Back in the late 1960s, when Jo Washburn was athletic director for women’s intramural sports at Washington State University, she had to stretch $1,200 to cover all the expenses of the volleyball, gymnastics, basketball, field hockey, skiing, and tennis teams.
Women’s athletics was a second-class affair. The athletes had to carpool to away games and sleep four to a hotel room to save money. They had to buy their own uniforms. They helped set up spectator seating for their meets. And they trained only when the facilities weren’t being used by the men’s teams. Few, if any, received athletic scholarships.
Meanwhile, their male counterparts traveled in chartered busses, had access to private locker rooms, and enjoyed the full support and resources of the athletic department.
Title IX, a 1972 federal law mandating gender equity for any educational program or activity that received federal financial support, was supposed to change all that. If that weren’t enough, that same year, the Washington legislature added an equal rights amendment to the state constitution. Both provisions said that women deserved an equal share of public resources, including funding and access to facilities.
But WSU’s administrators, like those of other schools around the country, were slow to improve the experience of women athletes. So in 1979 the students, along with their coaches, sued the University. Blair vs. Washington State University became a landmark women’s rights case for Washington, setting a precedent for all public four-year colleges and universities in the state.
Track athlete Karen (née Blair) Troianello ’80, was the lead student plaintiff. Coach and faculty member Sue Durrant ’62 represented the coaches and faculty. Thanks to their testimony and the support of other athletes, coaches, and educators on campus, equity prevailed and history was made.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Title IX and Washington’s Equal Rights Amendment and the 30th anniversary of Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of WSU’s women athletes and coaches. Washington State Magazine‘s Hannelore Sudermann talked with retired faculty members Jo Washburn ’64 and Sue Durrant and alumna Karen Blair Troianello about their memories of the suit.
JO WASHBURN: There had always been inequity between women’s and men’s sports, but I don’t think it really came out in the open until Title IX. When it passed, there were meetings all over campus to talk about inequities. We knew the law said we had to change, but there were people crying that this will be the doom of college athletics. There were others on campus who said, “we’d like to help [women’s sports], but we can’t hurt the men’s sports.”
SUE DURRANT: We were into the 70s before we really had team uniforms. The students supplied their own equipment. . . . You were constantly running into barriers and trying to figure out strategies to get around them.
KAREN BLAIR TROIANELLO: When I was on the women’s track team, our sweat suits were hand-me-downs from the men’s team. The men’s coaches were full-time coaches. The women’s had to both teach and be a coach. I was on a student board to look at the inequities, and they were pretty obvious.
SD: We assumed the University would do the right thing. Wrong. They drug their feet and drug their feet. Following Title IX, all institutions had to do self-studies. Not just athletic programs, but academics, living arrangements, and honor societies. …Then you made recommendations as to how to improve the situation. We did. And, well, nothing happened.
JW: We wrote reports, reports, reports, trying to get the University to see that we could be the leader here. Well, we ended up being the leader, but not how we thought we were going to be.
SD: The high schools were improving their programs. We were starting to get students in who said, “How come it’s not better here? It’s not as good here as what we were experiencing in high school.” They started to become more vocal in terms of the discrepancies. The [women] student athletes started saying, “How come we can’t go by bus?” We said we can’t afford it. They just thought that was ridiculous. We can do it for the men. They started noticing a lot of the discrepancies. A group of athletes filed a Title IX complaint. A year from then, nothing happened. Additional ones filed a second Title IX complaint.
KBT: I was just there willing to take a stand. I loved WSU. I always wanted to go there. It’s where my parents had gone.
SD: We didn’t want to file lawsuits. But after two efforts at complaints with the athletes [they grew frustrated]. A lot of the students lived on the west side of the state. They discovered this fledgling Northwest Women’s Law Center in Seattle. We were their initial big case. They filed a lawsuit under the state equal rights act, because Title IX hadn’t been tested yet. The state ERA already had been tried in public schools, and was resolved in favor of the women athletes.
KBT: I wanted . . . things to be fair for people like me who really wanted to compete and who really worked hard at it.
SD: We met with the lawyers and talked about what was going to happen. A lot of us [on faculty] were tenured, so we felt they couldn’t just immediately push us out the door. We had some sort of assurance that we couldn’t be fired outright for insubordination. It was very clear from the beginning that no matter who won the case, it was going to go on appeal. . . . [W]e talked about what the pros and cons were and that it was not gong to be a pleasant experience.
KBT: I think it was tough for people like Sue and Jo, who put their jobs on the line. Students cycled through in a few years. It was easier for us.
SD: The suit was not what we wanted to do. We tried everything else. We tried to be rational and reasonable. We were left with no alternative. They didn’t even . . . try to settle out of court. I think all the way through, they thought they were going to win this one.
JW: Sometimes it was eye opening in terms of who was on your side. People would come up and talk to you, but they wouldn’t do it overtly. They’d do it quietly. “We support you, but don’t tell anyone.”
SD: It was our intent to improve conditions for athletes, not to better ourselves. Our purpose was to make conditions so that women had more opportunities to be athletes at Washington State University.
When the lawyers were doing their discovery, we were in the buildings at 5:30 in the morning to view locker rooms ahead of anybody being in them. Male athletes would make the assumption that female athletes had the same resources. They had no way of knowing …[for example] that we had one big locker room that served everybody—the general student population, faculty, athletes—just one big locker room in the basement of Smith. That’s all there was.
It was just a complicated case. So the initial ruling [generally in favor of the women athletes, but excluding football from the equity considerations] was not a big surprise.
Even though the University was guilty of gender discrimination in athletics, some of the fine print within all that did not match up.
Everybody was so burned out at the end of the lawsuit, even our lawyers were saying, “Are you sure you want to go ahead?” I said, “We didn’t come this far to stop now. So we appealed.”
In 1982 the Blair vs. Washington State University appeal went to the state supreme court. The plaintiffs argued that WSU’s football operations should be included in determining how much money should be allocated to provide equity in women’s sports. In 1987 the supreme court agreed, noting that the state equal rights amendment contained no exception for football.
In the immediate aftermath, soccer joined the list of women’s sports offerings. A year later, women’s crew was added. Scholarships were established, busses provided. Today, according to the most recent report, women’s sports has nine teams, an operating budget of more than $1.6 million, and $2.2 million in athletic scholarships.