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Title IX Trailblazers: the women who started it all at Springfield College

By Olivia Gentry

It’s the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the education law that became the foundation of the gender-equality movement.

In the half-century since it passed, Title IX has impacted women all over the nation, especially here at Springfield College.

On Sept. 30, alumni and current students sat in the audience of Fuller Arts Center to listen to the experiences of four incredible women – all Springfield College graduates.

The panel was unlike most others. Each of the women involved were connected to each other in some way. The relationships between the women included coaches and players, past teammates, or teachers and students.

The panelists had one central thing that united them all: fight. Each fought against the stereotypes and restrictions placed upon them during their time as players, coaches and educators.

The event was moderated by Branwen Smith-King. Smith-King, a member of the Springfield College graduating class of 1979, was part of the first track and field team at the College. She was later inducted into the Springfield College Athletic Hall of Fame, and a recipient of the Springfield College Distinguished Alumni Award. The Bermuda native went on to become the head coach of the track and field team at the Tufts University, where she also became the Physical Education Director and Senior Woman Administrator. During the panel, she invited the panelists to comment based on their experiences regarding what life was like pre- and post-Title IX.

Dr. Mimi Murray (‘62, G ‘67), the longest-standing faculty member in Springfield College history, is a decorated activist who sold the first women’s basketball championship to major television networks like ESPN, and one of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s top five pioneers in women’s athletics, was a member of this important panel.

Murray served as the sports psychologist for the Olympic Women’s Gymnastics and Equestrian teams. Murray directed her talents at Springfield, as a former gymnastics Coach of the Year for the Pride. Her accomplishments in sports come as no surprise, seeing she had been playing sports since high school.

“I loved everything about the gymnasium except the smell,” she said.

Her gymnastics team at Springfield College shocked the world of tumbling, winning the National Championship by a tenth of a point – a feat thought impossible by the other competing teams.

In describing her experience on Alden Street, Murray detailed the harsh atmosphere for women in sports and how the money they were supposed to receive was not given to them. This left women’s coaches underpaid and women’s varsity sports underfunded. Murray didn’t let these inequalities slide and filed a Title IX grievance, one that resulted in what would be an “in house lawsuit.” (The famous case is available in the Springfield College archives, entitled Murray vs. Muddist.)

Without the help of Diane Potter, Murray and the gymnastics program wouldn’t exist, as Potter was the founding leader of the program.

Potter coached the first softball team at Springfield. One of the biggest points of her legacy was her principal role in the development of the women’s intercollegiate athletics program from 1963-1966. During this time, Springfield didn’t recognize women’s varsity sports and even had a constitution that stated such.

After the bill passed, she found that nothing had changed and that even in the classroom the culture at the college was segregated. While she recognizes the growth made in our modern nation, she finds that women’s rights are still being diminished.

She called on educators to continue the fight and for young people to carry the torch of work in gender equity, stating that it was “fun to be in that fight.”

Like Murray, Dr. Jone Bush was a famed coach at Springfield College. Bush came to Springfield in 1963 to start the women’s athletic program. She was the first female athletic administrator and one of the founding coaches in the athletic department. She was the first women’s basketball coach and the first women’s tennis coach.

Bush then went on to coach softball at East Stroudsburg University, worked her way to being a full professor before retiring in 1996 and being named faculty emerita in 1997. Bush set a legacy that would last beyond her years and would act as inspiration to other women in the coaching field.

The final panelist was Dottie Potter Zenaty. She was an athletic powerhouse, participating in four intercollegiate teams at Springfield. Coached by fellow panelists Bush and Potter, she too bore the struggles of being a female athlete of the time.

When Zenaty returned as faculty, she saw first-hand the transitional growth in women’s sports before and after the institution of Title IX. Her success led her to be U.S. Field Hockey Development Coach of the Year. Seeing discrimination as both a player and a coach, Zenaty urged future participants in women’s sports to “stay vigilant” and advocate for themselves and others.

This illustrious group of panelists provided humor and real insight on the emergence of Title IX. Their efforts to change the culture at Springfield College were not unnoticed. Their commitment to gender equality has provided an impact on women’s sports and has granted future female athletes opportunities not possible for the four pioneers who spoke.

Their experiences have inspired action across the nation and the press for continued growth in women’s athletics. Their impact will forever be felt within women’s athletics at Springfield College.

Photo Courtesy Springfield College

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