Track-and-field standout Karen (Blair) Troianello (’80 Comm.) became the face of the benchmark equal rights case against Washington State University.
Blair vs. Washington State University was a milestone for women’s rights in Washington, setting a precedent for public four-year colleges and universities. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which—in 1987—ruled in favor of the coaches and athletes.
Coaches and female athletes at WSU had sued the university in 1979 over inadequate funding and other support for women’s athletics under the state Equal Rights Amendment, enacted the same year as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act. The 1972 federal law states: “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,” including schools.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of both the state and federal laws. To celebrate, Washington State Magazine caught up with Troianello. Here, she reflects on inequities she observed, taking the stand, and more.
What inequities did you experience as a female track-and-field student-athlete at WSU? What did the men’s team have that the women’s team didn’t? The women’s track team—for at least the first two years—was a collection of walk-ons. The men’s team had stellar athletes recruited from across the world. We drove to meets in a caravan of cars from the university motor pool. No cellphones, no GPS. Just trying to keep six or seven cars together so we would all arrive at the same time. The men rode charter buses. One year we got hand-me-down warm-ups from the men’s team. We weren’t allowed to use the varsity weight room and instead used a very limited weight room tucked away. Eventually they let us in, and we all did fine together.
What inequities did you observe in other sports or areas on campus at that time? I read over some letters from other plaintiffs collected by the Northwest Women’s Law Center and found that, across the board, the inequities were in facilities, coaching time, access to fields or gyms and weight rooms, uniforms, lack of scholarships, and support.
By then, Title IX had been enacted for several years. Were you surprised that WSU was taking so long to address the inequities and comply? Title IX was enacted when I was a freshman in high school. It may be why the coach of the boys’ cross-country team had to let a few girls work out with the boys because we didn’t have a team of our own. I didn’t really know what to expect when I got to WSU. I was really glad to make the team, and then to get one of the first scholarships after my freshman season (it was worth one semester tuition and fees, about $330, split between the two semesters). I had been so lucky in high school with a great coach, and I really did learn a lot from all my coaches at WSU.
I guess I am not surprised that it took time, because everything takes time. I also realized how easy it is for a university to drag its feet because the students who are agitating for something are only there for four years. If there is no one to carry on the fight, the university wins. What I am sometimes surprised about is that our lawsuit is still being discussed so many years later. In my trips to WSU for various events—a celebration of women’s athletics, a chance to speak to student athletes in a lunchtime forum, the recent celebration of Title IX pioneers, and many trips to Ferdinand’s—I’ve been able to see some of the progress and the changes in integrating men’s and women’s sports. That makes me happy.
How did your name end up being the one on the suit? That was just the luck of the alphabetical draw. Unearned glory on my part. The lawyers did ask to make sure I was OK with it, and after consulting with my folks and others, I agreed. I think others did so much more in the beginning, getting the ball rolling so to speak (I was never very good at sports that involved eye-hand coordination). We all contributed, and I really want people to know that this really was a team effort.
Were you afraid or nervous to sue your school? Terrified.
What was it like to take then stand? And how did you prepare for it? The lawyers prepped us, though my memories are dimming about how that happened. I think we came back to Pullman and met with them for practice questions. Speaking in court is not easy because it really is an adversarial situation. I can remember being on the stand, but not really what I said. But I still wave at the courthouse when I go through Colfax.
What kinds of support did you have—from your family, fellow students and female track-and-field athletes, and coaches? It was a mixed bag as I remember. Some people really thought we were doing the right thing; others didn’t. My parents were supportive. I certainly understand those athletes and coaches who didn’t join the lawsuit. For the coaches and staff, certainly it was a big step to sue your employer. But the Northwest Women’s Law Center staff was great, and lots of folks on campus were very helpful, like people in the Women’s Center. Of course, there were people then and people now who didn’t think much of our efforts. For the record, we never wanted to kill men’s sports, just have an equitable share in opportunities.
What was it like to work with Sue Durrant and Jo Washburn on the lawsuit? Sue and Jo were great. They were so supportive of all the athletes and really wanted better things for the university. I admire their dedication.
What kind of reactions did you experience from male athletes or students, professors, coaches or administrators? Did you experience any pushback or retaliation — either subtly or not-so-subtly? I don’t know how many people knew about the lawsuit while I was still on campus. We did have some small fund-raising events, and we did lead tours of the men’s and women’s locker facilities, handing out lots of mimeographed fact sheets. There were articles in various regional newspapers, but were many students reading those? I don’t know.
What did it feel like when football was excluded from the initial ruling? We were disappointed, of course. I don’t know that I was surprised, and I was glad when we went ahead on the appeal.
By the time the appeal was ruled on—in 1987—where were you and what were you doing? Were you still following the case? Were you still part of that process? I was on my third job—young journalists tended to move around a lot—and was able to take a day and go listen to the proceedings in Olympia with former tennis player Julie Ramstead (’82 Comm.). I remember one of the justices asking our attorney, “So the girls want to play football?” Well, no, that wasn’t the point at all. I stayed involved as much as possible through the years, partly because journalists kept calling up and asking for comments at various anniversaries. I’ve had the chance to speak to a number of groups over the years and have always tried to represent my fellow plaintiffs as best I could.
How much progress has been made in the 50 years since Title IX was enacted? Where do you, if anywhere, still see inequities? Has the playing field been leveled or is there still work to do? I think there has been lots of progress, but since I didn’t choose education as a career, I haven’t really been there to see it up close and in person. But I’ve been involved in ways over the years, volunteering with my son’s high-school track and cross-country programs, and I see a whole lot of girls with more opportunities than I had. So I can only hope that they are getting as much out of their programs as I did.
Sports may seem like a frivolous activity, but I believe there are a lot of core values that can be taught: teamwork, discipline, sportsmanship, friendship. I am notoriously bad at remembering my best times (though I’ll always remember long-jumping 17 feet, 9 inches), but I have never forgotten the best times I had running and pushing myself with great teammates. And setting extra workout goals with one friend, after which we would treat ourselves to an ice-cream pie. Those were the days.
What do you want today’s women track-and-field student-athletes or any female student-athletes to know—about Blair v. Washington State University, about what things used to be like, about your hopes for them? I would want all women who are working toward a goal—athletic, academic, societal, etc.—to know that we are all following in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ footsteps. And our aunts’ and cousins’ and sisters’, too. I would want them to not be afraid to work for their goals, to speak out in cases of injustice.
What words of advice or encouragement would you say to today’s women student-athletes directly? Hydrate! Seriously! Take care of your bodies, because before you know it, 42 years will have passed since you graduated from WSU. Take care of your minds because you’ll need them no matter what you do in life.
What are your hopes for the next 50 years of Title IX? My hope would be that someday everyone has truly equal opportunities for education. And that all extracurricular activities are supported as schools and universities work to help their graduates become functioning members of society.
Reflection: On 50 years of Title IX and the state’s equal rights amendment – An essay by Karen (Blair) Troianello (’80 Comm.)