In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Harvard Athletics has showcased the achievements of Harvard female student-athletes, past and present, through a season’s worth of programming.
Title IX was passed on June 23, 1972, enshrining the prohibition of discrimination, exclusion, or denial of benefits on the basis of sex into law.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” the law declared.
Half a century later, Harvard Athletics has dedicated its 2022-23 season to recognizing this milestone, holding lectures, interactive programming for female youth, games dedicated to Title IX, and a social media campaign to highlight Harvard female student-athletes.
The campaign began on June 23, 2022, with a virtual lecture titled “Title IX at 50: Progress Made and Challenges Ahead for Women’s Sports,” inviting current and former athletes — including Harvard women’s tennis head coach Traci Green — to reflect on personal experiences, progress, and future challenges related to Title IX.
Since the lecture, more than 15 teams at Harvard have honored the anniversary of Title IX at games this season in addition to postgame clinics and Crimson Pub pop-ups.
Harvard Athletics hosted a Title IX Celebration Weekend from Sept. 30 through Oct. 1 in the fall with games from five different teams, including football and women’s soccer.
This past weekend, the Harvard Varsity Club hosted a “50 Years of Title IX Celebration.” The weekend consisted of a welcome reception, an alumni panel discussion, and featured games from softball, women’s heavyweight rowing, and women’s lacrosse, concluding with a gala dinner at Lavietes Pavilion.
On Saturday, the home of Harvard basketball was transformed into a red carpet affair for the gala, a celebration of Harvard female student-athletes and alumni.
The gala event featured three Harvard alumni and pioneering women: award-winning journalist and broadcaster Soledad M. O’Brien ’88-’00, Massachusetts Governor Maura T. Healey ’92, and former Olympian, CEO and co-founder of the Sports Innovation Lab Angela Ruggiero ’04. O’Brien, Healey, and Ruggiero each gave remarks after receiving the Trailblazer Award.
The event also hosted hundreds of Harvard and Radcliffe alumni, current student-athletes, present and former coaches, deans, and many others who have dedicated themselves to furthering opportunities for Havard’s female student-athletes.
Harvard Varsity Club President Johanna Neilson Boynton ’88, an alumna of the women’s hockey program, put together the event alongside a committee of 11 others. The group brought together generations of female athletes for a night of celebrating their collective accomplishments and memories and for the creation of new friendships and mentorships.
Harvard Athletics Director Erin McDermott, who herself made history as the first woman to hold the role in University history, spoke about the opportunities Title IX provided her when she was a student-athlete.
During her remarks, McDermott celebrated the first female student-athletes to compete for Harvard as trailblazers. While not all of them could be in attendance on Saturday evening, those who were received a standing ovation as they were presented with varsity “H” sweaters, a traditional Harvard athletic sentiment they were never afforded during their athletic careers.
O’Brien, Healey, and Ruggiero each gave remarks after receiving the Trailblazer Award.
Introduced by her friend Sarah Leary, a two-time All-American and captain of the 1990 Harvard women’s lacrosse national championship team, Healey spoke on her early experience with sports as well as her time at Harvard.
Dropping her notes halfway through her remarks, Healey described the lessons she learned as an athlete and the opportunities Title IX afforded her. She said that without Title IX and basketball, she would not have been able to reach the office of Governor of Massachusetts.
Healey lauded the great advances in equity in women’s athletics over the years and congratulated the Harvard women’s basketball team and Coach Carrie Moore on their past season.
She reminded attendees, however, that the fight is far from over. Though Title IX as a law changed structural access and created opportunities for women and girls, societal attitudes are not as easily changed, Healey said.
She added that she was struck by the number of young girls she has encountered in recent months who have never heard of Title IX, stressing the importance of educating future generations on how far we have come and still have to go.
Following Healey’s remarks, a short video was played featuring Harvard women’s soccer alumni, including current U.S. national team member, Margaret M. “Midge” Purce ’17. Purce could not attend the gala due to a game with the National Women’s Soccer League’s N.J/N.Y. team Gotham FC but shared her enthusiasm for the festivities.
As the gala went on, Purce scored the game-winning goal for Gotham in their game against Orlando Pride on Saturday night in Orlando, Florida.
O’Brien’s speech centered on the same theme as Healey’s: opportunity. She reflected on her time at Harvard as “a time of possibilities – a time when so many doors opened for me and people like me.”
O’Brien noted that as a Black woman, she has had to overcome both sex-based discrimination and race-based discrimination. Her parents raised six children on Long Island after moving to New York to legally marry, as in their previous home of Maryland, interracial marriage was illegal until 1967. O’Brien was the fifth of six children to attend Harvard College.
O’Brien explained how the law “not only changed the legal landscape but created a set of values in this country about equality and opportunity.”
“We think of Title IX as sports equity, but it is [an] anti-discrimination civil rights law,” O’Brien said. “The original statue did not even mention sports.”
Now a mother of four children, O’Brien said her own children’s experiences in athletic programs — including soccer, lacrosse, and swimming — have given her a new perspective on disparities that still exist.
“You get to see how schools and organizations do or do not support kids equally,” O’Brien said. “I can tell you that the toughest thing to change is not the quality of the locker room or whether boys and girls get the same equipment. It is kind of easy to measure that.”
“There is a law and there is recourse. What is difficult to change is attitudes and perceptions and how they affect young women and girls,” she added.
In closing, O’Brien stressed the importance of changing people’s views on women’s athletics.,
“I can’t tell you how many times I have reported on discrimination and thought ‘Isn't this supposed to be against the law?’” O’Brien said. “But laws only go so far — the rest is up to you and me.”
Following a brief video from former Olympian and Harvard track and field alumnus Gabby Thomas ‘19, Boynton introduced Ruggiero, the final Trailblazer Award recipient.
Entertaining the audience with jokes all evening, Boynton got an especially large laugh from attendees when she remarked that Ruggiero won her first gold medal before earning her driver’s license.
A four-time All-American, four-time Olympic team member, and four-time World Team member, Ruggiero was also the Chief Strategy Officer for Los Angeles’s successful 2028 Olympic bid and serves as CEO of her company Sports Innovation Lab, among other endeavors.
After showing off her gold medal to the audience, Ruggiero discussed her own experiences with Title IX.
From dressing as a professional hockey player at her elementary school career day, to becoming the first woman to play professionally in a men’s league — for the Tulsa Oilers in the Central Hockey League — Ruggiero discussed her trailblazing career, crediting the pioneering 1971-’74 Harvard female student-athletes and others who came before her to pave the road.
During her remarks, Ruggiero also gave thanks to current Harvard women’s hockey head coach Katey Stone, telling attendees that, “Coach Stone taught me a lot about who I am today.”
Since January, Stone has come under fire due to allegations of emotional abuse from former women’s ice hockey players, first reported in a Boston Globe investigation. Following the reports, Harvard launched an external review of the women’s ice hockey program.
Ruggiero offered her appreciation to Stone for instilling a “team-first” mentality in her and her teammates. The remarks received loud applause, including a standing ovation from some Harvard women’s ice hockey alumni and current players.
Ruggiero said Title IX has played a huge role in her life and the world around her.
“I believe sports [are] so important to give people equal access to opportunity because it is this beautiful safe space where you can learn about yourself,” Ruggiero said.
“I learned how to fall down and get back up. I learned grit. I learned how to be an individual on a team,” she continued. “Sports is this beautiful playground where we all get to experiment.”
Ruggiero said she is proud to live in a society where her children have strong female role models to look up to. In closing, Ruggiero responded to those who ask her where she sees Title IX 50 years from now.
“I think we will still need it in 50 years,” she said, pausing. “But for the men.”
The evening concluded with more mingling between generations of Crimson female student-athletes and their supporters. Among them, they had much to celebrate, with 38 national titles, 38 individual titles, 164 Ivy League Titles, and 43 women who have competed for their respective nations in the Olympic or Paralympic Games.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Healey remarked, quoting famous 19th-century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglas, who Healey said was often quoted by her former coach and Harvard legend, Kathy Delaney-Smith.
While the women of Harvard Athletics have long endured the fight for equality of opportunity, this weekend, they had every reason to celebrate the victories won and glass ceilings shattered. The 10,000 men of Harvard have a long history of competitive excellence, but it is the remarkable women in Crimson who Harvard Athletics is celebrating in this 50th year of Title IX.
—Staff writer Sydney E. Farnham can be reached at email@example.com.