When Diane Wanser attended high school in the Orange County village of Otisville, she lived for the “play days” that were held once or twice a year.
They were the only time Otisville’s girls could compete in sports against other schools and vice-versa.
“That’s all there was. There was nothing. Girls weren’t allowed to play competitive sports,” said the former longtime Middletown High School coach, who's currently the Section 9 girls soccer coordinator. “There was nothing else for girls. They’d be (on) a Friday night and a Saturday. Your school would go play basketball, table tennis, badminton and volleyball.”
Softball, she recalled, was added at some point before she graduated in 1967.
To today’s female high school athletes — many hoping for college recruitment and playing multiple school sports, often supplemented with year-round club play — Wanser’s recollections may seem like "Little House on the Prairie" lore.
But, with some variation, her history is widely shared by many who played and/or coached either pre-Title IX or in the years immediately following passage of the legislation that outlawed sexual discrimination by educational institutions.
In June, Title IX turned half a century old.
While it took some time to get into gear, it has largely aged well and accomplished more than its authors probably envisioned.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, a national advocacy group, participation in girls high school sports has soared nearly 1,000% since Title IX’s passage and participation by females in collegiate sports has increased well over 500%.
Playing in skirts, driving team vans
But it isn’t just participation numbers that have changed.
Talk to longtime area female coaches and they recall countless battles, including for uniforms, facility use, transportation and coaching pay.
The widely told story of perhaps the most famous American female coach of all time, the late Pat Summitt, having to drive the Lady Vols basketball team’s van to away games and washing player uniforms after she got the job in 1974, often generates surprise among those who only remember her eight NCAA titles and eventual million-plus-dollar-a-year contract.
But people like Karen Peterson, who retired as Bronxville High’s athletic director in 2020, and current coaches Gina Maher of Irvington, Emily Watson of North Salem, Joan Spedafino of Rye Neck and Maria Mahoney, formerly of Carmel, Mahopac and Hen Hud and now of John Jay-East Fishkill, aren’t surprised.
All remember when girls' and women's sports were a neglected afterthought to many, if even a thought at all.
Watson, who graduated in 1963 from a city Catholic high school where she played three sports, became part of the first class at Springfield College to have women's sports.
But competition in field hockey, basketball, tennis and softball, while "still competitive, was more friendly," Watson said.
"(Post-game) we shared milk and cookies (with other teams)," she recalled.
Inequity has taken many forms.
It wasn't until 1999 that the Section 1 girls basketball championship finally debuted at the Westchester County Center, despite boys' finals having been played there since 1933.
“The fight for the County Center was huge,” recalled Maher, who started coaching at Irvington in 1976, is a member of the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame and was a longtime soldier in the fight.
Likewise, she recalled when a high school gym outside Albany hosted the girls state championships and the boys played in a large arena in the city.
While Maher noted girls sports have long enjoyed strong support at Irvington, she said that, in her early years of coaching there, “uniforms were whatever we could put together and the boys were out in total matching uniforms."
She also recalls, as the volleyball coach, having to attach the net to walls because the school didn't buy stanchions.
"If it were boys, it would have been totally different," Maher said, remembering games being often interrupted because the net had fallen and had to be restrung.
“All you could do is laugh and string them back up. It was up to us (the coaches) to do it. It was sort of second rate,” said Maher.
But she was long used to things not being equal.
Maher, who also coached at Mercy College and her alma mater, Marymount, had been a Marymount swimmer, volleyball player and basketball player. But these were "very low-key" sports with limited schedules and no playoffs.
“We’d play any place we could find, but it was fun, though,” Maher said.
Wanser played basketball and softball for Orange County Community College, where the team uniform was shorts, a white, buttoned shirt and tied-on, numbered pinnies. But no one complained.
“We felt special. We had something. We looked alike,” she said, noting games were only "once in a while" and they weren't part of a league.
Watson, who started coaching at North Salem in 1967, noted multiple Tiger girls teams, including the basketball squad, wore the numbered jumpers with blouses the field hockey team wore.
Yearbooks show the basketball team didn’t abandon those jumpers for shorts until the mid-’70s.
That wasn't uncommon. Peterson still has a photo from a yearbook from her freshman year at New Jersey’s Green Brook High School wearing a kilt as a member of the girls basketball team.
“I’m in a skirt … and some sort of jersey. They wouldn’t buy us uniforms,” Peterson recalled.
Even when she went to the University of Maine, where she played volleyball and softball before graduating in 1980, Peterson experienced gender discrimination.
She, like Mahoney, a 1980 Mahopac High grad, who played volleyball and softball for Florida’s Stetson University, often drove team vans, as did their coaches, because their schools didn’t provide buses or drivers for women's teams.
“Guys had buses and meal money,” Peterson said. “We had no meal money and had to arrange for a bag lunch from the cafeteria.”
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Watson, who also traveled in coach-driven vans, said only once, during her senior year, did Springfield kick in travel meal money for women. It was $2 for each basketball player.
At Stetson, meal money was standard but guys received more and would simply "pocket the extra money," Mahoney said.
She's still irked both she and a guy she dated from the baseball team were on a work/study program to pay college expenses but her work included working offseasons in the cafeteria and he did zero.
She ended up having to still pay the university, while she recalls him once being handed $400.
“He made money and didn’t do a thing,” she said. “I really worked and I still owed them."
“All he did was show up for practice. He got extra money for being on the team. It was so unfair, so unfair,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney, who links recent knee replacement to a torn ACL in high school that went unrepaired with a surgeon telling her, "You'll have a really big scar, and what girl wants a big scar?", recalled her college volleyball coach fighting for things like practice uniforms and a bigger schedule.
“It was insane," she said, also lamenting that the volleyball team had just one-and-a-half scholarships to offer and softball had only one.
Mahoney tells the kids on her John Jay-East Fishkill volleyball team about these experiences.
“I want to make sure the girls know the stories. … I tell them, ‘You don’t even know how lucky you are. You don’t understand how fortunate you are,' " Mahoney said.
"Play Days" to limited real competition
Wanser went to high school several years before Title IX was envisioned, graduating in 1967.
That time stands out in bold for sports historians, since, in 1967, Katherine Switzer stirred changes in sports forever by dodging an irate race official and competing in and completing the famed, then male-only, Boston Marathon.
At Wanser’s high school (long-closed with village students now attending Minisink Valley High School), boys played full sports schedules in leagues.
Girls were given those play days, usually held at Orange County Community College.
At the time, Wanser was more grateful and accepting than outraged.
“It filled the gap. It was something. I lived for it. I couldn’t wait,” she said.
“They had it organized. That’s what it was. You accepted it. There was no way you could challenge. If you tried to challenge, you weren’t winning. It wasn’t something anyone paid attention to in those days.”
Maher considers herself lucky. She grew up in New York City and attended an all-girls Catholic school that offered league play in multiple sports against other schools.
But while Maher had no problem playing neighborhood hoops with and against boys, including Donnie Walsh, the future University of North Carolina player, NBA coach and Knicks president, hers was an era in which girls teams played six-man basketball, with three players from each team on one end of the court and three from each team on the other end.
“(We were told) you can’t do this and you can’t do that and yet we could have babies. We are physically and mentally strong,” Maher said.
“The whole thing was we were not strong enough to run up and down the court, but I’d always say, ‘We can be in labor for three days.’ “
In a sense, Title IX’s delivery on the promise of equality or at least an approximation of it, including the switch to five-man basketball across the country, seemed like a very long labor.
Apart from County Center championship use, there were day-to-day problems with inadequate practice and game facilities.
While the Mahopac baseball team played on a nice field, the softball team played on an elementary school playground, Mahoney said.
But with grade school dismissal later than dismissal at the high school, that field wasn't made available for team practice.
Instead, a portable pitching machine her coach bought was set up on a blacktop area and fielding practice was conducted on a small slice of land adjacent to the school’s tennis courts.
“I think it was just accepted, but we realized it was inequitable,” Mahoney said.
Spendafino, the Rye Neck softball coach, graduated from Mamaroneck High in 1980 after playing basketball and softball for the Tigers. She noted that, because of a lack of field space, her softball team had to play at the nearby harbor park, where a time limit ended games so local recreation teams could use the field.
Peterson said Maine had separate men’s and women’s athletic departments and separate gyms and athletic buildings.
And, no surprise, “The boys got the big fieldhouse,” Peterson recalled.
But female athletes eventually stood up in one regard.
The women had a Nautilus machine in the basement of the women’s gym. The guys had a weight room with a universal machine.
“All the seniors did a sit-in at the men’s gym until they finally opened up that weight room (to women) one time a week,” Peterson recalled.
Fighting for more sports and equal coach pay
Elsewhere, both before and after this, many other mini-wars with big outcomes were waged.
Wanser, who started teaching at the middle school in Middletown in 1972, said some form of competitive basketball might have occurred before her arrival. But she and fellow teacher Kathy Sannwald started the actual varsity girls high school team that played in a league and Wanser later also started girls soccer at the school.
When the two first proposed basketball, she said the response from administration was, "Are you sure if they lose their first game they're going to want to keep playing?"
Granting approval, the district only agreed to pay for one coach, hiring Sannwald, who then told Wanser she should also coach and they'd split the money.
Wanser recalls the entire salary being less than $400, far less than the salary of the male coaches of boys teams at the time.
She and Sannwald later challenged this.
"For me, the issue at the time was somebody has to fight back," Wanser said. "You're paying me one-third of what you're paying a male coach."
The superintendent of schools convened a meeting of all coaches and the women had to "defend why we should be paid equally."
"The majority (of coaches) were fighting us," she remembered, noting only two young male coaches spoke up for them, expressing shock at the idea women should be paid less.
The superintendent then offered them a little bit more money, which they declined.
But it wasn't long before their salaries were made equal. When the boys swim coach was also appointed to head the girls team, the board of education discussed salary and decided he should earn the same amount for coaching the girls as he did the boys.
The district quickly realized it had set a precedent.
The women not only got raises but a couple of years of back pay.
But there has also been an unintended negative to equal pay.
When Peterson got to high school, she only had female coaches. Men were paid stipends for coaching but all female physical education teachers' contracts mandated they coach two sports with zero pay for doing so.
“By 1974, they had to institute a stipend list (paying everyone for coaching),” Peterson recalled. “All the women coaches were pushed out by men. I remember my basketball coach was beside herself. She was told she was less qualified (because she was a woman). That didn’t set well with me. Women were losing athletic director and coaching jobs because the jobs became more prestigious (with equal pay).”
“Some girls grow up and have never seen a female coach. That’s the one thing Title IX hurt,” added Peterson, who’d not only like to see more females coach but would also like to see females coaching boys, partly so boys “see women in a different light.”
Optimism but also a call for vigilance
Still, Title IX is viewed as an overwhelming positive for females.
Multiple coaches pointed to the importance through the years of many men not just backing it but backing girls sports as a whole.
One, Rye Neck athletic director Joe Ceglia, formed the idea of celebrating the Title IX anniversary with games in multiple girls sports during a recent Saturday. He enlisted help from, among others, Spedafino, a Title IX advocate.
"As the years have gone on, there are more and more opportunities," said Spedafino, a member of the New York State High School Softball Hall of Fame "Now, I feel everything is very equal. It's so different now, thank goodness."
"It's a great tribute," she added of current opportunities, "to all the people who over the years worked hard to make everything equal."
One, of course, was Wanser, who still watches high school athletics beyond the soccer she coordinates.
She noted that as a child a friend tried to try out for Little League baseball but was "tossed before she got to the field."
Now, Wanser said, she watches girls compete alongside boys on Minisink Valley's vaunted wrestling team and "no one blinks an eye."
"I was hopeful this day would arrive and opportunities would equal out. But I have to say it amazes me and thrills me," Wanser said.
"It's getting very close to being totally equal but we should still be concerned. People should be aware of how precious things are and that they can be taken away from them," she added.
And Wanser pointed out that on the professional level, women athletes still earn far less than their male counterparts.
But she suggested that might not be forever.
"Hopefully, maybe in only 10 years we'll say, 'Can you believe we had that conversation? Now women are making more than the men.' "
Nancy Haggerty covers cross-country, track & field, field hockey, skiing, ice hockey, girls lacrosse and other sporting events for The Journal News/lohud. Follow her on Twitter at both @HaggertyNancy and at @LoHudHockey.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: The impact of 50 years of Title IX of women's sports