Birch Bayh: A senator who changed lives

Sen. Birch Bayh, the "father of Title IX," credits the strong women in his life for inspiring him to champion equality. AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi

There was one more thing I wanted to say to Birch Bayh, one more thing I had to say. But I was afraid it would sound corny -- or worse, insincere. And I wasn't even sure I could spit it out.

"I know you must hear this all the time," I said, not such a great start. "But you changed our lives. The job I chose, the man I married, the mother I've tried to be. ... You affected the women we became."

I figured he had heard this a thousand times before. My words would be just another statement of gratitude from another woman whose life was changed by the law he co-authored, Title IX. I had been in high school when Bayh's efforts began taking effect, when Title IX opened the door to athletic opportunity and the accompanying life lessons. So when I found myself on the phone with him three decades later, it brought back a flood of memories: pulling on that heavy polyester uniform for the first time, practicing before the crack of dawn, receiving a state championship medal.

Those athletic experiences helped set me on a different life path. But before you can appreciate the influence Title IX had on me, you must first understand the man who wrote it.

I spoke with Bayh in 2005, for a book I was writing, and the former senator from Indiana was more than generous in sharing what had motivated him to seek academic equality for girls and women. The origins of Title IX had nothing to do with sports, despite the law's eventual impact. In fact, Bayh's first wife, Marvella, whom he considered a driving force behind Title IX, wasn't even a sports fan. (Bayh said that when they attended the World Series, she brought along The New York Times for entertainment.) But Marvella pushed for the law because she recognized the need for equal educational opportunities.

"She said we can't afford to ignore the development of 53 percent of the brainpower in this country," Bayh told me. "I had no idea how far that basic idea would go."

Marvella had been a straight-A student, class president and national speech champion in high school, but she was denied admission to her dream college, the University of Virginia, because state law prohibited women from attending. (That didn't change until 1970).

Such injustice was nothing new to Bayh, who'd been exposed to it as a child. His father, Birch Sr., coached four sports at Indiana State and later became the director of physical education for the Washington, D.C., public school system. "In the mid-1930s, I remember us all gathering around the breakfast table and Dad telling us he was going to testify before Congress," Bayh recalled. "I asked, 'What are you going to say to them, Dad?' And he told me, 'There's going to be a day when we need to appropriate money for girls' physical education, and if they ask why, I'm going to say that little girls need strong bodies to carry strong minds around in, just like little boys do.'"

Bayh also learned from observing his maternal grandmother, Kate Hollingsworth, a schoolteacher. Young Birch had gone to live on his grandparents' farm, northwest of Terre Haute, Ind., after his mother died and his father was deployed just before World War II. "It never entered my mind that women aren't as important as men, because I could see my grandmother working long after my granddad was on the front porch, smoking his pipe," Bayh said. "I don't think Granddad made a single decision of consequence that Kate didn't have a voice in."

But what Bayh didn't know was that his grandmother could not have inherited that farm. Once he became older and understood the reality, he insisted that his grandparents rewrite their will and put the land under joint ownership.

That idea -- joint ownership -- seemed to become a life philosophy for the senator. When he told me about his early years in Indiana politics, with Marvella by his side, he used the pronoun "we," as in: "When we decided to run for the state legislature ... ." He called their relationship a "tandem operation," and it was one that helped him win that election in 1954. "She wasn't just my wife," Bayh, now 84, said of Marvella, who died of cancer in 1979. "We were together as a team, fully equal."

Even after Congress passed Title IX in 1972, women's academic and athletic opportunities didn't become "fully equal" to men's. There were no Title IX police patrolling the halls of America's schools, no guarantee that things would ever actually change.

My own athletic experience serves as an example. I entered Niles West High, in Skokie, Ill., in the fall of 1975. Only a few years before that, the pinnacle of girls' athletic participation was something called "postal tournaments." In these stirring competitions, girls would partake in various events, and their results were then recorded on postcards and mailed to the Illinois High School Association. If they were lucky, they would find out who "won" a month or two later.

Most of us still hadn't heard of Title IX three years after it had passed. But our principal, Nicholas Mannos, certainly had -- and he was getting impatient. Mannos and Lee Anne Heeren, the head of the girls' physical education department, had been working tirelessly on proposals for the inclusion of girls' varsity sports. Mannos traveled downstate to present the plans, but time and again, the proposals were rejected by men who couldn't conceive of girls playing competitive sports.

Of course, none of us knew this at the time. None of us knew the hoops Mannos had jumped through to finally bring girls' varsity sports to Niles West. All we knew, as we pulled on those heavy polyester shorts and matching red tops, was that we were finally allowed to play basketball -- and in uniforms with our school name on the front, real numbers sown onto the back.

A year later, in 1976, we moved from the school's smaller gym into the "contest gym." We were official varsity athletes. Our names were printed on black strips of cardboard and displayed on the same scoreboard as the boys' names, and we had warm-up suits, albeit ones that we shared with the girls' swim, volleyball and track teams.

We practiced each morning at 4:30, when we knew the big gym would be empty. We hid our bumps and bruises from our parents -- we didn't want anyone questioning our right to play -- while our coach hid the fact that she was spending every free period huddled in the teachers' lounge, receiving private instruction from the school's venerable boys' coach, Billy Schnurr.

On the eve of the 1976-77 season, the inaugural year of the Illinois State girls' basketball tournament, Schnurr challenged us with a pep talk. "Why not Niles West?" he exhorted. "Why can't you be state champions?"

By the spring of 1979, three of our starters were being recruited to play at major colleges. And unlike girls just a few years older, we had daily access not just to the gym, but to the life lessons of team sports once only imparted on boys.

We also had a fierce hunger for victory created by consecutive super-sectional losses. Maybe Schnurr was right: Why not Niles West? Maybe we could be state champions. During warm-ups at the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall, where we were set to play the state final, our eyes widened as a 16-year-old junior on the other team rose above the rim to tip in her teammate's miss. And we stayed transfixed as East St. Louis Lincoln's Jackie Joyner sprinted back to her team's bench.

(Years later, in an interview I snagged with the woman I consider the greatest female athlete of the 20th century, Jackie Joyner-Kersee immediately snapped back to that night, to specific calls she still disagreed with, to a time that had brought both of us such unbridled joy that we both giggled at the memory.)

My Niles West team defeated East St. Louis Lincoln that day in Assembly Hall. We became state champions. Standing at center court after the game was Mannos, by then the IHSA president. He handed us our championship medals, wearing a smile wider than any we had ever seen. Only years later would I learn how hard he had fought for our right to play. All we knew back then was that we would never be the same.

I tried to convey this sentiment to Bayh, nearly 30 years after that game. "You must hear this all the time ... "
I began.

I waited for him to brush me off, to say a quick goodbye. Instead, he whispered this: "The first time Marvella and I ever met, over lunch, we each said we wanted to make a difference with our lives, and we believed a career in government could do that. I think Title IX has done that. And I'm proud to have been a part of it."

He paused for a second, then added, "And I don't hear it all the time. Thank you for telling me."