Some 500 miles apart in California last weekend, two of our writers were covering stories with a common theme. Curry Kirkpatrick was outside San Diego for the tennis spectacular (page 34) that pitted—for promotional purposes, at least—the prestige of Women's Lob, in the person of Margaret Court, against that old male chauvinist hustler, Bobby Riggs.
Such matches, even between celebrated tennis players, are far from new, but in the past they have been little more than curiosities: the women usually submitted to the drubbings they suspected were inevitable, and it took a close follower of the sport to know or care. The Court-Riggs match was a curiosity, too—but everybody was curious.
Meanwhile, writer Bil Gilbert was in Hayward, Calif. for the women's intercollegiate track and field championships (page 96): these were noteworthy in that college athletic administrators rarely have deemed such events worthwhile, though their male equivalents have been held for years.
The interest in Court vs. Riggs and this attention to a women's track championship are evidence of the changing sense, in this country, of women's role in sport. As women are taking a more assertive view of their place in society, they are questioning some long-standing attitudes and prejudices about where they belong in the world of athletics, and the consequences are going to be far-reaching and invigorating.
May 20, 1973
It is a development that comes as no surprise to us. For some time, SI has been increasing its coverage of women's sports, and next week a young sprinter competing in another women's track meet in California is our cover choice for the beginning of a three-part series on women in sport.
The product of seven months of interviewing and investigating, these articles will rank among the most meaningful of our journalistic enterprises. The premise of writers Gilbert and Nancy Williamson is one that might seem obvious: girls have as much right to the pleasures of athletic competition as boys, and will gain as much from such competition. But Gilbert himself—who happens to coach a women's track team (SI, Nov. 27, 1967)—a year ago posed this query to his own Fairfield (Pa.) school board: "If half your students are girls, why shouldn't half your athletic budget go to girls' sports?" The school board said the question was silly. Gilbert disagreed, so distinctly that he began the research that led to this forthcoming series.
He and Williamson conducted interviews coast to coast with school administrators, medical authorities, psychologists and student-athletes of all ages. Everywhere they found the issue a provocative one. "Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls," a Connecticut judge recently ruled. "If athletics have a place in the educational program they are as important for girls as boys," answered a Montana high school principal. "Women don't play sports," said a network television executive. "Sports Make Women Sterile, Vatican Avers in Proscription," read an old newspaper headline.
Gilbert's favorite moment came during a session with a fifth-grade class in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where an 11-year-old boy rose and said, "Girls should not play sports because they might get hurt and would not be able to do their housework." To which a female classmate replied, "That gives me a pain in my stomach." Enough said. For now.