Title IX 40 for 40: Merrily Dean Baker
As Princeton’s associate director of the department of
athletics, physical education and recreation from 1970-82,
Merrily Dean Baker initiated many of the programs
in which women first participated at the school, including
basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, swimming and tennis. She also
was a member of the first group of women administrators to meet and
discuss the establishment of Ivy League championship competition
for women. She went on to become the first woman to be named
athletics director at a Big Ten university when she was hired by
Michigan State in 1992. In 2006, Baker was inducted into the
National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA)
Hall of Fame.
Who is a pioneer in women’s athletics, and why?
Baker: Over the course of the past 40+ years, Title IX has been part of the fabric of who I am, which also means, I suppose, that I qualify as one of the bonafide pioneers of collegiate women’s athletics as we know it today. While serving as the founding director of women’s athletics at Princeton, from 1970 – 1982, I was part of the legion of women and men who worked very hard to have Title IX enacted into law.
Then I was privileged to be the only female athletics administrator (along with one male athletics administrator and a cadre of OCR attorneys) to serve on the Office of Civil Rights committee charged with the responsibility to write the Title IX implementing guidelines, once Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in June 1972.
That was an extraordinary opportunity and 18 month experience
for me, as a not-yet-30 year-old collegiate athletics
administrator. History was written, and the Ivy League was part of
it! I often wondered how I happened to be the lone female athletics
administrator selected to serve on that OCR committee and finally
concluded that the OCR official who made the committee appointments
must have been a Princeton alumnus! However it transpired, it
certainly was my good fortune to be afforded that incredible,
growth-inspiring professional opportunity.
We have had to weather many storms and respond to many crises during the past 40 years to ensure that the playing fields of America are fair and equitable, to ensure that our daughters are afforded the same opportunities, support and benefit as our sons and to ensure that there be no discrimination based on gender in these United States. Title IX has withstood the challenges and has proven its value to our society. As a law, Title IX does not need to be strengthened, but enforcement of the law does need to be strengthened.
As I have said many times, to many audiences, it needs to be understood that while Title IX is a legal mandate, gender equity is a moral imperative. Neither the legal mandate nor the moral imperative can be ignored in a civilized society. It has always been my hope, and remains my hope after 40 years, that I live long enough to see the legal mandate become unnecessary because the moral imperative has been achieved; that day has not yet arrived, unfortunately. It is said that cultural change does not become fully assimilated until 1 ½-2 generations later; as my children are now grown and half of my grandchildren are now grown, hope reigns eternal that the magical day is near!
What impact has Title IX had on college athletics?
Baker: The impact of Title IX on college athletics, particularly on women’s collegiate athletics, is nothing short of extraordinary. Isolated numbers tell part of the story, but also provide fodder for differing opinions about positive and/or negative impacts of Title IX, as seen in the eye of the beholder. Having said that, the intent of the law is quite clear, as is the overall positive impact of the law.
Perhaps the most compelling example of Title IX impact derives from the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, California. Knowing that the American women achieved great success during the 1984 Olympic Games, it is interesting to note that of the 200 women on the United States Olympic Team, 180 were trained at American colleges and universities that did not have women’s athletics prior to 1972 (the year Title IX was enacted)! What we saw was the incredible impact of 12 short years of increased opportunity and support! That impact has grown exponentially in the ensuing 28 years.
How did Title IX help to change the perception of women in athletics?
Baker: In a nutshell, I was called a tomboy…my daughters were called athletes!
I believe that Title IX was one of four realities that changed the perception of women in sport, and in every other walk of life in the early 1970’s; the other three being (a) the globally political Women’s Movement, (b) Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in a highly-hyped, gender-provocative televised tennis match, and (c) the birth of the AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) which governed and developed women’s collegiate athletics, including the provision of regional and national championships, with television exposure, for the next decade. But it was Corporate America that made the connection between those four occurrences and “discovered” a whole new path to be followed: actively seeking to utilize the capabilities of women to be leaders/decision-makers/producers of innovation/inspiring role models “because little girls need heroes, too”! Without the intervention of government, politics, business and an army of women who were tired of being held back, underutilized or worse, excluded, none of the four realities would have had the individual impact that they did have collectively.
I clearly remember the spring of 1973 when corporate recruiters suddenly began to appear on my doorstep at Princeton to ask me for the names and contact information of women student-athletes who were graduating that spring. Naively, I asked them what majors they were looking for; to a person, they told me they didn’t care what her major was and they began to rattle off the set of personal skills that they perceived graduating women-student-athletes at Princeton would possess. That spring changed, forever, the way that we taught, prepared and developed women student-athletes/coaches and administrators for life beyond sport! The expanded frame of living and increased opportunities that so many of us craved began to unfold before our eyes and it became our responsibility to figure out just how to take advantage of that and make it work and how to help other girls and women learn to take advantage of it. It was an awesome time to be a young woman; it was also a scary time, with tremendous responsibility heaped upon our shoulders and miles of uncharted waters to be navigated…but what a special and privileged journey it has been!
Only those who have personally experienced it can fully understand the unmitigated joy that accompanies the acquisition of “first” successes: winning the first-ever Ivy championship; winning the first-ever regional championship; winning the first-ever national championship; celebrating the first-ever member of a Princeton women’s team to be named to the US Olympic Team; celebrating the first four women to be named Rhodes Scholars, with one of them, Sue Perles ’75 being the captain of the field hockey team I coached at Princeton; celebrating a former student-athlete at the University of Minnesota being named the first female Flight Director at NASA. The list is 40+ years long and makes me feel proud and blessed to be one of the many, many women and men who were given the opportunity and entrusted with the responsibility to help to make it all happen.
The mountains were often tough to climb…but, oh, the sweet exhilaration of the view when we all reached the top together!