who went on to the Olympics.”
Scott was inducted into the Illinois State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1979, and was honored with a lifetime achievement award in 2007 by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators. She now lives in Fort Myers, Florida.
Mabry became a national force as well, not to mention a front-row witness to the controversies that followed the passage of Title IX. Illinois State’s first and only director of Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics (1960-1980), Mabry also served the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) as president (1975-1976).
“It was certainly a challenging time for me here at ISU, as well as in the AIAW. But Illinois State was well ahead of Title IX back in those days for the Midwest,” Mabry said.
Before Mabry arrived at Illinois State in 1960 to run the women’s recreation program, she had earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. She had considered a journalism degree, tried out accounting, and taught high school for a few years. But she couldn’t shake her love for sports.
She had played golf since her uncle taught her in her backyard. And during the summers, her father had sponsored the softball team in her hometown of Vandalia. “My mother was afraid I wouldn’t go to college. She was afraid I’d play softball my whole life,” Mabry said. “But I wanted to go to college my whole life, so that wasn’t a problem.” She completed a master’s at Purdue University, and her doctorate at Iowa University.
As Title IX’s influence began to take hold, Laurie found herself in the middle of a Congressional debate over the fairness of the legislation. Football coaches had organized to challenge the new requirements, supporting what was known as the Tower Amendment. It was a compromise that would exempt money-making programs, such as football and men’s basketball.
As AIAW’s president Mabry was prepared to fight for the law that had barely begun to change the landscape of athletics. She remained determined even after the AIAW failed in its efforts to get a meeting with then President Gerald Ford.
“We were concerned that we were going to lose all of Title IX because President Ford had met with the football coaches who were objecting, but he denied our opportunity,” Mabry said, noting she was eventually called to testify before a Congressional committee.
While visiting friends in North Carolina, she received her prepared remarks from the AIAW’s attorney. Convinced the Tower Amendment would pass, the lawyer wanted Mabry to support the football exemption. She balked.
“I said, ‘You might be proven right in the long term, but AIAW is not going to say that,’” Mabry said. “I had to change that presentation while standing in a public phone booth with no shade in 102 degrees of heat.”
The Tower Amendment failed twice in Congress. A later amendment offered wiggle room for large football programs that didn’t have a female equivalent, but it wasn’t a complete exemption. The victory inspired Mabry to push for more equality among the Illinois State faculty.
“I held a review of the coaches’ salaries about that time and tried to equalize that based on their experience. Of course we didn’t match football or basketball because of the money they brought in,” she said, “but it was an improvement and an increase.”
During the 1980s the AIAW began to fold as the powerful National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) fought to take over women’s sports. “They could no longer coexist. They weren’t going to let us take over, or try to keep control of the women’s program,” Mabry said, noting the NCAA wanted oversight once it was clear Title IX wasn’t going away.
There were other growing pains as well, as most schools merged their men’s and women’s programs. The need to do so led to difficult choices regarding what sport programs would remain, including at Illinois State.
Mabry acknowledged that it was impossible to anticipate just how big women’s sports would be today. She credits the NCAA with doing a “good job” of giving young female athletes better opportunities due to the NCAA’s ability to get national sponsors for tournaments.
But Mabry also notes that with the demise of the AIAW, many of the women who worked hard to create and advance the women’s programs have found themselves without a leadership role. Since the NCAA was already a men’s association, the administration was naturally full of men.
“In the gain of participation for the athletes,” Mabry said, “we’ve lost the coaches and administrators as women.”
The legacy, however, has not been forgotten. In 1982 Mabry was the only woman in her induction class for the National Association of Collegiate Directors Hall of Fame. Her legacy lives on today for Illinois State Athletics. Since 1981 the school has honored female athletes with the Laurie Mabry Award. Winners exemplify positive values and attitudes that can be learned through athletics.
Today Mabry lives in her hometown of Vandalia, where she has transferred her competitive skills to a new game—poker.