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In 1926, when women were still a novelty at Virginia Tech and women’s basketball — even at the club level — even more so, a player on the team known then as the Turkey Hens wrote in her diary: “Of course we weren’t in the Athletic Association, so we couldn’t expect support at our games. A few of the boys did come and always rooted for the opposing team. Not very sportsmanlike, but maybe some day it will be different.”
That day has come. Virginia Tech is now abuzz with its first team to reach the NCAA Final Four — and that team is the women’s basketball team.
That achievement comes in the 100th anniversary year of the founding of Tech’s first women’s basketball team, a club team known as the Sextettes before the name was changed to the Turkey Hens. Things were different then in lots of ways. The male students refused to acknowledge the club team in the official yearbook so the women created their own. The women’s solution to their male classmates who came out to cheer for the other team? They responded by charging what Tech’s official website calls “exorbitant fees to attend their games.”
Today tickets for Virginia Tech’s Friday night semifinal game against Louisiana State start at $196. The Ticketsmarter website says tickets for the final average $369; some are currently topping out at $10,022. In fact, the women’s tournament this year is considered a better matchup of marquee teams than the men’s Final Four, where all the big names have been knocked out.
We shouldn’t pretend that everything is equal between men’s sports and women’s sports — quick, name the reigning champion in the WNBA — but things are certainly different than they once were. Virginia Tech’s official women’s basketball team dates from 1976, still a recent date for some of us, which makes it a product of the Title IX era. Indeed, the NCAA women’s basketball tournament itself didn’t start until 1982. (The first two years the championship game was held at The Scope in Norfolk.) That first tournament came just four years after the NCAA’s legal challenge to Title IX — the section of the 1972 federal education bill that prohibits discrimination based on sex, and thus led to requirements for equality in sports — failed.
Sports are better when politics don’t intrude, but here’s a clear case where politics helped usher in new opportunities for female athletes, opportunities that have now made these Virginia Tech women into national celebrities. The origin of Title IX has an unlikely Virginia connection: a segregationist congressman whose support for gender equality had more cynical political motives.
The education law that Title IX is part of was passed in 1972 but before that came the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Or, more precisely, the debate over it. At the time, just two states — Hawaii and Wisconsin — had laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex. Advocates for gender equality saw the Civil Rights Act, which was aimed at preventing racial discrimination, as a vehicle by which they could advance their cause. But then an unlikely opponent of the Civil Rights Act beat them to it.
Rep. Howard Smith, D-Alexandria, was the embodiment of the conservative Democrats who made up the Byrd Machine in Virginia, and the larger bloc of conservative Democrats that represented the South. This is an unlikely history lesson in many ways — the idea of a conservative Democrat anywhere would be preposterous today, one from Alexandria more so. But things were different then. Smith was a classic Southern Democrat of that era, with the emphasis being on the word Southern. He was elected to Congress in 1930 where Encyclopedia Virginia says he “advocated states’ rights, fiscal responsibility, and white supremacy.” After initially supporting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Smith turned against such innovations. Smith was very much against labor unions, in particular, so led opposition to the creation of the National Labor Relations Board — hold that thought.
Encyclopedia Virginia calls Smith a “master obstructionist.” By the 1950s, he chaired the House Rules Committee and did his best to bottle up all civil rights legislation. In a television interview with Robert Novak, he referred to “so-called civil rights.” During a 1957 debate, Smith declared: “The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence and education and social attainments as the whole people of the South.” It was only under pressure from party leaders that Smith allowed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to advance to a floor vote.
That’s when Smith rose and proposed a consequential one-word amendment. He proposed adding “sex” to the list of prohibited types of discrimination. “This stimulated several hours of humorous debate, later enshrined as ‘ladies day in the House,’” historian Jo Freeman has written.
Many assumed that Smith was trying to insert the proverbial “poison pill” into the bill by adding something unpalatable to it. In other words, Smith might have added a ban on sex discrimination as a joke. Rep. Edith Green, D-Oregon, one of the most powerful women in Congress at the time and a strong advocate for women’s rights, opposed the amendment because she feared it would sink the civil rights bill.
There’s some belief, though, that Smith was quite serious. In a 2020 interview with Slate, Christina Wolbrecht, the author of “The Politics of Women’s Rights: Parties, Positions and Change,” notes that Smith had long cosponsored an Equal Rights Amendment. Why would a staunch Southern conservative do such a thing? Because he hated labor unions and thought banning sex discrimination would help undermine them, Wolbrecht says. Once again, the politics of that era were different. Wolbrecht says some in the labor movement in the ’50s and ’60s opposed equal rights for women because they feared more women in the workplace would result in more competition for jobs and lower wages for all. By backing equal rights for women, Smith was, in his view, opposing labor unions.
Some histories say that Smith’s speech accompanying the amendment was quite serious; others point to how he read a spoof letter from a “spinster” complaining that she couldn’t find a husband. It’s possible he was being both at the same time. Either way, the House adopted Smith’s unexpected amendment and the entire act passed both chambers of Congress and was signed into law. Historian Freeman writes: “In only a few hours Congress initiated a major innovation in public policy.”
Not everyone was excited by this innovation. The newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission viewed the addition of sex as “a fluke that was ‘conceived out of wedlock’ and tried to ignore its existence,” Freeman writes.
Still, the legal stage was set to include a ban on sex discrimination in the 1972 education bill. The original Title IX portion was introduced by Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Indiana, and had no mention of athletics; it was aimed more broadly at education in general. Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, later introduced in the House and in time became so identified with the measure that it is now named in her memory. Today Title IX is the best-known part of that bill but at the time its import was not fully understood. When President Richard Nixon signed the bill, he made no mention of that part; instead he mostly complained that Congress had failed to do anything about school busing to achieve integration.
The impact on school sports was quickly evident, though. Throughout the 1970s there were repeated efforts to overturn Title IX as it related to sports. Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, pushed what became known as The Tower Amendment. That was rejected in 1974. Then came a similar amendment by Sen. Jacob Javits, R-New York. Another by Rep. James O’Hara, D-Michigan — just to show that the opposition was bi-partisan. Then still more attempts to overturn Title IX from Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, and a long list of other legislators. All failed. In 1975, the Ford administration issued regulations under Title IX that gave high schools and colleges three years to comply. You’ll notice that Tech fielded its first official women’s team the following year.
1976 was also the year that the NCCA sued to overturn Title IX (the suit was later dismissed). The NCAA director at the time, Walter Byers, warned that Title IX would lead to the “possible doom of intercollegiate sports.” That obviously hasn’t happened. In fact, it’s done just the opposite: The Sporting News reports that tickets to the women’s Final Four this year are more expensive than ones to the men’s Final Four.