The pioneering women who started the fight for equality in Minnesota sports

Dorothy McIntyre heard both the whispers and the shouts back then, all those negative sentiments and falsehoods about sports harming female bodies, that competition was somehow bad for them.

Right in front of her, though, was the balance to that nonsense: The girls in her classes at Eden Prairie High School telling her they just want to play.

“They were constantly at my door saying, ‘Let’s go do this. Why can’t we do what the boys are doing?’ ” McIntyre said. “I didn’t have an answer. I couldn’t see an easy way to do it — so we did it the hard way.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s there was no easy road to equality in sports. Changing deeply rooted opinions required not only courage and conviction but also legal support that came 50 years ago this month when Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 became law.

Title IX’s passage offered no big-bang moment. While some saw Minnesota as an early leader in providing girls and women opportunities in sports, experiences across the state were uneven.

Lynnette Sjoquist graduated from Cannon Falls High School one year before Title IX, in 1971. She had a love of sports growing up and would later play three of them in college, but in high school her options resembled intramural exhibitions.

Sjoquist, now the radio analyst for Gophers women’s basketball, remembers following her brothers to their basketball practices, hoping the coach might just let her play. The invitation never came.

McIntyre heard the girls and young women of this era. She listened to the students in her classes.

Eden Prairie needed a gymnastics team, McIntyre decided, and so she formed one. When told that the school couldn’t free up a bus, McIntyre got her own bus driver’s license and drove the team to competitions herself.

“When it’s the right thing to do,” she said, “you don’t listen to the naysayers. You simply go ahead and do what’s right.”

She helped organize a track and field meet for girls and made an Olympic torch replica out of a tomato soup can and aluminum foil that was carried into the stadium to open the meet. Competitors received ribbons.

“You’d thought it was a gold medal,” McIntyre said.

She carried this courage well beyond these early days of seeking equality. More than 20 years after the landmark 1972 legislation, she was still fighting for the law to be followed when Minnesota’s favorite pastime was in the Title IX spotlight.

A group of high school hockey coaches in northern Minnesota stood in the back of a room, arms folded and staring daggers at McIntyre as she gave a speech informing them that girls’ hockey would become an official sport that required equal accommodations as the boys.

McIntyre noticed one coach nudge a guy standing beside him and mutter, “Over my dead body.”

“If that’s your choice,” she replied.

As an official at the Minnesota State High School League, McIntyre oversaw the mission of providing girls officially sanctioned opportunities to play sports, which meant she wasn’t popular in some places.

One coach suggested she be sent back to her home state of Iowa. McIntyre jokes now that her unofficial title at the MSHSL back then was “that woman.” She often followed Teddy Roosevelt’s advice.

“Most of the time we spoke softly and tried to carry the message through logic and ideas,” McIntyre said. “There were times when we needed a stick and that’s what Title IX became.”

‘Missing out’

Sjoquist grew up on a farm with three brothers and a twin sister. Her brothers played multiple sports while she was limited to activities sponsored by her local 4-H club and Jaycees. In high school, there was GAA — Girls Athletic Association — a far cry from the structure supporting boys’ sports.

At basketball practices for her brothers, she just watched. “Did I feel like something was missing?” she said. “Yeah, I did.”

Everything changed when she enrolled at Golden Valley Lutheran College in the fall of 1971. She played basketball, volleyball and softball. “I’m like, ‘Wow, this is all right, I kind of like this,'” she said.

Sjoquist’s basketball career continued after college when she played for a barnstorming professional team called the All-American Red Heads, followed by a four-year stint with the Minnesota Fillies of the Women’s Professional Basketball League.

Sjoquist called Title IX’s impact a “slow rollout” that required advocacy at local levels.

“It wasn’t like somebody was going around from the federal government saying, ‘Do you have equal opportunities for your girls?'” Sjoquist said. “No, it really had to be implemented on a school-by-school basis. It took somebody with some guts and some initiative to get the ball rolling.”

Someone like Dorothy McIntyre.

Her life from 1968 to the late ’70s was a parade of measurable progress, starting when McIntyre joined a committee responsible for creating bylaws and guidelines for girls’ prep athletics similar to the boys. She then presented the plan to the High School League’s statewide delegate assembly, which consisted of only men in the fall of ’68.

“I got to stand before these 32 men and say, ‘Girls should be able to have the same sports here in Minnesota as boys,’ ” she said. “There were some eyebrows that went up and some mouths that went down. But there was also some nodding of heads like, ‘Yeah, that would be a good thing.’ “

The legislative body returned to the Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis the following spring to vote on the proposal. McIntyre stood outside a ballroom waiting for the announcement when a man leaned over and said, “I bet you a quarter it doesn’t pass.”

“I don’t think he gave me my quarter because it passed 32-0,” McIntyre said. “Can you imagine that?”

The MSHSL had hired McIntyre in 1970 to oversee the development of girls’ sports. In May 1972, a month before Title IX became law, Minnesota held its first state tournament for girls in track and field.

“Every event was a state record,” McIntyre said with a chuckle. “We had 600-something girls from all over the state there and it was just the most fun thing in the world.”

By 1977, Minnesota had state tournaments in 11 girls’ sports.

“You can imagine the plates that were spinning,” McIntyre said.

‘Role models’

One of those plates involved the creation of a girls’ basketball tournament. Schools across the state were split over whether to hold the tournament in the fall season or winter, which led to separate champions being crowned initially.

Finally, in 1976, the MSHSL settled on a two-class tournament held during the winter season. St. Paul Central defeated Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the inaugural Class 2A championship game.

Linda Roberts was a junior standout for St. Paul Central and Lisa Lissimore a sophomore star. Both grew up playing multiple sports as children in St. Paul’s Rondo Community. Their participation in sports was always encouraged and supported, never frowned upon.

“When everybody talks about Title IX, I always think about the Twin Cities being well ahead,” said Roberts, a basketball trailblazer whose Gophers jersey is retired and hanging in the rafters at Williams Arena. “We were participating in sports well ahead of that.”

Lissimore, who also played college basketball and later worked for the MSHSL for 34 years, still remembers the celebration of that state tournament 46 years ago.

Her team stayed at a hotel during the tournament and received a hero’s return to school with a police and fire truck escort after winning the championship.

“It was a big, big deal,” Lissimore said. “Obviously it was a history-making moment for that community. Players on our team became automatic role models for girls. Everyone in the community knew us. It had an impact in increasing participation.”

Discrepancies were widespread, though, and Kathie Eiland-Madison saw them up close. She played in that ’76 tournament as a senior on the old Marshall-University High School team before joining the Gophers as a walk-on. She said gender inequality did not fully register with her until college, when she witnessed the gulf between the men’s and women’s basketball programs in how they were supported.

“It was very apparent,” she said.

The years right before and right after the passing of Title IX were filled with this unevenness. For every victory toward equality in one corner of Minnesota sports, there were many battles still to be fought for McIntyre and other pioneers and advocates. She endured those heated debates and had to wield her Title IX stick on occasion, but the personal hardship was all worth it.

Today, 50 years later, she focuses on progress: “We have changed the face of the world.”

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Title IX at 50

An occasional Star Tribune series focused on gender equity in Minnesota sports. Read previous installments of our series at