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Groundbreaking Northeastern female athletes reflect on 50 years of Title IX

Tramaine Shaw, class of 2009, a seven-time Colonial Athletic Association championship winning hurdler, is the head coach of the track and field team and a member of the Northeastern Hall of Fame. She was honored alongside other notable Huskies as part of Northeastern's Title IX 50th anniversary celebration. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

When former swimmer Janet Swanson came to Northeastern in 1970, the women’s swim team was only a team in the loosest sense of the word.

Swanson and about eight other women got together every night and practiced. Maybe they found a few other women at Boston College or Harvard to swim against; maybe they didn’t. And forget about taking a chartered bus: Swanson and her teammates would have to hop on the T to get to meets.

“We pretty much provided everything ourselves,” Swanson said.

Now, things are, as Swanson puts it, “a little different.” And it’s all thanks to Title IX.

On June 23, 1972, Swanson’s third year at Northeastern, then-President Richard Nixon signed into law the Educational Amendments Act. The new civil rights amendment included Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex and gender discrimination in education.

Although it was not created specifically for the sake of athletics–the law encompassed any educational program or extracurricular activity offered by an institution that receives federal financial assistance–Title IX has largely become associated with the expansion of women’s athletics.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Swanson, who was inducted into the Northeastern Varsity Club Hall of Fame in 1994, was celebrated alongside other groundbreaking Northeastern female athletes at an event held on Thursday.

The same year that Title IX was signed into law, Swanson drove to Burlington, Vermont, for the first New England Championships organized at the University of Vermont. Three years later, in 1975, Swanson founded the Northeastern women’s rowing team (the team gained varsity status in 1976) and ended up concurrently coaching women’s rowing and men and women’s swimming for years before committing full-time to the university’s swim teams.

Tramaine Shaw, who was honored alongside Swanson on Thursday, is one of many female athletes who, due to Title IX and the efforts of women like Swanson, have been able to find athletic success at Northeastern. Shaw was a seven-time Colonial Athletic Association champion who set conference records in the 400- and 100-meter hurdles. After graduating in 2009, Shaw served as an assistant coach at Northeastern for nine seasons, before becoming head of men’s sprints and men’s and women’s hurdles in 2018. She was inducted into the hall of fame in 2015.

Three decades after Title IX, Shaw’s experience was markedly different from Swanson’s.

“There was never a time when I was on the team where the men got something and the women didn’t or vice versa,” Shaw said.

But Title IX did not fix everything, Shaw said. The disparate treatment of men and women athletes came to the forefront during the 2021 NCAA March Madness tournament. For Kelly Dyer Hayes, the former women’s ice hockey goalkeeper who graduated in 1990, change came with “little moments of recognition.”

“[The men’s and women’s teams] were so far from being in line that we didn’t expect them to be,” Dyer Hayes said. “You go through stages of just being happy to be included, happy to be at the table, and then you get to where you know you need to have a voice at the table.”

By the time Dyer Hayes started playing for Northeastern in the late 1980s, the situation had improved for female athletes. The women’s ice hockey team was already ranked in Division 1. Across her junior and senior years, the women’s team secured an impressive 48-3-1 record, and captured two ECAC titles and four straight Beanpot championships. Still, Dyer Hayes and her team had to work to get championship rings and representation in the foyer of Matthews Arena.

“It wasn’t like we had to fight. We had to ask––but ask with all the right sort of political touches,” Dyer Hayes said.

Dyer Hayes went on to lead the women’s national team to silver medal wins in three World Championships between 1990 and 1995. As the goalkeeper for the minor league West Palm Beach Blaze, she is also one of only six women to play men’s professional ice hockey.

Looking beyond individual universities, Shaw said there are still systemic and cultural issues that prevent young girls from even getting to the place where they think about playing sports in college.

To say Shaw didn’t enjoy track and field at first would be an understatement. She hid from practice as much as she could and even considered giving up on the sport altogether. As Shaw found success in hurdling, her coach admitted: “He just did not know what to do with me.” But instead of giving up on her, he let Shaw train with the boys while he took classes and invested time and energy in learning how to better coach girls.

“That’s the kind of investment that we need, and we need the investment at an earlier age,” Shaw said. “I’m here today because someone decided to make the investment when I was in high school in becoming a better women’s coach in order to continue to push me and allow me to be able to achieve and accomplish some things that would then influence other people.”

Ahndraea Allen, one of 10 former Northeastern female athletes who make up the university’s Title IX 50th Anniversary Team, said that sports are an opportunity for young girls to discover and express themselves in productive ways. Allen was named America East’s most outstanding track performer in 2003, 2004 and 2005. After graduating in 2005, she captured two national outdoor track championships in 2014 and 2015 and, in 2016, earned three gold medals at the World Masters Championships in Perth, Australia.

Like her inspiration, Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner, Allen is unafraid to be herself on the track. She runs with her hair down, nails long and makeup on. Fifty years after female athletes got a seat at the table, Allen is using her voice to make the table into a runway for herself and the next generation of female athletes.

“When I go to speak at schools or anything like that, that’s the first thing that young girls say, ‘Oh, you run with your hair out like that or your nails are done or your makeup is done,’ and I’m just like, ‘Yeah, because you can still be who you are and still do your sport,’” Allen said.

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