MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – What began as a federal law on June 23, 1972 has since blossomed into 50 years of continued success for West Virginia University women’s student-athletes.
Of course, we’re talking about Title IX, which was one of the provisions of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 designed to protect people from discrimination based on sex in educational programs and activities that receive federal assistance.
This week, athletics departments from across the country are celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s intercollegiate sports.
What this groundbreaking law meant in 1972 was that West Virginia University and other public institutions that received federal money for research and scholarships needed to become compliant in order to continue receiving federal aid.
“At that time, President (James) Harlow saw the handwriting on the wall,” the late Kittie Blakemore recalled. “You have a big, land-grant institution that is going to lose a lot of federal money if they don’t go with this. With that in your corner, you can certainly go after the possibility of (starting a women’s sports program).”
Kittie Blakemore, Martha Thorn and Dr. Wincie Ann Carruth, chairperson for women’s physical education at WVU at the time, were the three leading advocates for the adoption of women’s sports at West Virginia University.
Blakemore and Thorn worked as instructors in the School of Physical Education and were staunch women’s rights supporters during a time when the Women’s Liberation Movement was really gaining momentum in the United States.
In 1969, Blakemore and Dr. Carruth were asked to help write the women’s portion of the constitution for the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WVIAC), and in ensuing years, Kittie accumulated mounds of data on women’s sports programs at other institutions in anticipation of the day when West Virginia University officially adopted women’s sports.
Their efforts were mostly stonewalled in 1970 and 1971 because of a lack of funding, but that all changed in the summer of 1972.
“I was on the job a week and I had a message on my desk from Dr. Carruth, Kittie Blakemore and Martha Thorn wanting an audience with me,” then-WVU director of athletics Leland Byrd, who died earlier this year, once recalled. “I met with them the first week I was on the job, and Kittie said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to start a women’s sports program. I’m here, and I can take basketball and Martha can take tennis.’
“I said, Listen, I can sympathize with you, but we just don’t have the money to do it right now.’ Of course, Title IX was just coming in, and I said, ‘We can start this but it’s going to have to be on a shoestring. I don’t know where I’ll find the money, but you’ve got $5,000 for the first year (approximately $35,000 in today’s dollars),’” Byrd said.
Despite Byrd’s willingness to get women’s sports off the ground in the fall of 1972, it took another year before it actually happened.
“The thing that held it up in ’72 was the fact that the state didn’t know how they were going to pay the coaches,” Blakemore, who died in 2020, said seven years prior to her death. “Well, when they finally realized that the coaches were already being paid because we were teacher-coaches, then they didn’t have any question about it.”
Blakemore, Thorn and Carruth had strategically planned things out, to the degree to which sports would be phased in based on student interest and physical education staff members already in place with areas of expertise in those particular sports.