“Women will become masculine if they play sports.”
Norma Carr sat in a conference room and absorbed the words like punches. In the early 1970s as a teacher at Davis High School, she advocated to the Utah High School Activities Association for the inclusion of sanctioned girls’ sports. Gymnasts held their own championship each year without state support or insurance. When two schools let girls play on their tennis teams, the girls were excluded from state competitions.
The UHSAA’s rejections were based in sexist clichés. Carr, a former University of Utah coach who has been the athletic director at Salt Lake Community College for 24 years, remembers being told women should be “barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.”
If a woman played sports, administrators said, her uterus would fall out.
Forty years after Title IX became a law on June 23, 1972, women are fully intact and, in the sports world, thriving. Even in Utah.
The U. of U.’s gymnastics program has won 10 national championships, basketball teams annually appear in the NCAA Tournament and the UHSAA last year reported an all-time high 23,304 girls participated in high school sports.
It’s been a productive 40 years since 1972.
“Back in those days, if you were very active in sports you were considered to be not as feminine as you should be,” longtime Brigham Young University coach and administrator Elaine Michaelis said, “but that perspective changed as we got opportunities and people began to see that, yes, you could be active and still maintain the femininity in your life.”
Women everywhere faced steep challenges earning equal opportunities to participate in sports. Title IX, while not a sports-specific law, legislated that no one could be “on the basis of sex, excluded from participation, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
It was landmark legislation, and has required colleges and universities to provide the same opportunities for men and women.
Carr said Utah, especially, needed the boost from Title IX to become more progressive toward women across the board. Title IX passed Congress the year before The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints launched a vigorous campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the Utah Legislature and across the country.
Carr felt cultural push-back when Title IX was passed.
“It was an awful fight because basically 90 percent of the principals that were on the high school boards were LDS bishops or stake presidents, the upper echelon, and they truly believed women shouldn’t be playing sports,” she said. “Those biases came into the discussion very often.”
Women who grew up in Utah before Title IX played in separate gyms from boys’ teams — when they were allowed to play. Rather than competing against other schools, they were more often limited to “play days” once a year, when they could play sports against their own classmates.
The Mormon Church, which has long supported sports in its wards and stakes, offered girls’ sports. Jessie Embry, the assistant director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU and an LDS sports historian, said women’s sports were emphasized differently from men’s.
“Women’s sports in the church and on the national level were seen as a socializing activity,” she said, “a chance for women to get together.”
Women playing ward sports wore long pants, Carr said, and, depending on the bishop or stake president, were not encouraged to be especially competitive.
“What was good for men was never good for women,” she said.
Michaelis coached volleyball, basketball, field hockey and softball at BYU over a 43-year career and credited Title IX for allowing women to experience what they could previously only observe.
“Before, we were having competitive experiences,” Michaelis said. “But they were so limited we didn’t have the overall benefit of it. We had good social opportunities and good opportunities to compete. But we were real excited to move forward and see what the men had and see that was something we were able to have.”
It’s a time that modern athletes and those involved in athletics can hardly fathom. An all-time high of 200,000 women participated in intercollegiate athletics last year, according to an annual study conducted by BYU alumnae Linda Carpenter and Vivian Acosta.
“I can’t even imagine what it would be like if my daughter wasn’t given the same opportunities I was,” U. of U. women’s basketball coach Anthony Levrets said.
Title IX has been lauded for more than its impact in the sports world. Women interviewed by The Tribune said the opportunities athletics brought boosted them in the worlds of business and administration.
Carr, who oversees both men’s and women’s programs at SLCC, said she nearly didn’t apply for her job in 1989.
“I thought no way in conservative Utah would they ever hire a woman to be athletic director over both men and women,” she said.
A dozen years earlier, she’d been told there was no place for women in sports.
Carr and others, however, believe Title IX provides a framework for more progress; in that sense, the 40th anniversary is less a celebration than a checkpoint. And, at 40, the question of Title IX is not whether it is over the hill, but how much higher women in sports can climb.
Girls’ sports in Utah high schools
Year of first UHSAA championship
Swim • 1973
Volleyball • 1973
Gymnastics • 1973*
Tennis • 1974
Track • 1974
Basketball • 1976
Cross Country • 1979
Soccer • 1989
Softball • 1990
Drill Team • 1983
Golf • 2008
*Ended in 1989