The battle for the legitimacy of women’s sports was waged here

Current popularity of women’s intercollegiate athletics may be due to pioneers at UW–Madison
sisley and saunders
Becky Sisley (left) played women's field hockey while teaching at UW–Madison before becoming, in 1973, the first director of women’s athletics at the University of Oregon. Kit Saunders (right) became director of UW women's athletics in 1974, when this photo was taken. (Sisley photo courtesy of University of Oregon Athletics and Saunders photo courtesy of UW Athletics)

The topline story in the New York Times “Sports Sunday” section of Feb. 9 likely brought a smile to anyone interested in women’s intercollegiate athletics. It concerned the robust rivalry between the women’s basketball teams at the University of Oregon and Oregon State Universities. A recent game drew more than 12,000 fans.

My own smile got bigger once I read the lead, which quoted Becky Sisley, who coached the Oregon women in 1966, saying of the current fan fervor, “It’s unbelievable.”

I interviewed Becky Sisley last summer.

Sisley, who became University of Oregon’s first director of women’s athletics in 1973, was one of numerous women prominent in athletics administration who found camaraderie and inspiration in Madison in the 1960s.

I spoke with Sisley for a book I’m writing about Kit Saunders-Nordeen and the rise of women’s intercollegiate athletics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and beyond.

In 1974, Saunders became the first director of women’s athletics for UW–Madison.

She’d arrived in Madison from her native New Jersey a decade earlier, late summer 1964, to study for a masters’ degree.

There were few competitive sports opportunities for women on the UW–Madison campus. The UW physical education department for women still followed the philosophy espoused by Blanche Trilling, its longtime (1912-1947) director. Trilling believed that participation, not competition, was most important for girls and women in athletics. It was more than that. Trilling and her successors actively discouraged women from competing in athletics.

In our interview, Sisley mentioned how an episode at the 1928 Olympics — when several women running the 800 meters collapsed at the finish line — haunted competitive women’s sports for years. The women hadn’t paced themselves — no one had trained them to — and Trilling and others latched onto the mishap. The New York Times wrote, “This distance makes too great a call on feminine strength.”

There was at least one place for women to compete in 1964: the Madison Field Hockey Club, which was not affiliated with UW.

Saunders-Nordeen, then Saunders, joined the team that fall. Sisley, in the second of her two years teaching in the UW physical education department, played on the field hockey team and was its president. The goalie was Nancy McGowan (later Nancy Page), who became a legendary, Hall of Fame women’s coach at UW–Stevens Point, winning 11 conference championships in 31 years of coaching field hockey, softball and tennis.

I interviewed Page, too, and her dismay at the lack of competitive opportunities in Madison in the mid-1960s was still evident more than half a century later. “The head of our department,” Page said, “was so against any kind of competition for women. It was bleak.”

Page recalled what happened when she and some other students arranged a basketball game in the Lathrop Hall gym against a team of women from Northern Illinois. “We were called into [the department head’s] office and read the riot act. I think she probably wanted to kick us out of the university.”

As the 1960s progressed, things got a little better. Saunders was named director of the campus Women’s Recreation Association in 1966 and established tennis and lacrosse teams that played what were called extramural matches against other schools. In 1970 they were folded into a roster of club (non-varsity) sports.

Sisley left Madison for Oregon in 1966, about the same time a young woman named Judy Sweet arrived from Milwaukee. Sweet would graduate with honors from UW–Madison in 1969. She was a badminton player and interested in athletics administration.

“Kit was my mentor,” Sweet said, when I interviewed her for my book.

In 1968, Sweet became national president of the student-run Athletic Recreation Federation of College Women, and attended, with Saunders, its national convention in Arizona.

Judy Sweet went west after graduation, and in 1975 became director of both men’s and women’s athletics at the University of California-San Diego.

In 1991, Sweet became – this was truly groundbreaking – the first female president of the NCAA.

A year earlier, Saunders retired from UW–Madison. She’d married Dale “Buzz” Nordeen in 1988 and was ready to travel and relax a bit. As Peter Tegen, the legendary UW women’s track and cross-country coach, told me about Saunders, “She fought a battle.”

Title IX — the landmark 1972 legislation that was supposed to bring equity for women’s intercollegiate athletics — was belittled, ignored and caught up in appeals for years.

Incremental gains were made. The UW–Madison women’s varsity program was launched in 1974, with Saunders as its director. She soon was able to hire Paula Bonner as her assistant and Tamara Flarup as sports information director. Each would be a figure of immense importance in the early growth of women’s athletics at UW–Madison.

There came a night on Nov. 30, 1990, when the Badger women’s volleyball team hosted a NCAA tournament first round match at the Fieldhouse. It drew 10,935 fans, a national record, and was perhaps a harbinger of women’s basketball drawing a crowd of 12,000 last month in Oregon.

“I sat with Kit,” Tam Flarup told me, “in the upper balcony. We were looking at the people streaming in and we both had tears in our eyes. We always knew this would happen for women’s sports at Wisconsin.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.