(Written by Robert Greene, the husband of Head of School Wanda Holland Greene)
Last Tuesday morning, my wife – who is the brilliant head of a girls’ school in San Francisco – mentioned that October 16th was the birthday of both Sue Bird and Suzanne Somers. She was previewing with me a speech that she was giving that morning to prospective applicant families to her school. As is her habit, she presses those prospective families to be “in the moment,” in part by acknowledging interesting and or special events that happened throughout history on those given dates. This particular nugget of insight about the “birthday twins” got me thinking further...
For those of you who do not recognize either of the aforementioned names, Sue Bird – likely the lesser known of the two – is an American basketball player of international renown and accomplishment, being one of only 10 women to have won over the course of a career an NCAA championship, an Olympic Gold Medal, and a WNBA championship; Suzanne Somers gained fame in the 70’s and 80’s playing the “ditzy, blonde bombshell, Chrissy” on the TV-sitcom “Three’s Company,” and she parlayed that notoriety into a career spanning exercise equipment – ThighMaster, anyone? – infomercials, beauty products, and Vegas revues.
So what, you may ask...
As part of her personal character and as part of her professional position, my wife is a champion for the principles and concepts espoused in the historic Title IX portion of the Educational Amendments of 1972. As the former manager of the women’s volleyball team at my college, during a time when the team was threatened with funding cutbacks, I have my own personal history with the struggles that Title IX has helped redress. What is more, in this year celebrating the 40th anniversary of the landmark legislation, I find it particularly ironic that these two women, seemingly embodying the polar opposites of the viewpoints that Title IX adjudicated, share a birthday and force us – if we look hard enough – to face the ongoing debate about roles and definitions of and opportunities for girls and women.
Prior to the passage of Title IX, girls and women were not guaranteed or even granted equal protection for the right to pursue their interests and passions in the realms of educational programs, notably in high school and college athletics, but also beyond the courts and fields. If women were to express part of their inclinations athletically, it was either doing some “suitable” form of exercise or risking pejorative, at least at the time, labels of “tomboy” or worse. In other words, girls and women were free to use a ThighMaster to target and tone those “problem areas,” but they were often discouraged from engaging in a systemically physical team sport like basketball, with all of the rights, privileges, and benefits therein.
Well, thank goodness for Congresswoman Patsy Mink, lead author of the Title IX legislation, as well as the courageous, forward-thinking women and men who championed passage of the legislation. In fact, the words of one of Title IX’s chief architects, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, ring no less true today than they did four decades ago when he shared them on the Senate floor:
"We are all familiar with the stereotype of women as pretty things who go to college to find a husband, go on to graduate school because they want a more interesting husband, and finally marry, have children, and never work again. The desire of many schools not to waste a 'man's place' on a woman stems from such stereotyped notions. But the facts absolutely contradict these myths about the 'weaker sex' and it is time to change our operating assumptions." "While the impact of this amendment would be far-reaching", Bayh concluded, "it is not a panacea. It is, however, an important first step in the effort to provide for the women of America something that is rightfully theirs—an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want, and to apply those skills with the knowledge that they will have a fair chance to secure the jobs of their choice with equal pay for equal work".
- 118 Cong. Record 5802-3 (1972)
This notion of “pretty things” who lead with their looks and not their insights was at the heart of the tragi-comic in Ms. Somers’ character on television. And any student of such “Miss Representation” knows it was no accident that the beautiful roommate on “Three’s Company” was blonde, while the brunette roommate, Janet, was reputed to be less comely and less confident, despite her superior intellect and more managerial skills. Is it any wonder why we needed Title IX; is it any wonder in this Internet age why we still need to celebrate and lift up the tenets of Title IX and continue offering our girls and women the respect of comprehensive definition and opportunity?
No disrespect to Ms. Somers, but I like the flight of brunette Sue Bird more. An unqualified and unparalleled leader of women, who also commands the respect of men, Bird consistently displays strong decision-making in high-pressure moments and flawless execution of strategy in the most hostile of circumstances. What is more, she does all of this with a grace and nobility that can only be born from true esteem and tested resolve. Her accomplishments merit their own screen time, without the need to hawk products or incite bawdy laughs. If you have ever watched Bird play, you understand that she is grace under fire. If you have ever seen her smile and let her hair down, you also know she takes no backseat to any “bombshell” that a Hollywood producer has thrown at us.
So, let’s pause this October and acknowledge the birth of Suzanne Somers, because she has entertained us for years and built a lasting career in the shifting sands of Hollywood. However, let us also celebrate the life of Sue Bird; not only is she one of the best basketball players in the world, but she is also a compelling symbol of much of what Title IX can make possible in the lives of girls and women around our country. And as we say on the basketball court in moments of bravado and excitement, “In Your Face!”
Robert Greene is an educator, consultant, and supporter of Title IX