By Emily Gold Boutilier
Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education, including in sports, turned 40 on June 23, 2012. Exactly 10 days earlier, five Amherst women from various generations gathered around a table in Alumni Gymnasium. Over an hour and a half, these athletes talked with one another about what the landmark legislation did for them and for the college—and what still needs to get better.
Amherst: Some of you grew up before Title IX, others after. What were each of your early experiences as athletes?
Clockwise from top left: Kristen Spargo ’95, Katie Fretwell ’81,
Athletic Director Suzanne Coffey and Coach Michelle Morgan
Michelle Morgan: There were no organized sports [for girls in the mid-1950s], but I was involved with my brothers in pick-up football games, baseball games and kick the can. I was the first girl in our town on the Little League team; I was better than most of the other players, which my brothers were quite proud of.
Suzanne Coffey: From my earliest memories, we were playing street ball of every sort. The first year Title IX passed—the first year that universities were giving athletic scholarships to women—I was headed into my freshman year of college. When recruiters came knocking at my door, my father was very unhappy. I remember him ripping up scholarship letters. He thought [they were] a suggestion that he wasn’t capable of paying for his daughter to go to college.
Katie Fretwell ’81: When I was in third grade, I became aware that I was different—not only from my family, which was completely nonathletic, but also [in that] I loved Tuesdays at my public school, because it was gym day; none of the other girls understood this. [Later,] my 17 minutes during recess every day were spent playing touch football with the boys. There were no interscholastic [athletic] opportunities for girls.
Morgan: I had the good fortune of going on to a prep school that had teams [for girls] and then to an all-women’s college [Colorado Women’s College, from which she graduated in 1974] that had an organized athletics program.
Fretwell: In ninth grade I went to a school that had become coed that year, having previously been all male, and there was a spanking new athletics program [for girls]. Four years later I went off to a college that had become coed the year prior to my arrival. It, too, was developing its first set of female intercollegiate programs.
Kristen Spargo ’95: My mom always said, “I wish I’d played field hockey or tennis, but it wasn’t offered,” and so she encouraged me to pursue [my interest in] sports. I palled around with the neighborhood boys, climbing trees, running races, playing tennis, baseball. Soccer became my passion in seventh or eighth grade, which now would be late for someone to find her sport. In high school I was one of only two freshmen to make the varsity team.
Stephanie Clegg ’12 was part of the evolution of
women’s ice hockey.
Stephanie Clegg ’12: I started playing ice hockey on an organized team when I was 5. At first it was with the boys, but then girls’ programs started to evolve around me. A lot of my friends figure skated, so I started figure skating too. Softball was next. Soccer was from age 5; my mom coached. When friends started playing basketball, I also started playing basketball.
Amherst: Suzanne, did you listen to your father?
Coffey: I accepted a scholarship for a full ride [to the University of New Hampshire]. I played three sports my freshman year: field hockey, basketball and lacrosse. My scholarship was for field hockey and lacrosse, so, my sophomore year, I stopped playing basketball, which I regret to this day. We played at the national championship level for the AIAW [the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women], before it merged with the NCAA.
Amherst: During the early years of Title IX, roughly when Suzanne was at UNH, what was it like to be part of a women’s team at Amherst?
Fretwell: I got a letter from the varsity lacrosse coach, after I was admitted, saying, “You play lacrosse. Come out for the team.” I [also] wanted to play soccer, but there was no women’s soccer program. I dared to go to the JV men’s tryout and survived; I don’t mean I made the team, but I got through without totally making a fool of myself. [Athletic Director Peter Gooding] gave the women a field for soccer and found an upperclass student to coach. The next year he hired a coach to support a club program in soccer. By the time I was a senior, some of the new students had benefitted from Title IX and were a heck of a lot better than the seniors on the team.
Morgan: I came to Amherst in 1978, the year after Katie. I was the second woman hired here [as a coach]. The first stayed for a year and a half. I was originally hired to do club soccer, varsity basketball and men’s tennis. I was actually hired to coach a men’s team. You had to be a jack of all trades.
Fretwell: My soccer and lacrosse coach was none other than Michelle Morgan.
Morgan (bottom left) was the second woman
hired to coach at Amherst.
Morgan: The department embraced the women and wanted to develop the program in the best way possible. I became the basketball coach the first day of the season without any preparation. David Hixon [’75, the men’s basketball coach] held my hand and helped me get the team to 500 for two years. Peter Gooding got me exposed nationally in soccer.
Amherst: What were the specific challenges in joining a previously all-male program?
Morgan: There were challenges with uniforms and some naiveté by male coaches about what the women needed. They divided the locker room in half to make a female locker room and didn’t have the foresight [to realize] that there may be some curious male athletes.
Fretwell: The wall didn’t go to the floor, did it?
Morgan: The wall didn’t go to the floor or the ceiling. It was a partition. That led to a few curious young men who, these days, would be in front of the judicial board. I remember a group of women coming to me and saying, “The men are issued jock straps. We deserve sports bras.” [The program] grew in steps, particularly when women would come to me and say, “This isn’t fair; this isn’t right.” The department was very supportive, listening to and acting on those needs.
Fretwell: Most women who came to Amherst understood that this was an institution in transition. I think the vast majority said, “I’m going to be part of the change, a pioneering force.” Expectations, for the most part, were realistic. And yeah, I do remember the sports-bra thing.
Amherst: Were male athletes resentful?
Fretwell: I never heard a peep. I don’t think there was anything obviously taken away from the men’s programs as we added women’s programs.
Morgan: And Title IX was never stated as the reason for adding [teams]. Sports were added here because women came and wanted to have a program. We would start at the club level. If, over three or four years, we sustained a satisfactory squad size, the team would petition the department to become varsity.
Amherst: In those years, how big were the crowds at your games?
Morgan: There were no spectators, period. My husband remembers that the custodian of DU and his wife would come to the [women’s basketball] games because my brother [had been] in DU. My husband would come. Occasionally Peter Gooding would come. That was our crowd, from home game to home game to home game.
Amherst: Was that deflating?
Morgan: I didn’t know any better. I coached because I loved what we were doing. It may have bothered the student-athletes, but they were doing what they loved to do. As teams got better and we got deeper into coeducation, the men came out of their shells and realized that the women were pretty good.
Fretwell: And flash forward, the women won a national championship in basketball [in 2011]. But what’s really cool is to see the local girls, 7-year-olds on basketball teams, wanting the autographs of our players.
Coffey: Girls and boys.
Morgan: Yes, and there’s a line of young girls and boys giving knuckles to the [women’s ice hockey] players as they get onto and off of the ice. It’s neat to see the evolution.
Clegg: I loved coming off the ice and walking through lines of young kids, eyes wide and grinning, reaching for high fives. Their excitement not only motivated us but also put everything in perspective. Growing up outside of Boston, I remember going to Harvard games and idolizing the girls, yet I didn’t have access to them. They didn’t shuffle by me between periods.
Amherst: Suzanne, did you have spectators at UNH?
Coffey: I remember specific parents who attended games. Friends would come—your roommate, people down the hall, people in your major—but it was somewhat unusual to have an actual crowd. You didn’t need stands; people would stand around the field or sit in the first row of bleachers. But it didn’t matter. I don’t remember looking around and wishing there were more people. I just remember being really glad to be playing.
Morgan: In contrast to Suzanne’s era, in my era parents did not come to events, except on parents’ weekend.
Spargo: During my years on the soccer team, Michelle did a great job creating a community among the players and their families. You got to know [parents] from the tailgates and the games. I felt we had really good support. We had a consistent crowd of parents who would come.
Clegg: The crowd at our games consisted primarily of parents, friends and faculty children, and of course our loyal mailroom fans. Several of us played field hockey or had roommates on the lacrosse and volleyball teams, and therefore members of those teams often made appearance [at hockey games]. Over my four years, the field/ice hockey bond was also strengthened by the hockey girls working as ball girls, commentators and announcers at field hockey games.
Amherst: Another change is that, today, almost every student-athlete at Amherst is recruited.
Fretwell: There isn’t a lot of room for the walk-on athlete. But there are more opportunities for men and women to participate in programming offered by the Department of Physical Education. Intramurals existed 30-plus years ago but not to the extent they do today.
Coffey: About two-thirds of our student body is participating in organized sports [through varsity or club teams]. And on any given day at 5 p.m., you can walk the [gymnasium] hallways or go out to the fields and you’ll see students doing all kinds of workouts. It would be unusual to find a student today who’s never been to the gym.
Spargo: When I was applying to college, soccer was an afterthought. I remember communicating with Michelle as I was applying and her encouraging me to send tapes. During Orientation, we [a group of first-years] were playing a pickup game, and some people said, “Wow, you should go out for the team.” I remember quietly saying, “I’m planning to.” Playing at Amherst was such a welcoming experience—it was a family of wonderful, engaging, bright women.
Spargo on the soccer field in 1993
Morgan: Back in Spargo’s time we would get names [of potential student-athletes] from the admission office. It was quasi-recruiting: I knew some of the players who were out there. I looked and shook the bushes, but it was more just casual conversation. It’s totally different now.
Clegg: I remember talking to [women’s ice hockey] Coach [Jim] Plumer my sophomore spring of high school. I visited Amherst multiple times.
Amherst: What else has changed?
Spargo: The level of competition and play now, compared to 20 years ago, is exponentially higher. When my class came in, our skill level was higher than that of the seniors. When we were seniors, the first-years came in higher still.
Fretwell: I am so jealous of the women athletes in college today. They participated early on and had instructional opportunities that I didn’t have. But the two-sport athlete is a dying breed; some of us have a sadness about that. I enjoyed being a multisport athlete in college—the different friends, different coaching. I look behind me at the younger athletes, and I’m sorry they aren’t having that experience.
Spargo: I learned how to be a better defender through playing lacrosse and basketball. It’s the liberal arts approach to athletics: You’re taking what you’re learning from all of these other sports and applying them.
Clegg: My success in two sports stemmed from the fact that the coaches were so accommodating. Before freshman year I told Coach Plumer, “I want to play field hockey and I might want to play softball, too.” He said, “I’ll completely support you but you’ll have to work hard to solidify your spot on this team.” He was very up-front. Playing a fall sport put me in great condition physically, and knowing how to balance my academics from day one was the key to my academic success.
Coffey: If you talk to young women about their ability to express themselves in a competitive way, they’ll tell you that sport is a natural outlet. Twenty, 30, 40 years ago, that was not necessarily the case. As Title IX gained traction, there was a period of development—probably from the mid-’70s to the ’90s—when women began to gain self-confidence about this competitiveness. I remember a faculty member—this has got to be 20 years ago—saying to me, “The women in my class who are athletes seem to be more self-assured,” and I thought, “It’s starting to happen: It’s obvious to other people that this is making a difference.”
Fretwell: [Female athletes today] are coming in with a different confidence—and from many more places. Athletes are not all from independent schools anymore. They’re not all from New England. They’re from all walks of life; they’re women who see the world in different ways, and that makes the experience of being part of an athletic team at Amherst very different from how it used to be. It was much more homogeneous 30 years ago.
Coffey: A successful team [has] to develop chemistry. You’re put in this laboratory of difference and told to make it work in the unspoken language of physical expression. It’s a neat experiment. We’re all grateful that women and men have the opportunity to participate in it. If we weren’t where we are today [in terms of women’s participation in sports], it would be an enormous loss to society.
Amherst: The expectations are also higher today. Women’s teams at Amherst are expected to win national championships.
Fretwell: When Michelle and I [arrived] here—and Spargo—there weren’t as many postseason opportunities.
Morgan: We started with NIAC [New England Intercollegiate Athletic Conference] tournaments in the ’70s. We won the basketball NIAC championship in 1978. I have the trophy. It’s made of I-don’t-know-what; it pales in comparison to the 2011 one that sits across the foyer. But it was no less important to the athletes back then than the national championship was [to the 2011 women’s basketball team].
Spargo: It would be interesting to see which sports were first in NCAA [championship play]. I know in 1996, when I was assistant-coaching, the women’s soccer team went to the NCAA Final Four and we hosted the games. Now we’re hosting [NCAAs] on every other field.
Coffey: Prior to the early 1990s the NESCAC presidents allowed individual-sport athletes to compete at the national level. So a tennis player or a swimmer or a track athlete who made the cut could go on to national competition. The presidents decided to engage in an experiment of allowing our team sports to compete at the NCAA level. In those early years I was a committee member at the NCAA, [where I saw] a tremendous lack of appreciation for the strength of women’s sports in this conference. Because we weren’t competing outside our little conference, people did not know how good the teams were. As soon as [the presidents made the change], NESCAC teams started winning national championships. [These] were really good teams that had been held back from competition.
Amherst: Amherst has won eight NCAA team titles. Six of those were earned by women’s teams—tennis, lacrosse, cross country, basketball and ice hockey.
Fretwell: Women’s ice hockey was the last new sport for the college.
Morgan: It’s a fairly new sport for women, period.
Spargo: We catapulted to such a high level in such a short period of time.
Coffey: If you took the skill level of women hockey players in 2000 and compare that to 2012, it’s a very short period of time.
Morgan: They used to need their sticks to stand up on their skates.
Fretwell: Many of them were recently converted figure skaters.
Clegg: When I was a freshman, the juniors—the Class of ’10—were the last [to remember] when Amherst wasn’t a powerhouse ice hockey team. They knew what it was like to lose multiple games in a row. They had this burning desire to win and were never complacent. We had an alumni [vs. students] game my junior year. The alums were like, “This is incredible. I can’t believe you move so fast.” And they were ’90 and ’95 graduates— they weren’t that old.
Amherst: How did Title IX shape each of you?
Fretwell: I appreciated the opportunity to compete hard; athletics gave me one way to do that. Physical goal setting and stamina [are] things I use every day. But more important, I spend a lot of time managing people—from my children to the people in my office to young people thinking about their futures—and I took so much away from the team experience. If Title IX hadn’t come along for another 10 years, I would have been denied that opportunity.
Morgan: Title IX allowed me to enter a profession that I wanted to be part of. When I first started, there were very few women coaching intercollegiate soccer. I remember going to soccer conventions with no more than three, four, five women in attendance.
Morgan with her 1981 lacrosse captains,
including Fretwell (right).
Clegg: I knew that Title IX had given me an opportunity to play sports, but I don’t think it was as salient in my development. A lot of my philosophies and perspectives on life stem from my experiences with my teams. Even now, I’m waitressing and shadowing doctors: I went through training last week thinking, “Gosh, this would be run so much better if these people could communicate.” I needed to remind myself that not all of these people were on sports teams.
Spargo: I felt very aware of Title IX and how I was benefitting from it. The teams were really developing and I saw my mom’s envy in what was available to me. One snowball effect is that now there are many more opportunities to play competitively after you graduate from college. I have played in every city [in which] I’ve lived, in very competitive women’s soccer leagues.
Coffey: I never intended to go into athletics as a profession. I was an artist and headed down a very different path but got so taken with team that I [thought], “I don’t want this to end. If I choose this quiet path of making my own work come to life, it won’t be [as part of] a team.” It didn’t seem like much of a decision. I was absolutely involved because of Title IX. I knew it. We talked about it. We talked about the ability to choose our college, to be chosen for a scholarship. The scholarship [aspect] was so cool: There was somebody recognizing the fact that women’s athletics matter, even if there are no people in the stands.
Spargo: I was playing soccer [at Amherst] and an alumnus, 40 or so years my senior, came up to me and said, “I wore #24 on the soccer field too. It’s fun to see you play.” I felt like he was connecting with me as a soccer player, not as a woman. It was so meaningful to me.
Fretwell: [Only] on rare occasions do I see women athletes who are much older than I am. They had no role models. No one. They were seriously discouraged from any physical activity. And yet there they are, somehow. These women are rare but awesome.
Coffey: There’s an entire generation [of older women] that we have to thank for Title IX. I felt from early on—and this was impressed upon me by people now in their 80s—an obligation to do more, to open more doors, to create more pathways for women. As a young assistant coach, as a head coach, as an athletic director, I’d think, “There’s this older generation counting on us to make sure this keeps getting better.” It’s a privilege to have seen the development of Title IX and to feel there’s a role to play in making sure it keeps getting better.
Amherst: What are the specific things that need to get better?
Morgan: From my perspective, it’s the number of women who are coaching. [The percentage of intercollegiate women’s teams coached by women] was more than 90 percent when Title IX came into existence. Sadly, that percentage has now decreased to 42 percent.
Coffey: It’s declined dramatically. The jobs pay better now, so they are also more attractive to male candidates. That wasn’t always the case.
Spargo: The level’s gotten higher. The pay has gotten better. Men are more interested in coaching in those positions.
Coffey: And that’s a good thing. That’s all part of the progression.
Clegg: There are a lot of male coaches coaching female ice hockey teams, and that’s because the sport is so new. With the growth of the sport, hopefully [the number of female coaches] will increase.
Morgan: Our conference offers a coaching symposium for our women students who are entertaining the thought of entering the coaching profession. It’s a weekend-long gathering that teaches them some of the history about Title IX. Stephanie took part this past March. We’ve had some good success: Quite a few of our graduates are coaching.
Spargo: Progress, for me, would be more alumnae support of the women’s teams. We are talking about this in soccer. You hear some of the women say, “The men’s team has this alumni game. They have this networking event in New York.” There’s room for the alumnae to build a better support system for the current players and the young alums coming out of the program.
Coffey: Progress, for me, would also entail more spectators at women’s games. [The size of the crowd] is good at Amherst in some sports. It’s probably not great in any sport. You come off a national championship in women’s hockey or women’s basketball and you look at Friday or Saturday games, and you think, “Where is everybody?”
Women’s crew in 1981
Clegg: Amherst is a very small school, but even so, you’d think people would be excited to come out and see what a national championship ice hockey team looks like when it’s right outside your dorm. Maybe they don’t realize what exactly that means. But in the NESCAC you can walk all over some teams. Then we’ll go play Middlebury, and the stands will be packed.
Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.
Color photos by Rob Mattson; black-and-white photos from Amherst College Archives