Mechelle Voepel

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Monday, December 23
Don't have to be a feminist, but need to 'feel it'

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to

In writing about Patsy Mink, I can be pretty sure of getting at least a few e-mails saying, "You feminists are wrong, Title IX has gone too far, it has taken too much from men, it needs to be looked at, etc.''

Patsy Mink
Thanks to people such as Patsy Mink, things are far better for women than in the early '70s, especially in athletics.
And I'll reflect on 1973, the first year after Title IX's passage and the year Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in tennis' "Battle of the Sexes.'' I'll contemplate what it was like then, feeling that positive energy of feminism. Even for an 8-year-old.

Sometimes I think I remember more about 1973 than any year of my life, including the current one. I had pneumonia, got my first dog, and saw my mom at age 51 graduate from nursing school -- overcoming the fact that she had to quit her education before high school decades earlier to support herself.

It was the first year I remember watching Grand Slam tennis matches, checking out library books, wondering why women didn't drive in the Monaco Grand Prix, following the baseball season from start to finish and realizing that your friends wouldn't always stay that way.

It was the first (and only) year I had a passionate rooting interest in the Miss USA pageant, one of those things everybody watched back in the pre-cable days. I was captivated by Miss Illinois, who seemed as smart as she was beautiful. But for that reason, I was sure the judges wouldn't pick her.

Yet, they did. She didn't cry at all and indeed was, as I would discover later, the coolest Miss USA ever. But my grumpy certainty that she wouldn't win was indicative of a pessimistic frustration about how women were evaluated.

I resented them being belittled, protected, babied, stereotyped, made fun of or scorned for not being proper "ladies.'' I wanted to do what I wanted to do, without it being labeled a "girl'' thing or a "boy'' thing. And if there had to be silly, old beauty pageants, I at least wanted the winners to look intelligent.

In general, I just hated the barriers put up.

And in the early 1970s, a lot of them started to get torn down. That's probably why the energy was so intense. Many barriers were so fundamentally stupid and indefensible, they were actually not that difficult to topple when challenged.

Every one that fell made somebody somewhere find another one to start working on. You go through newspaper archives at that time and see so many stories about women speaking out on all these issues they'd previously stayed silent about.

And even "beauty queens'' identified themselves as feminists. Well, at least one did. The aforementioned Miss USA 1973, Amanda Jones, was an aspiring actress who'd reluctantly entered the whole pageant process at the cajoling of an agent and was shocked to win.

She then informed the media she was pro-Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice, concerned about consumer waste, against the Vietnam War, didn't think it was vital that she get married and planned to do whatever possible to shatter stereotypes. And that while she might be "Miss'' USA, her name was "Ms.'' Amanda Jones.

She told her story in bitingly funny fashion to Studs Terkel in his 1980 book, "American Dreams: Lost and Found.'' She relates that when asked if she wanted a ghost writer's help for speeches she gave as Miss USA, she responded, "Hell, no, I know how to talk.''

But I sometimes wonder now if young women today have lost their voices.

I've been struck by the irony that Miss USA 1973 had no hesitation about declaring herself a feminist, but I'm hard-pressed to think of one time in covering women's basketball for 17 years that I heard a player refer to herself as such. The word seems to alarm them.

I don't want kids today to carry excess "baggage,'' but I want them to know what happened. Among the young women I deal with mostly now -- athletes -- there seems so little recognition or reverence for those who worked for women's progress. I can think of several players' bios, including many of white players, who list Martin Luther King Jr. as a role model and idol. Which is fine, admirable.

But if asked their role model among women's rights workers, some couldn't even come up with a name. Relating to and appreciating the work done toward racial equality seems much more in their grasp than the efforts made for gender equality.

Is it because of what they're taught? Is it because things have been relatively easy for them and they don't know any different? Is it because of white women's continued higher economic status, in general, than that of men/women of color? Is it because of a concerted effort of backlash against that energy of the women's liberation movement?

I really don't know the answer. It's all as complicated as the current debate over Title IX.

In that regard, the spectrum of college-athletic programs is so vast, it's impossible to put a grid over all of them. Some are big business, some are the furthest possible thing from that. Where does idealism come in? Do you look at an athletic department and how you treat each student-athlete the same way you look at a family and how you treat each child?

I'm not totally closed off to reasonable questions about spending in college athletics. But I don't like how that's often phrased: Questions about Title IX. As if that's the source, alone and entirely, of financial problems in athletic departments.

For years, no one seemed to complain that sports that produced revenue were helping pay for sports that didn't. That is, when all the sports involved were men's programs. The pie always seemed to be big enough to give everyone a piece then.

Why is it that once women started getting a share, somehow the pie couldn't always go around anymore?

Is that overly simplistic? Sure. But I know that whatever reasonable doubt I might have at times and whatever counterpoints I'm willing to listen to, in the end my support and belief in Title IX is not dented. And I'm worried about what might happen to it.

It's a slam-dunk that things are far better for women now than they were in the early 1970s, especially in athletics. I wouldn't want to go back ... but I miss the energy. Maybe the fact that it has dissipated is simply a direct result of progress and I should be glad to miss it. Maybe it's out there a lot more than I realize, or just not in the shape or form that's as recognizable.

But I hope it won't take losing ground to make young women of today and the future feel it, at least a little. Even if they didn't live through 1973.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at

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