When it came to supporting their daughter’s dream to play college soccer, Suzanne and Ellen Bossert were all in. Deep end of the pool. Hours in the car, zeros in the checkbook, the two moms did whatever it took. Head first. Eyes wide open.
And hearts so full.
That’s how it goes when, once upon a time, your own life was limited to the shallow end of that same pool. That’s how it goes when, once upon a time, you had scant opportunities to play organized sports. That’s how it goes when, once upon a time, you were a young girl for whom sports dreams barely existed, but who dreamed nonetheless. That’s how it goes when, once upon a time, you were the change, you were the movement, you stood at the corner of history and took the turn forward, charting the very course that only a few decades later your daughter would scale to such brave new heights.
That’s how it feels to be part of the Title IX generation.
“I was 12 in 1972 and my childhood was ending as Title IX was being born,” Suzanne says from her Needham home, “and it feels a little like, all the way through the lineage, through my wife, through our daughters, like we came of age together.
“It was an amazing thing to be born into a hinge moment to be able to name the before and the after, to feel it, to live through that.”
Today we say happy 50th birthday to Title IX, the landmark federal legislation that was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. One key paragraph, 37 words in all, changed the landscape: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
A floodgate of athletic opportunities opened. For Suzanne, now 62, that meant being the first girl in her hometown of Columbia, S.C., to earn a basketball scholarship to the state U.
It meant a Final Four appearance with the Gamecocks (wiser heads hadn’t yet prevailed to lose the ridiculous “Chicks” nickname for women’s teams), a transfer to Old Dominion, and another Final Four appearance with the Monarchs for the point guard who’d honed her game on the playground against the boys.
For Ellen, her wife of 25 years, that meant an all-Ivy League, University Hall of Fame basketball career at Columbia, a New York State Division 3 championship and a 21-6 record as a senior in 1986. She set school records for points, rebounds, and field goals that lasted decades, with basketball doing incredible stand-in work for a truncated baseball career that ended because Little League rules wouldn’t allow her to play with the boys anymore, not even when she led every team on which she played in home runs.
For girls everywhere, it meant learning the value of competition on the fields and courts, of living the ideals of fair play and teamwork, of developing the tools to win and lose with equal grace, of experiencing bus rides and benches and team dinners and friendships, of weaving the benefits of all those realities into their DNA in just the same way boys had been doing for decades.
For some of us (hands raised), it meant joining a high school soccer team your own older sister was there to inaugurate, it meant pursuing a career in sports that no longer seemed so unusual.
For all of us, it meant the world. As Women’s Sports Foundation research has proven: All we wanted was the chance. There are more than 3.6 million females now competing in high school and college, 10 times as many as in 1972.
For Suzanne and Ellen, that meant watching both of their daughters, Brooke and Kate, grow up playing sports, and eventually seeing Kate, now a rising sophomore striker at Vermont, earn a full ride in what is now a fiercely competitive scholarship market.
“Watching all she went through, the club circuit, the opportunities in soccer for girls, it was so different than what I went through as an athlete just trying to get attention,” Ellen said. “For these kids, there’s a whole pipeline, a funnel, camps to get evaluated, and if they’re good enough, recruiting. That’s a huge change, and it’s incredibly gratifying, honestly.”
Those two views, side by side, tell such an important story.
“It was so disheartening to be playing with all the guys, hold my own, and then to realize my future looked different than theirs,” Suzanne said. “They had dreams with an open road and I did not.”
Gratitude is important, but not simply to lawmakers who went about fixing inequity, but to the women who fought to make them do it, to the athletes who took advantage of it, to the allies who supported them as they did it, all those links in the chain that connects us from there to here.
“I was talking to a friend of mine and we were asking each other if we came up with a slogan for Title IX what it would be,” Ellen said, “and she started with ‘If you let me play.’ I don’t like that, because it gives control away. I like the idea of ‘Play it forward.’ Everything we do ultimately contributes to the next generation.
“For me emotionally, it was hard to be an athlete who loved it so much and couldn’t really realize it in any real capacity beyond [college]. We didn’t have the WNBA when I graduated. I thought about playing in Europe, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. It was sad. There are a lot of tears for female athletes who don’t ultimately get to play.
“It’s really satisfying to see now, women and girls have a lot of options. There’s really so many more things they can do.”
Thanks to those who came before, that is the truth.
Said Suzanne: “As I witness this year being that 50th anniversary, my first feeling is incredulity. I can’t believe I’m that old! But the second is great gratitude because I do understand all that it took to change the world’s mind about the potential of women playing sports and it is absolutely true that athletes really need to be supported in particular ways all the way through those early childhood years, through to however long they can play.
“Without that support, attention, validation, opportunity, girls would not be able to experience the joy of sports in the way their male counterparts can do, and what a loss that would have been for the world.
“It took legislation, it took money, it took real commitment to open this road into the future for female athletes. Without all of that hard work in the early days as it first came on everyone’s radar, there would have been a different trajectory and my own daughter would have had a different experience.”