When I was only 3 years old, my parents strapped my first set of ice hockey skates on me — a Minnesotan rite of passage. Before long, ice hockey became my passion. However, upon entering high school, I learned that there wasn’t a girls’ team. At that moment, I experienced a rude awakening: Gender inequality was the status quo in my community.
Armed with my strong convictions and leveraging Title IX’s mandate, I led my peers and community members to lobby the school board to create a girls’ ice hockey team. Testifying against sexist opposition just like the pioneers of Title IX once did, we successfully convinced the school board to establish a girls’ team, an experience that has forever shaped my perception of what one passionate and goal-oriented individual can accomplish.
This early experience not only led to higher education and athletic opportunities that I might not otherwise have had but also guided my personal and professional pursuits. I was fortunate to attend Amherst College, graduate with honors in psychology, and serve as a captain of the women’s ice hockey team. The skills I obtained and the confidence I built as an athlete and as a member of a team were invaluable, leading me to ultimately become an attorney and an advocate for equal opportunities for all people. Along the way, I have advanced important social causes, served in leadership roles traditionally held by men (including as editor-in-chief of the Rutgers Law Review), and empowered the next generation of women as a mentor and role model.
Recently, by winning a Good Maker challenge, I received funding from the National Women’s Hall of Fame to pursue a sports and leadership project for girls. The premise of the project is to host a sports and leadership clinic not only to inspire, motivate, and empower young girls but also to enable older female athletes to give back to their communities and help instill in the next generation the passion, drive, and commitment that is necessary to maintain and expand equal opportunities.
Ensuring the protection of these opportunities was unquestionably the key message of the National Women’s Hall of Fame 40th anniversary Title IX celebration in Washington, D.C., last week. I was fortunate to have been recognized as a new generation leader at this event alongside the true pioneers and leaders of the women’s rights movement (my role models). Many of the distinguished speakers and panelists voiced the concern that the next generation may fail to understand the significance of Title IX and simply take those opportunities for granted. There is much more work to be done, and that work is now in the hands of the next generation.
This point resonated with me because of the similarities between the obstacles that the Title IX pioneers faced and those that modern-day female athletes still encounter. Bernice Sandler, known as the “godmother of Title IX” because of her role in the development and passage of the law, spoke about having to coordinate bake sales and other fundraisers to buy equipment. This story reminded me of some of the hand-me-down equipment that my college ice hockey team received from the men’s team. Did the Amherst women’s ice hockey team have to win a national championship to prove its worthiness and finally receive its own new jerseys and equipment?
I was also reminded of my own experience when Neena Chaudhry from the National Women’s Law Center explained the rationale behind the current challenges to Title IX — that girls are not as “interested” in sports as boys. That premise is precisely the one I encountered and believed I overcame in high school, more than 15 years ago. I’d say this attitude is clear evidence that we still have work to do!
Linda Hallman, executive director of AAUW, concluded the panel with a strong and passionate call to action: “Get out the vote!” I could not agree more. What a simple yet effective means to protect Title IX and to ensure its commitment to providing equal opportunities for all.
Each of the other panelists provided their own amazing tales and calls to action. Other speakers included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). Finally, I’d be remiss to conclude without mentioning the ever humble, eloquent, and passionate women’s rights advocate Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN), the “father of Title IX.” What I appreciated the most about him was that despite his integral involvement in the creation and passage of Title IX, he was happy to take a backseat to demonstrate his admiration for all the amazing and accomplished women in the room.
From the Olympian sitting next to me to the executive sitting across from me, the women at this conference were awe-inspiring. I only hope that through my life’s work I can continue to advance their fight to provide equal opportunities for women and that I will find and create opportunities to share my passion with and instill the same ideals in the next generation of women!
This blog post was written by National Women’s Hall of Fame grantee Heidi S. Alexander, Esq.