50 years later, Title IX's roots can be traced to Iowa. But there's work to be done.
Lolo Jones, three-time Olympian in track and field and bobsled.
Caitlin Clark, the points per game leader in all of NCAA women’s basketball last season.
Jenica Lewis, a rising freshman with 20 Division I offers before playing a game of high school basketball.
Three notable recent names in girls' and women’s sports, all with connections to Iowa. But they are names many might not know had it not been for a fight for equitable opportunities for women half a century ago.
Thursday marks 50 years of Title IX, legislation that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or educational program that receives federal funding and inadvertently opened many doors for young girls and women in sports.
And — from the late Christine Grant to the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union — the roots to that monumental change in sports can be traced to Iowa.
Tracing Title IX’s impact on athletics back to Iowa
To understand how Title IX’s roots can be traced back to Iowa, you need to understand Grant’s legacy.
A native of Scotland, it was sports that first brought Grant to Iowa. She was a Hawkeye through-and-through, earning multiple advanced degrees at Iowa. She was named Iowa’s first women’s athletic director in 1973, after Title IX had been signed into law on June 23, 1972, but she had been instrumental in nationwide change for years before that.
Grant served as president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the first group to effectively advocate for equal sports opportunities for women in the United States. As Title IX began to take shape in the early 1970s, Grant was one of the trailblazers that convinced other the legislation should include athletics. She testified before Congress advocating for the law.
“There was no thought at all about Title IX impacting athletics,” said Lisa Bluder, head coach of Iowa women’s basketball. “That wasn’t even considered until really Dr. Grant and a couple other women pioneers that embraced it and said, ‘No, it’s in education. It should include athletics.’
“She went before Congress and testified about it, and it made complete sense to everybody there that, yes, athletics is a part of an educational system and it should be treated the same equally.”
While Grant was well-known nationally for her contributions to Iowa and to Title IX, across the state in Ames, Iowa State had an influential woman administrator of its own in J. Elaine Hieber.
Hieber joined Cyclones athletics in 1979 and was promoted to a senior-level administrative position in 1993. Like Grant, she devoted decades to improving equity in women’s athletics at the college level. Outside of Iowa State, Hieber served on the Division I women’s basketball committee, the NCAA marketing committee and the executive board of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, among others.
Hieber paved the way for other women, like Calli Sanders, to take on administrative roles in athletics.
“There are more women in leadership positions, I think that women’s sports are healthy,” Sanders said. “I think we’re putting more and more resources into our women’s sports. Part of that is Title IX, part of it is that it’s in our fabric to make sure those opportunities are equitable.”
During her time with the Cyclones, Hieber helped transition Iowa State's men's and women's athletic departments into one combined department. Under her, female athletes saw improvements in the quality of their equipment, modes of travel and accessibility to facilities. She saw growth for women across the board, and it wasn't just limited to athletes.
"When I first started, there were only five female certified athletic trainers in the country," Hieber said. "Now you look at football, professional basketball, you see a number of women in those roles. There's been tremendous growth in terms of opportunities."
Hieber’s time at Iowa State came to end in 2002, and showed just how much work still needed to be done in athletics. Hieber retired in protest over the direction of the ISU athletic department.
"I understand the current athletic director's desire to have a 'right-hand man' who shares his thinking," Hieber shared in a statement on May 31, 2002. "Bruce (Van De Velde) and I believe in different leadership styles and our views concerning the support of Olympic sports and gender equity differ significantly."
Regardless, Hieber has kept track of how the school has grown in the past two decades, and she's impressed with what current athletic director Jamie Pollard has done for athletics.
"The University finally realized that a change needed to be made," Hieber said this week. "I think Jamie Pollard has been fantastic. He has provided so (many) equal opportunities for men and women across the board, all programs. Equity, in that relationship, has just been outstanding."
A lasting legacy
Grant died in December at age 85.
But, even decades after her retirement from the Iowa athletic department in 2000, Grant's impact on girls and women’s sports continues to be felt in-state and beyond.
The perfect example of that is the Hawkeyes’ field hockey program, a sport that wouldn’t exist at the university without Grant’s influence.
“Field hockey had been around for along time at Iowa, just as a club spot, but it wasn’t really ingrained in the high school or anything like that at all in the state of Iowa,” said Lisa Cellucci, head coach of Iowa field hockey.
“Once Title IX happened, field hockey — which was really Dr. Grant’s first love — was elevated as one of those 12 varsity sports. I really don’t think if there wasn’t someone, a trailblazer who loved the sport, I don’t see how we’d have a field hockey program because there was no state sponsorship.”
For Cellucci, it was a bit of luck that allowed field hockey to thrive at Iowa. Had Grant been devoted to another sport, the outcome could have been very different.
While other women’s sports in Iowa City benefit from Grant’s contributions to Title IX and the University of Iowa specifically, Cellucci bears responsibility in continuing her legacy. She spends time talking to her team about Title IX and the women’s history at Iowa. She brings in speakers — like the NCAA’s Managing Director of Inclusion Amy Wilson — to educate the players on their rights. Cellucci also acknowledges the significance of her team practicing and playing on Grant Field.
“It’s a responsibility because we walk out onto Grant Field every day,” Cellucci said. “You can’t walk on that field and go to practice or play a game and not know who you’re representing.”
A one-of-a-kind athletic union
Title IX’s impact on the state of Iowa is evident beyond college programs. Iowa is the only state to have a separate organization to represent and serve high school girls in athletics. So, while other states have one association that covers high school sports as a whole, Iowa has the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.
Girls sports in Iowa were already decades ahead of other states, even before Title IX. Girls could play high school basketball in the 1920s, particularly at the state’s more rural schools.
While girls basketball was always the crown jewel of the IGHSAU, the organization added other athletic programs years before Title IX went into effect. Wayne Cooley helped the IGHSAU sanction softball in 1955, golf and tennis in 1956, and track and field in 1962. Cross country was added in 1966, swimming and diving came in 1967 and volleyball was added in 1970.
Soccer and bowling were added decades after Title IX became law.
Today, Iowa ranks among the top half of the country for high school girls’ participation in athletics, despite ranking in the bottom half in population, according to the IGHSAU website.
It's because of that history — and focus on growing girls athletics — that female athletes in Iowa continue to have success in their academic pursuits.
Hieber remembers, when she first came to Iowa, hearing girls at the basketball state championship talk about how their mothers and grandmothers played in the tournament.
"We have that legacy of women succeeding in sport and drawing a crowd," Hieber said. "You don't have that in other states. We have that legacy of success. I think that's kind of ingrained that it's okay to play a sport as a girl."
There's still work to be done
There is such a rich history of girls and women’s sports in Iowa, but that doesn’t mean the state has avoided Title IX issues in college athletics.
Iowa almost did away with its women’s swimming and diving program in 2020, and faced a legal challenge claiming gender discrimination because of it. As a result of its Title IX imbalance, the school announced it would create a women's wrestling program to begin competition in the 2023-24 season.
In 2017, Jane Meyer, former senior associate athletic director at Iowa, was awarded $1.43 million in damages after winning her discrimination lawsuit that claimed gender and sexual discrimination, retaliation and whistleblower violations, and unequal pay.
The University of Iowa ended up settling with Meyer, her partner and former Hawkeyes field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, and the Des Moines law firm that represented them both for a total payment of $6.5 million between the two discrimination cases.
"This was never about vilifying one person (or) undermining Iowa," Griesbaum's attorney, Thomas Newkirk, told the Des Moines Register in 2017. "I assure you that all universities face this same problem around the country. That's why the wake-up call is not just for Iowa. … We need to focus on being sure that gender bias doesn't happen. Let us all love football or let us all love field hockey and move forward — and it can be done. And I hope that the universities realize that."
At Iowa State, when men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis were cut in the 1990s and women’s soccer was added, former members of both men's teams blamed Title IX regulations for the decision.
Even now, one of Hieber's biggest frustrations is that only three of the 10 women's sports at Iowa State have a female head coach. Those sports are cross country, golf and volleyball. At Iowa, seven out of 13 women's sports, including the women's wrestling program that has yet to compete, have a female head coach.
"We only have (three) female coaches out of (10), and there's not excuse for that," Hieber said. "We should have female role models in sport. Title IX has been in place for 50 years. How many generations of women have the tools, skills and experiences to be head coaches? But, here at Iowa State, we don't have that."
Iowa State and Iowa spent considerably more on equipment, recruiting and travel for men's basketball than women's basketball, according to a recent USA Today investigation. At Iowa State, the total difference in spending on those areas was $1,083,079. At Iowa, it was $915,404.
The information collected by USA Today came from the schools' annual financial reports to the NCAA, citing financial data over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 fiscal years.
For Cellucci, the work that still needs to be done starts with education. She said there are still a lot of people who don’t know the details of Title IX, what it can provide and what it really entails. For athletes, that could mean equivalent opportunities and treatment for equipment, travel allowances, academic tutoring, locker rooms, medical facilities, and housing and dining facilities.
Like Cellucci, Bluder agrees there’s a need for continued education. As a mentee of Grant, she feels responsible to continue the work that Grant started so women’s sports move forward.
Bluder knows better than anyone how Title IX changed the landscape of sports in general. The proof is on her roster: Caitlin Clark, who might not be a household name in basketball circles without the effects of Title IX extending all the way from youth sports to college athletics.
Now Clark is considered one of the most valuable athletes in college sports. She was No. 16 on ESPN's top-25 list of college basketball's most marketable players that was released last August, before he dominating sophomore season.
“I absolutely don’t think so,” Bluder responded when asked if Clark would be as dominant without Title IX opening up opportunities. “Without the opportunities afforded the recent generations, there would not be the athletic interest in women’s sports that there is today. And that would just be a shame.
“Women’s sports, how much it’s growing, it just shows what’s capable if we give it an opportunity, if we give it a fighting chance.”
Alyssa Hertel is a college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.