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The Rich History and Tradition of Women's Athletics at Western Illinois University: A Partial History

Kathy Veroni, former Westerwinds Head Softball Coach (1971-2005)

On October 11, 2002, Western Illinois University celebrated over 50 years of softball. As I prepared for that celebration I studied the yearbook (Sequel) and the school newspaper (Courier). I also spoke with people who could help me understand the rich history and tradition of women's athletics at Western Illinois. I found Dorothy Watson. She attended in 1927 and 1928 and she earned a varsity letter for playing left field. Seeing Dorothy, and knowing of her history made me so proud to realize that the women of Western have loved playing ball and representing their university for a very, very long time.

In his inaugural speech, President Alvin Goldfarb said, "As a newcomer to Western, I have been pursuing these works to try to discover the values that have guided this institution over its more than 100 year history. The 1907 Sequel gave me great assurance that the lesson we are now teaching and the goals we are now setting are in keeping with those established almost 100 years ago."

I believe it is important to keep in perspective the strong desire women have always had to compete. This interest parallels the men, and the only difference has been in opportunity - not in desire.

Women's basketball began here in 1904. Women's softball (baseball) began before 1927. Dorothy Watson (1927-28) earned a varsity letter for softball. In 2002, she was 93 years old and living independently in Macomb. Sadly, she passed away in 2004.

On November 11, 1927 an article appeared in the student newspaper, the Courier, entitled "Girls took a leading part in athletics in early years." In the article, Mrs. Mary Murphy Cunningham 1904, made an interesting comment at Homecoming on girls' athletics of her time. "In those days the girls were much more prominent in sports than the men. The girls' basketball teams played outside colleges and earned money for the men's track suits, basketball outfits, and other equipment."

Western Illinois University must remember this rich history to better acknowledge the women who competed and coached. It is very unfortunate that few statistics or records were kept in those early years (before 1971) about these women student-athletes to add to our rich athletic heritage.

In 1996 I served on the NCAA self-study of the athletics department and had the opportunity to read a report presented to Dr. Helen Smiley entitled "Sports at WIU". This was a report written by Michael McFarland, the Sports information Director. He listed the following starting dates for women's basketball (1971), women's softball (1973) and women's volleyball (1976) to name a few. As a coach at Western Illinois during those years I knew those dates were incorrect. I went into the university's archives and found documents that showed the correct dates and submitted the research to Dr. Burt Witthuhn, chairman of the self-study committee as well as Provost and Academic Vice-President of Western Illinois University. He responded: "Thanks for your recent note and the history revisit. I concur with you it is most inappropriate to throw away historical truth because of ignorance."

Yet, in 2001-2002 we were throwing away historical truth. The women's basketball media guide listed the first year of women's basketball as 1971.

It is very easy for people to think that women's athletics is young when compared to men's athletics. After all, the common myth is that men have been competing since the university's beginning and that women athletes are "johnnies come lately'. In other words, some believe that women athletes are new to the scene - that they began in 1971 or 1972. That date keeps appearing because of two things that happened: Title IX was born and the university hired Bonnie Barker in sports information.

Allow me to turn back time for a moment and share my research.

When students began attending this university they participated in athletics through the intramural program. As you can imagine, scholarships were not given to either gender. The best student athletes formed the teams for all sports. These teams competed against area high schools and occasionally played other colleges.

Men and women both competed somewhat equally through the 1920's. In the 1940's men and women served in World War II and men and women served in the factories and on the home front. But when the war ended and these young Americans returned to college campuses things began to change in the 1950's. The men's teams continued to flourish with coaches and inter-collegiate schedules while the women were not allowed to play as a collegiate team against other schools. The women were only allowed to play in the intramural program. If you wanted to be an athlete, you joined the WAA (Women's Athletic Association). This group of athletes would load on a bus, travel to Illinois State (for example) and play against other schools. The only exception to present day is that athletes would divide up and have players from all the colleges form teams and play each other. Not a lot of glamour in that but that is the way the colleges treated their women athletes at that time. The colleges did not give the women the opportunity to play together as a team. However, men were allowed to play together competitively and the men never played in these play day events.

This style continued throughout the 1950's. Women yearning to compete and men permitted to compete. The University's sons and daughters were not treated the same. That was discrimination.

Finally, in the 1960's women were given the opportunity to compete as teams against other universities. Coaches of women athletes were paid through the physical education department and also taught classes. Women athletes received no scholarships, and operating budgets were sparse. As a student at Illinois State from 1964-68, I traveled to other schools around the state to compete. We came to Western Illinois University. In those days, women athletes bought or made their own uniforms. I was on the field hockey team, the basketball team and the softball team.

I know that women desperately wanted to compete in college and to receive the same recognition and financial support the male athletes were afforded. Women envied their male counterparts and the opportunities the university provided the men. Look in the Western Illinois Sequel in the 1960's. You will see at least 10 pages of the men competing in all sports. Women did not get to. Women leaders began to challenge this discrimination on all fronts; not only on the athletic front, but also in the classroom and in the work force. Women did not receive equal pay for equal work, nor did they receive the same opportunities in higher education.

Because of this discrimination Title IX was born in 1972. Paralleling history, in 1972 the women's softball team at Western Illinois finished 3rd in the national tournament. During this time, athletics was governed by the NCAA for men and the AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) for women. Other teams in that tournament were Arizona State, University of Northern Colorado and Illinois State. Two pitchers in that tournament (Sandy Fischer - WIU and Margie Wright - ISU) went on to coach Division I softball. Sandy at Oklahoma State won 900 victories and Margie at Fresno State nearing 1000 victories.

Title IX was written in 1972, not because that is when the problem of sex discrimination in athletics started. It had been going on for quite some time. In 2002 in an article entitled, "Title IX: 30 years and counting", Lynn Sanders, department of politics, University of Virginia writes: "Title IX is not limited to gender equality in sports. Parity in sports was an afterthought. In non-legalese, the statute means schools can't discriminate on the basis of sex in student admissions, scholarships, recruitment, courses, or any aspect of employment, as well as in providing opportunities for boys and girls to participate in sports.

Since Title IX became law in 1972, girls cannot be discouraged from taking science classes or prevented from joining the math club. Law schools and medical schools were forced to stop using quotas limiting the number of women students and could no longer refuse to admit women by claiming they'd get pregnant and waste their education - routine practices before the laws' implementation. Title IX litigation has addressed fairness in testing and scholarships, employment discrimination against teachers, bias against pregnant students, and sexual harassment in elementary schools.

A more accurate understanding of Title IX's aims and impact would look beyond sports to the huge increases in the number of women lawyers, doctors, executives, engineers, and scientists in our midst. To be sure, Title IX codified social change. Women were already making their way onto college campuses and into graduate schools before the law was passed. But it is indisputable that Title IX had an immediate and massive impact on the gender contours of higher education. And lest you believe that the need for the law has passed, it bears noting that in 2000, the Department of Education received 396 complaints of sex discrimination alleging a violation of Title IX.

Perhaps not surprisingly, women lawyers and coaches who defend Title IX point to NCAA statistics showing how much less female coaches earn, and how much more is spent on recruitment and scholarships for male athletes.

So in the early 1970's we see a tremendous amount of growth in opportunity for the college woman in the classroom and on the playing fields. The money is not there, however. The male athlete receives the scholarship dollars, the coaches and the travel budgets. And publicity. For example, in 1975 the WIU women's softball team won the state championship and finished 5th in nationals. You would be hard pressed to read anything about that event in the Sequel (yearbook) or the Courier (school newspaper). In 1977 softball returned to the national tournament and finished 13th.

In 1977, after 50 years of competition, WIU's women athletes finally have a name. They are called "Westerwinds." They did not want to be called "Leathernecks," so a countywide contest was held to determine a name, and "Westerwinds" was selected. They are not the "Lady Leathernecks", or the "Leather Babes", or the "Leatherettes" - now they have their own distinct and unique identity. WESTERWINDS. "Westerwinds" represents "Western Winds," which signifies a strong, powerful wind that blows forcefully into town, threatening to blow its opponents away. The name symbolizes and embodies the formidable force that our female student-athletes are and always have been and will continue to be.

The name "Westerwinds" is more than a nickname. It is more than a name. It is synonymous with women athletes at Western Illinois University. It is an identity. The name is worth fighting for. It plays its part in representing the fights and struggles women have had throughout society to be recognized for their worth and value.

Again, to quote President Goldfarb, "We also know that universities are where the lessons of history, filled with the countless sufferings of innocent people must help lead us away from committing such inhumanities in the future."

Back in 1927 (the year Dorothy Watson earned her varsity letter for softball) male athletes at this institution began calling themselves the Leathernecks. The name chronology looks something like this.

1904

Male athletes: are called men
Female athletes: are called girls

1927 (the year Dorothy Watson earned her varsity letter)

Male athletes: are called Leathernecks
Female athletes: are called girls and not allowed to be Leathernecks

1972

Male athletes: are called Leathernecks
Female athletes: are called girls

1975

Male athletes: are called Leathernecks
Female athletes: are called Women (FINALLY)

1977

Male athletes: are called Leathernecks
Female athletes: are named Westerwinds
NOTE: In First Century: A Pictorial History of Western Illinois University by John E. Hallwas (1999), on p. 200, it states: "The women's teams at WIU were called the Lady Leathernecks until 1977, when their name was changed to the Westerwinds." This is inaccurate. WIU women athletes were never called the Lady Leathernecks.

2002-2005

Male athletes: are called Leathernecks
Female athletes: are still officially called Westerwinds, though Athletics Sports Information press releases, media guides, University Athletics web sites, as well as women's sports team's t-shirts and gear, rarely use the name, instead more often using "WIU women's basketball team" or "women's golf", etc.

2006

Male athletes: are called Leathernecks
Female athletes: are called Westerwinds

2007

Male athletes: are called Leathernecks
Female athletes: University administration considering proposal to eliminate the women's nickname, Westerwinds

Title IX has begun to help women; equity on the playing fields and equality in the class rooms, operating rooms and boardrooms. In retrospect, however, we see that women were denied opportunities to compete and they were denied equitable funding and they were denied an identity.

Long time Westerwinds supporter Dr. Marion Blackinton was hired in WIU's Department of Physical Education (now Kinesiology) in 1967 and served as a coach and then as director of women's intramurals and women's athletics from 1974-the year Women's Athletics was established as a separate unit from Men's Athletics-until her retirement in 1985. She was instrumental in the development of the women's athletic program at WIU and has been recognized for her pursuit of athletic opportunities for women. In 1976, four years after Title IX was passed into law, the WIU women's teams had not seen improvement in their allocation of operating budgets, travel allowances, uniforms and scholarships, so Dr. Blackinton and I, along with several other women's coaches and athletes, filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the Board of Governors, WIU's president, provost, and Student Government Association to try to improve the resources for women athletes at Western. At the time, women constituted 40 percent of students engaged in athletic programs, but they received only 18 percent of athletic funds. I sat in the courtroom as the judge made his ruling. He dismissed the case on the basis that, (in his words), "Men and women are different." Despite this defeat in court, progress toward more equitable distribution of funds has been made as a result of the courage and tenacity of women like Marion Blackinton. Dr. Blackinton received the Western Organization for Women Achievement Award in 1985, was inducted into the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987 and WIU's Athletics Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 1999 she was one of 45 women honored in the Women of Western Centennial Photographic Exhibit for their extraordinary contributions to the University.

In 1985, Dr. Helen Smiley came to WIU as a full-time professor and as the director of athletics for women. In 1989, Women's and Men's Athletics merged into the Department of Athletics, and in 1994 Dr. Smiley was named Athletic Director. At the time, she was one of very few women to hold the position of director of athletics at the NCAA Division I level. Under Dr. Smiley, several women's and men's teams (including swimming and diving, cross and country, and track and field) were combined in an effort to save money, and women coaches were eliminated from those sports. (Currently, in 2007, there are only four women head coaches in a total of 20 sports.)

In 1992, the NCAA looked at the dollars of all of the institutions and found that 70% of the money goes to male athletes. The NCAA invented the words "gender equity" rather than using the Title IX words of "sex discrimination".

September 2002, an editorial by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution appeared in the NCAA News. "While Title IX helped increase the number of female athletes by more than 400 percent, the number of male athletes also rose by more than 20 percent. "Female athletes still represent only 70 percent of the number of male athletes, and for every dollar spent on women's athletics, $3 is spent on men's. Those colleges cutting male athletes are blaming high-level budget decisions on Title IX. The simple truth is, however, that those athletics departments are often funneling more and more money into big men's sports such as football and basketball. Only 6 percent of high school athletes of either gender will get those precious spots on collegiate teams, those scholarships that so often make a college education possible. No reason is compelling enough to challenge the right of women to have an equal shot at those gems."

September 30, 2002 Christine Brennan, columnist for USA Today writes, "You know that funding is not equal or even proportional for college women's sports as compared to men's. This is a law that by all accounts still has not reached its zenith. Male athletes still get more opportunities than female athletes - and male sports still get more funding than female sports. It comes as no surprise then that lawsuits are still being filed in U.S. courts on behalf of female athletes - and being won by female athletes… If Bush weakens Title IX, there undoubtedly will be lawsuits and hearings, and Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, Dot Richardson and their friends will walk the halls of Congress. I'm not sure what legislators will do first: ask questions, or request an autograph."

As a side note, Dot Richardson was a Western Illinois University Westerwind.

September 16, 2002 Christine Grant wrote in the NCAA news, "Here is the bottom line: Men have 58% of the participation opportunities and women have 42 percent. When it comes to scholarships, there are $133 million less for women every year (than for men). We need stronger enforcement of Title IX to be fair to our daughters and to our granddaughters."

On October 15, 2002 I took part in a conference call for the NCAA softball rules committee and told my male and female colleagues about our university's consideration for a name change. Their response was that, if we were to lose our identity, it would greatly hurt our tradition and they cited examples at other institutions where that had, indeed, been the case. They also informed me that schools across the country are not stripping the identity of women athletes. Numerous schools have a separate nickname for their males and females. For example, the University of Hawaii calls their women "Rainbow Wahine" and the men's teams have three different names: "Rainbow Warriors", "Rainbows", and "Warriors". At the University of Central Missouri (formerly Central Missouri State University) they are called "Mules" and "Jennies". They also suggested we go to a gender-neutral name such as the Bulldogs. If we all become Leathernecks, how will we differentiate between our male and female athletes? Will we be Lady Leathernecks? If this were the case then our women would be "sloppy seconds" again.

"Westerwinds" has been synonymous with women athletes at Western Illinois University for the past 30 years. A hard fought battle of 50 years to earn that name. We are just emerging in building our legacy and tradition. Many elite women athletes and hall of famers have been called, "WESTERWINDS".

During our golden anniversary of softball celebration in 2002, Dr. Tim Van Alstine said, "We are truly proud of our history and our tradition of softball here at Western Illinois University. Almost every college or university has a history of softball, even if they have softball at all. But few are proud to boast about their softball tradition. And let's make no mistake; there is a difference between history and tradition. History happens but tradition is earned. Western Illinois' tradition has been earned; earned by the former student athletes, the former coaches and by all who, in some way, have been connected with our softball program."

The Westerwinds name has been earned. That is our history. That is our tradition. Let us not strip the name away and disgrace all who served it well. This name should not be removed for the sake of marketing or money. The Westerwinds name is the key to all women who fought so honorably to earn the name. It is priceless.