Leveling the Playing Field
Over 50 Years, Title IX has Moved the Bar (and Budget) in Women’s Sports
By Sheldon Shealer. Photography by Turner Photography Studio
Walkersville High School graduate Ann Poffenbarger recalls the excitement of being selected for the University of Maryland’s inaugural women’s varsity basketball team in 1971.
Then she was handed her gear.
“A white blouse and a red kilt,” she now says with a laugh. “It was horrible. I felt like I was going backwards. Before every game, I had to iron the blouse.”
Little did Poffenbarger know at the time, but her entire athletic and, ultimately, professional careers were about to change forever with the passing of the Education Amendments of 1972, which included Title IX, a federal civil rights law enacted on June 23, 1972. Title IX was designed to prohibit sex-based discrimination in any school or any education program that receives federal funding. While that synopsis covers a broad range of school-related topics, Title IX today most often is linked with athletics—specifically equal playing opportunities for men and women.
Poffenbarger, along with local high school coaches Helen Schley, Carol Smith Wilcom and Peggy Trimmer, welcomed the changes brought about by Title IX. In hindsight, each sees a variety of benefits. For Poffenbarger, there was a chance to trade in the blouse and kilt for a more practical athletic uniform. For Schley, Title IX meant a level of athletic equality that included team budgets, bus transportation, increased schedules, postseason play and, for some female athletes, opportunities to compete in college. Smith Wilcom saw additional sports programs opening the door to athletic administration for females. And Trimmer, one of girls’ sports’ most vocal advocates in the 1970s, finally saw equal funding, night sports events for girls and the media publicity she had long sought.
However it’s viewed, Title IX’s influence on Frederick County cannot be underestimated. Frederick County Public Schools reported a record 3,360 female participants this past school year at the county’s 10 public high schools. Females comprise 45 percent of all FCPS athletes. FredCoSports.org has documented at least 450 county females who have gone on to NCAA Division I athletic careers, and thousands more have played on the NCAA Division II, Division III and junior college levels since Title IX was enacted.
“This is exactly what sports should do for some kids,” Poffenbarger says, “give them an opportunity that they would have never had otherwise.”
In the Beginning
To understand the evolution of women in sports in Frederick County, it is best to take a step back in time.
One of the earliest local media references to females in athletics was an April 10, 1884, article in the Frederick Weekly News warning about the dangers of girls jumping rope, which it deemed to be more “violent and hurtful” than what boys faced in all their sports combined. The article insisted that “in some instances [girls] have received injuries from which they never fully recover.” Such narrative was commonplace in the era and continued for decades as women were viewed as too delicate to participate in competitive athletics.
It took a swimmer by the name of Sybil Bauer to challenge that stereotype in 1922. Then a 19-year-old student at North-western University, Bauer swam the 440-yard backstroke at a meet in Bermuda in 6 minutes, 24.8 seconds, a performance that broke the existing men’s world record for the event. Bauer went on to an Olympic gold-medal performance at the 1924 Games. Competition in women’s sports, often short-distance running and swimming events and a few team sports, grew following Bauer’s 1922 accomplishment.
In the fall of 1923, Frederick County became the first place in Maryland outside of Baltimore to offer high school girls’ sports, according to a Frederick Daily News article that October. The sport of field ball, a girls-only, soccer-like sport where participants used their hands instead of kicking the ball, debuted that fall with four participating schools—Brunswick, Frederick, Middletown and Thurmont.
During the 1920s, girls’ basketball was added to the high school schedule. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, girls’ varsity sports were offered at every Frederick County high school for at least a short time, although they were treated as little more than recreational or intramural events. Competitions were often contested during the school day with little fanfare and coaches serving as game officials. For a few years, the entire field hockey and volleyball seasons were condensed into a single-day competition at Baker Park.
But by the 1960s, girls’ sports really took root in the county thanks to such pioneers as Helma Hahn Bowers at Frederick High School and Maxine Murray at Walkersville. Both finished their coaching careers in the county school system before Title IX was passed, but they had charted a course for the county. Hahn Bowers coached field ball teams that annually challenged for state titles and Murray ran a highly successful tennis program, once stringing together an eight-year undefeated streak. Murray was also instrumental in organizing local officiating groups for all girls’ sports.
No Overnight Success
A common misunderstanding is to assume Title IX brought about an immediate increase in the number of sports, and thus opportunities, offered to girls in Frederick County. Coaches Carol Smith Wilcom, who was at Brunswick High School, and Peggy Trimmer, at Walkersville, are quick to point out now that initially the law wasn’t about expanding offerings as much as it was about improving what already existed.
“You have to remember, when Title IX passed, there was no rulebook to follow,” Smith Wilcom says. “It was up to each county and each school to figure out how this affected our teams and our schools. From 1972 until 1995, we learned a lot and we changed a lot.”
Some of the immediate changes included increasing the number competitions for girls’ sports, making it equal to the number of games played by comparable boys’ teams. Also, there were after-school games with bus transportation provided. In addition, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association instituted state tournaments in girls’ sports starting in the 1972-73 school year. The Middletown girls’ basketball team, coached by Helen Schley, reached the state semifinals in the inaugural tournament.
It took a number of years before other benefits were realized, such as equal compensation for coaches and an equitable distribution of game schedules.
Smith Wilcom says once gains were made in existing sports, the focus shifted to adding programs. Increasing high school enrollments and community involvement led to a number of new sports for both boys and girls, but girls’ sports benefitted the most, she says. Trimmer recalls the construction of new schools and renovations of others resulting in upgraded athletic facilities, which led to additional sports. She points to the swimming pool at Walkersville High School in the late 1970s that made it easy to add that sport to the school’s offerings.
“I think Title IX influenced a lot of par-ents to get involved in high school sports,” Smith Wilcom says. “I noticed a lot of fathers’ involvement in their daughters’ sports. They would want a team, even if the numbers weren’t there to support it right away.”
Fighting for Respect
Schley attended Liberty High School in the building that now houses Libertytown Elementary School in the eastern part of the county. She never had a chance to play high school sports as Liberty had ceased fielding girls sports teams long before she graduated in 1944. She returned to the county, after graduating from Western Maryland College in 1948, to coach field ball and basketball at Brunswick High School in 1948 before moving to Middletown in 1958, where she coached well into the 1970s.
Her greatest successes were coaching Middletown’s field hockey and girls’ basketball programs, and she was part of helping the county transition from the six-player girls basketball game that was standard until the 1960s to the modern five-player game.
“Expectations were different for girls’ sports,” Schley says. “We beat Linganore 25-5, and the next day I got called into the principal’s office. He was furious with me. He said the [margin of victory] was mean. It didn’t matter that one of the boys’ players scored 50 points in a game that week. Girls’ sports were supposed to be friendly.”
As a physical education instructor at Middletown, Schley was used to a routine where the girls sports scene was largely controlled by the county’s physical education teachers. The coaches would get together, set a schedule, line the fields for field hockey and often officiate their own games—all without a budget. “I’d always set one or two new basketballs aside from gym class for us to use as game balls,” Schley says.
When Title IX passed, Schley recalls Ron Engle, who was Middletown’s athletic director at the time, calling her into his office to say that he was now handling schedules for all teams.
“That shocked the socks off me,” she says. “He had the first [field hockey] game scheduled against Catoctin. I said, ‘You know, that’s Fair Day?’ He had no idea how bad I wanted to be at the fair.” The game ultimately was changed.
Another point of contention was getting up-dated uniforms. The field hockey team usually played in their white gym class outfits and the basketball jerseys were hand-me-downs for years. One Middletown player in the early 1970s had the same satin jersey her mother wore some 20 years before, Schley recalls.
Smith Wilcom, the first female athletic director in the county, skillfully navigated Brunswick to an increased all-sports presence. When she arrived at Brunswick as a physical education teacher in 1966, the school offered nine varsity sports, of which just three were for girls. She was named athletic director in 1978 and in the years that followed Title IX and until her retirement in 2003, Brunswick added 13 sports—eight for girls.
Brunswick’s limited school enrollment often meant the school was fielding varsity teams lacking the depth or prior playing experience enjoyed by many of its Frederick County counterparts. “We had the belief that we needed to create opportunities,” Smith Wilcom says. “It didn’t matter if we were competitive or not. In a number of sports, we struggled for a long time until we finally grew into those sports. And look at Brunswick now,” she emphasizes with a nod to recent team success in sports such as girls’ soccer, which had a rocky start in the 1980s.
From Feb. 13, 1969, until Jan. 2, 1973, Walkersville’s girls’ basketball team, under the direction of Trimmer, won a then-county record 40 consecutive games. However, there was not one mention of the streak in local newspapers at the time.
“I’d write up the game report and have someone take it into the paper that night, and it never got published,” Trimmer says. “It was hard to get the media to pay attention to girls’ sports. They practiced just as hard. They played just as hard. Their victories were just as important to them as the boys’ victories were for the boys. It just seemed not to matter.”
The issue, along with many others, finally came to a head as part of a 1986 Frederick County Board of Education investigation into county athletic inequities, which focused on scheduling, facilities, resources available and coaching salaries. Meanwhile, the issue of media coverage was addressed in an investigative piece published in The Frederick News-Post on April 10, 1986. At the time, it was reported that boys high school events were eight times more likely to have a reporter present than girls events. Those numbers have become far more balanced in the decades since.
Trimmer coached in the county from 1965 until the late 1970s and remained a teacher in the system until 1995. “The biggest change [in gaining media coverage] happened when some of the girls’ [team] coaches were men,” Trimmer says. “I would holler and holler and it didn’t make a difference. Once men started coaching, people seemed to listen. It was then I think the media recognized it and started covering girls’ sports.”
Ann Poffenbarger has been part of the Title IX evolution from the beginning, starting with her time as a player and continuing through the coaching and leadership positions that she holds today.
She still reflects on her experience at the University of Maryland. “We went from zero to 100 in a two-year span,” she says. “We went from wearing blouses and kilts, playing in Preinkert [Field House] to having sweats, a real set of uniforms and playing in Cole Field House. In my senior year, we had a game on national TV. We went from the point where we were nobody to being interviewed by NBC and CBS.”
Poffenbarger parlayed her Maryland experience into coaching opportunities, which included being an assistant at Maryland and William & Mary and launching the women’s program at George Washington University as the program’s first head coach. She left the college scene and coached at Sidwell Friends School, an elite private high school in Washington, D.C., and took on the role of coaching tennis this year at Holton-Arms, an all-girls school in Bethesda.
All the while, Poffenbarger watched the effects of Title IX unfold. She said when she started the program at George Washington, she went door to door in the dorms to find students interested in playing. Soon after, she was actively recruiting players and had scholarship money to offer prospects. “All of the sudden, women’s sports were going wild,” she says. “There were budgets and recruiting, and it was becoming like men’s sports, and there were some women coaches who didn’t want that.”
Despite all the positive changes Title IX has brought to female athletics, Poffenbarger says there are still battles to be fought, and that’s for the next generation—which she finds close to home. Her great-niece is local basketball standout Saylor Poffenbarger, a Middletown High School graduate who first played for national women’s basketball powerhouse Connecticut until transferring this past year to the University of Arkansas.
“I always knew about her,” Saylor says of Ann, “but once I started getting recruited and seeing how much respect those coaches had for her made me realize her impact. I became more aware of it.”
Saylor continues, “I know we have a good platform now because what they went through.”
Saylor said the Southeastern Conference, of which Arkansas is a member, is very focused on meeting Title IX objectives. She is frequently completing surveys and letting the sports administration know about her experiences as a female athlete.
Still, inequities remain. She points to the fact the Arkansas men’s basketball team has several different jerseys to use throughout the season, while the women’s program has far fewer. She noted that she doesn’t want to come off sounding unappreciative since, “I know we [athletes) are very privileged compared to other students.” She also points to a viral video of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament that showed the difference in the weight room facilities at the men’s and women’s events. She said this year, rather than improving the weight room for women, there was talk the NCAA simply would remove them for both tournaments.
“That would have missed the point,” Saylor says. “We don’t want it taken from the boys. We just want the same thing for us. … And we need to stand up for it.”