Belmont faculty member Mary Ellen Pethel’s most recent book, Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers: 50 Years, 50 Stories (UT Press, October 2022), is a vibrant celebration of the lives and careers of 50 female athletes who have shaped the landscape of women’s athletics, both in the state of Tennessee and across the nation. From household names like Pat Summitt and Candace Parker to lesser-known but equally important pioneers such as Ann Furrow and Teresa Phillips, these women have made immense contributions to the world of athletics through their dedication, hard work, and passion. Pethel’s book not only provides readers with a deeper understanding of these impressive individuals, but also gives insights into the history of women’s athletics before and after the passage of Title IX.
One of the most significant aspects of Pethel’s book is its exploration of the impact that Title IX has had on both Tennessee and the nation as a whole. Passed in 1972, Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding. In other words, schools cannot receive federal money unless they are providing equal opportunities for both male and female students.
“Title IX was, more broadly, about education,” Pethel, assistant professor in Global Leadership Studies and Honors, said. “And so it’s working everywhere. It’s why you have higher rates of women who are in STEM or in the legal profession or medical profession or positions of power in government. Those are also results of Title IX. It’s just a little harder to point to. There’s a great stat in Forbes about a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs, 90% of them that were women had played sports. So it’s not just sports, but also what sports adds a life skill, some of those intangible life skills.”
While this law has had a profound impact on gender equity in education, it has also been instrumental in leveling the playing field for female athletes. Thanks to Title IX, women now have greater opportunities to participate in sports at all levels—from high school and college to professional leagues.
The stories of those interviewed provide valuable insights into how far we’ve come since the passage of Title IX:
In 1968, Betty Wiseman started the first competitive collegiate women’s basketball program in the state of Tennessee (in the modern era). Four years before Title IX and two years before any statewide or nationwide organization existed. For context, the NCAA would not include women’s sports until 1981. Because of her vision and head start Belmont and Tennessee Tech were top teams in the nation in the early 1970s. Belmont remains a nationally ranked team today.
Teresa Lawrence Phillips was the first Black player on the first women’s basketball team at Vanderbilt in 1977. She coached and later became the Athletic Director at Tennessee State University. She blazed a trail for Candice Storey Lee, who was a standout basketball player at Vanderbilt in the 1990s. In 2020, Candice became Vanderbilt’s Vice Chancellor of Athletics making her the first Black female athletic director in the SEC. They both talk about the importance of having women at the table in administrative athletics and representation.
These stories illustrate just how much progress has been made for female athletes thanks to Title IX—progress that would not have been possible without the courage and determination of those who came before us. “I realize that I’m technically what you would call a daughter of Title IX,” Pethel said. “I was the first generation to be born and play sports, from t-ball up through college athletics, under the protections of Title IX. And it’s the 1990s when you see that first generation that’s grown up with those Title IX protections. You can see the results so clearly. In 1996 at the Olympics, women’s soccer, softball, track, gymnastics, basketball—they all won gold. Bob Costas (sports broadcaster) actually called the games the Title IX Olympics. The following year, 1997, the WNBA launched. Then, in 1999–that’s the year that (US footballer) Brandi Chastain rips her shirt off when the US Women’s Team won the World Cup. And so now we’re really in this fourth generation, and I want more people to see how this has all evolved and its history. I was a beneficiary of Title IX, but we all are. It’s not just young women, it’s young men too.”
The book Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers celebrates the accomplishments of 50 inspiring women who have changed the landscape of athletics forever. Through their stories, we are given a deeper understanding not only of their individual journeys but also of the history behind women’s athletics in both Tennessee and the United States as a whole. As New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss said of Pethel’s book, “This is a valuable collection, an important book and a timely tribute on this 50th anniversary of Title IX.”
Pethel’s other books include Athens of the New South, A Heartfelt Mission and All-Girls Education from Ward Seminary to Harpeth Hall. She is also the project director of NashvilleSites.org as part of the Metro Historical Commission Foundation.
- Tuesday, Nov. 8: Pethel moderates a panel with three people from the book at Fisk University.
- Thursday, Nov. 10: Pethel appears on a panel at UT-Knoxville library event.
- Tuesday, Nov. 15: Pethel will be recognized at a Tennessee Tech basketball game with a signing afterward.
- Sunday, Dec. 4: There will be a book event at the Belmont women’s basketball game, featuring women from the book and the trailblazers will be honored at halftime. The game against Georgia Tech will be televised on ESPN, and books will be available for purchase (and autographs).