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50 years of Title IX

The lawsuits. The ‘subtle quiet discrimination.’ The battle for equity through Title IX has brought women so far, but there’s still more to come.

Six women spoke with the Globe about the landmark legislation on its 50th anniversary

Veronica Burton (left) attended her mother's alma mater — Northwestern — before being drafted into the WNBA. She never questioned access to sports. But that's thanks to trailblazers like Laney Clement-Holbrook (center), Barbara Stevens (right, gray sweater), and Harvard's Kathy Delaney-Smith. Heather Marini (center bottom) and Lesley Visser (center back) both carved their own paths in male-dominated industries.AP, Getty, and Globe file photos

Legislation can be opaque, a series of rules and regulations that have little meaning on a person’s daily life.

Not Title IX.

The ramifications of the historic civil rights law, which declared that discrimination on the basis of sex was unconstitutional when it was ratified 50 years ago this week, can be found on every court and sideline in our community.

Kathy Delaney-Smith had to file four lawsuits while at Westwood High School in the 1970s to ensure her athletes had the same resources as the boy’s basketball team.

This year, she retired as the longest-tenured Division 1 women’s basketball coach after 40 seasons at Harvard.

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The groundwork by women who came before paved the way for the journey of Newton’s Veronica Burton, who grew up to be drafted by the Dallas Wings in last month’s WNBA draft.

“Just seeing the growth that women in sports have been able to make, and kind of the foundation that has been made by women in the past, has been huge,” Burton said.

On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the Globe asked a collection of sportswomen from New England to reflect on their battles for equity, and where the next battleground lies.


Laney Clement-Holbrook

Retired Oliver Ames girls’ basketball coach

Laney Clement-Holbrook retired this year after 46 seasons at the helm of Oliver Ames girls' basketball. The Tigers won a state title in her final season.Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Laney Clement-Holbrook grew up surrounded by sports. Her uncle was the voice of the Bruins, her father was a founder of the Pop Warner program in town and her brother was drafted to the Pittsburgh Pirates at 18.

But when Clement-Holbrook asked to play competitive sports in school, the answer was always, “No.”

“My entire athletic career was based on getting ‘No’ for an answer,” said Clement-Holbrook.

The denial came on the basis of her sex. Because Clement-Holbrook was a girl, she couldn’t participate in the same sports she watched her brother and his friends play. She never let it stop her, and became a pillar in the New England sports landscape.

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Clement-Holbrook attended Bridgewater State because of the physical education program. Title IX passed during her second year in college, and she immediately noticed the extra — or rather, legally required — attention to female athletes. Now there was a women’s locker room available for her and her basketball teammates, and an employee who washed their uniforms.

“When I graduated from Bridgewater State I felt like it was my responsibility to pay this thing forward to the next generation because of how blessed I felt,” she said, “because of what I experienced that was so different than high school.”

To pay things forward, Clement-Holbrook embarked on a 46-year coaching stint at Oliver Ames. She retired in March as a three-time state champion and the state’s leader in girls’ basketball victories (733). But to Clement-Holbrook, the banners on the wall represent more than a title.

“I always point out to those banners and say to them ‘What you have before you is a privilege, and it’s an honor to put these on your jerseys. But you always have to remember that you’re playing for something bigger than yourself,’” Clement-Holbrook said.

When Clement-Holbrook started at Oliver Ames, equity was still a work in progress. She noticed the girls only had one hour to practice, while the boys had two. The girls would play early-afternoon games, while the boys played in the primetime slot.

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But in the final year of her career, Oliver Ames won the 2022 Division 2 state title. It proved to Clement-Holbrook that although there is still work to do, she’s made an impact on her athletes and the community surrounding them.

“This is the 50th anniversary of Title IX and my players did what they did and it just meant to me that someone was listening,” Clement-Holbrook said.


Veronica Burton

Dallas Wings guard

Veronica Burton shoots past Phoenix's Skylar Diggins-Smith last week. The Wings are 8-9 on the season.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

As a girl growing up in Newton,Veronica Burton joined the boys youth basketball league.

“Classic,” Burton recalls. “The girls’ rims were lower but the boys’ rims weren’t, so I switched over to the boys’ league.”

From fourth grade until eighth grade, she was the only girl in the league.

“People didn’t really know what to expect. People probably thought I wasn’t going to be as good,” Burton laughed. “... I won MVP of the league almost every year.”

As the youngest of four, Burton watched each of her siblings embark on careers in basketball. She doesn’t necessarily remember when she started playing, but with all the extra basketballs laying around the house it was hard not to pick one up.

Burton, who at 21 is a few months into living a dream of playing in the WNBA, experienced childhood post-Title IX. She played plenty sports as a kid and came from a family that valued athletics.

Burton reaped the benefits of the legislation — she rarely experienced inequalities when it came to equipment, scheduling, and travel like so many women did in the past.

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“Just seeing the growth that women in sports have been able to make, and kind of the foundation that has been made by women in the past, has been huge,” Burton said.

Burton’s biggest role model in sports is her mother, Ginni, who was an All-American and Big Ten championship swimmer at Northwestern.

“You always see these stud male athletes, and I had that in my family as well,” she said. “But to know that I could also excel in the sports industry was huge.”

After four seasons playing basketball at her mother’s alma mater, Burton was drafted seventh overall last month by Dallas.

Now, she’s seeing firsthand the disparity between how her league is viewed compared to professional men’s leagues. She hopes coverage of women’s sports becomes more of a priority, and that increases in engagement and viewership are needed in order to grow.

“For so long people just assumed that nobody cared about women’s sports, so they didn’t give them the time of day, but it’s just an endless cycle,” she said. “I think if women in sports really do get that same media attention [as men], the opportunity that will come from it will be huge.”


Kathy Delaney-Smith

Retired Harvard women’s basketball coach

Kathy Delaney-Smith (center, surrounded by her team during one of her final games on the Harvard sideline) had to file numerous Title IX lawsuits early in her career.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

When Kathy Delaney-Smith took her first head coaching job at Westwood High School in 1971 her basketball team had no practice times. They didn’t have uniforms or assistant coaches, and Delaney-Smith did not get paid.

“I was horrified. I didn’t know the world was that unfair,” Delaney-Smith recalled.

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But when Title IX passed the following spring, the inequities became impossible to ignore. She filed four lawsuits against the school, winning each one and granting her team the support and equipment it lacked.

“It literally changed my professional life,” she said. “It is why I am who I am. Without Title IX, I would not have been or accomplished anything that I have accomplished.”

Those accomplishments include becoming the longest-tenured women’s head coach at a Division I school. Delaney-Smith, who grew up in Newton, coached at Harvard for 40 seasons, posting a 630-434 record over her tenure before retiring earlier this year.

Both at the high school and college level, Delaney-Smith kept her fights for gender equity somewhat hidden from her athletes. She never mentioned that, as a girl, she would shoot hoops alone at the park because there was no team for her to join. She went a long time without telling the story of the lawsuits she had to file against Westwood for her athletes to get the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

“I didn’t ever want my athletes to feel like they were second-class citizens because they were treated that way, and I was trying to protect them,” Delaney-Smith said. “Now I scratch my head and rethink that and I probably should have done a better job educating them.”

In a poll conducted this year by the University of Maryland, a startling number of secondary-age youth — three-quarters — and 60 percent of parents said they know “nothing at all” about Title IX.

This oblivion is one of Delaney-Smith’s greatest fears.

Delaney-Smith said she hopes to start a foundation to educate people across the country on their rights when it comes to Title IX during retirement.

“We’re all doing it this year because it’s the anniversary but my fear is we will stop doing it in year 51 because it’s not the anniversary anymore,” she said. “And that will break my heart if that happens.”

Delaney-Smith said the most important thing going forward for female athletes aside from educating themselves on Title IX, is to build relationships with peers, especially those in decision-making roles.


Barbara Stevens

Retired Bentley women’s basketball coach

Barbara Stevens hugs her player after Bentley beat West Texas A&M to win the 2014 Division 2 title.Jack Hanrahan/Associated Press

It’s 1972 and it’s game day for Barbara Stevens at Bridgewater State.

Stevens and her basketball teammates head to the locker room and slip into their heavy cotton tunics. Underneath, they wear a white cotton short-sleeve blouse — “and of course bloomers, I mean you had to cover up.”

You’d think they were heading to dinner, not the court.

“I think about that and I’m like, ‘Wow that was really hard to be an athlete playing in a dress,’” Stevens remembers.

After her time at Bridgewater State, Stevens went on to a coaching career at Bentley. There, she became the fifth women’s basketball coach to reach the 1,000-win milestone and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021.

But her time at Bentley was far from perfect.

“What I experienced throughout my coaching career was not so much blatant discrimination, but it’s almost worse: it’s like that subtle quiet discrimination,” said Stevens.

Stevens had to work harder to gain respect from her peers. She was always driven by the idea that winning would force others to take her and her program seriously.

Most frustrating to Stevens was the unrealistic comparison between women’s and men’s sports. She’d often hear the competition wasn’t as hard on the women’s side, and women could never be the best because they weren’t playing against the best.

“It’s not apples versus apples, it’s apples versus oranges,” Stevens said. “The rules are the same but it’s a different sport. We’re not comparing, but what we’re saying is: What we do and who we compete against is equal, what you do and who you compete against, is equal.”

Despite the progress in women’s athletics, Stevens remembers the way she felt when the discrepancies between the women’s and men’s weight rooms during the 2021 NCAA tournament were exposed online.

Stevens remembers thinking: “Did we just go back in time and we didn’t realize it?”

Because of glaring inequities like those, Stevens advises female athletes to never be lulled into complacency and keep pushing for opportunity.

“The fight has never ended,” Stevens said. “It’s changed, but it has never ended.”


Heather Marini

Quarterbacks coach, Brown

Heather Marini was the first position coach for a Division 1 football program.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

At Brown, Heather Marini works with athletes who have always lived under Title IX, with parents who did as well.

“I’ve always had great support from players who have had strong female role models in their lives as well. Their moms work, they have great teachers, their doctor might be female,” Marini said. “This is a generation of student-athletes who have had a lot of strong women in their lives.”

So it’s no surprise why she isn’t afraid to tackle football.

In 2020, Heather Marini became the first female position coach in Division 1 when she was promoted to quarterbacks coach at the Ivy League school.

Marini, who is from Australia, was first introduced to football in college. After doing an internship in strength and conditioning, she realized her true passion was being on the field, not in the weight room. She attended the NFL Women’s Careers in Football Forum in 2017, and eventually landed with the Jets before entering the college ranks.

That’s not all: Marini plays quarterback for the Boston Renegades of the Women’s Football Alliance, who are gunning for a fourth title and face off in the semifinals on Saturday.

Marini thinks the next step made for women in sports should be the installation of an NFLW. Having the opportunity to play professional football could be an interesting pathway for other women who want to become coaches — even though that’s not the path she took.

Marini coached for 10 years before she ever got to play. She attributes her career opportunities to her own passion for the job and the dedication of other coaches to making their programs the best they can be.

“There are a lot of men who have given me great opportunities because they believed in doing the best they can for their program and that includes hiring women,” Marini said.

Marini joins just a handful of other women in football coaching positions across the college and professional level. In March, Michigan hired former Boston College basketball player Milan Bolden-Morris as a graduate assistant. The NFL had 12 female coaches across the league in 2021.

“It’s not that unusual for me to be the only woman in the room, but it’s been that way a long time now,” said Marini. “I hope it’s not that way forever though.”


Lesley Visser

Sports journalist

Lesley Visser covering Patriots training camp in 1976, her first year on the beat. She wasn't allowed into locker rooms that season, so she had to do her interviews from the parking lot.Frank O'Brien/Globe file

Sports journalist Lesley Visser remembers the passing of Title IX in 1972 as nothing short of “thrilling.”

“It was such fundamental, transformative legislation. Ironically the word ‘sports’ does not appear anywhere in the 37 words, but as it applied to opportunity under any federally funded program that’s what opened the doors,” Visser said.

As a longtime fan, Visser knew from a young age she wanted to work in sports. She started at the Globe, where she became the first female NFL beat writer, before moving on to a career in television at CBS and ESPN.

“What Title IX said to me was ‘OK, the government has recognized that women need to have a status of their own.’ Even though it was an educational amendment, they recognized that as a civil right, women deserve and have to have a status of their own,” Visser said.

In many ways, Visser was a trailblazer, reaching milestones for both herself and women in sports along the way of her career. But despite her success, she stays cautious: “Ground gained is not ground secured.”

“It just takes constant vigilance,” said Visser. “I know a lot of female athletes and they are very appreciative but we’re not there yet even though it’s the 50th anniversary.”

Visser was the first female NFL analyst on TV and was elected to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 2015.

She said the next step for women’s sports is to gain more financial backing. Softball and basketball have gained interest in recent years, and the next step is to give institutions the support they need.

“I think the next jump will be financial, and not just the salaries like we saw with women’s soccer, but it will be the financial backing that comes by women for women,” Visser said.


Jayna Bardahl can be reached at jayna.bardahl@globe.com. Katie McInerney can be reached at katie.mcinerney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @k8tmac.