NOW Foundation, Women's Organizations Celebrate Women in Sports

High school student Chelsea Richmond accepted the Women of Courage award
High school student Chelsea Richmond accepted the Women of Courage award at the Women of Color and Allies Summit on behalf of the National Youth Sports Program.  Photo by Lisa Bennett-Haigney.

by Christina Sciammacco, National NOW Times Intern

When the first modern Olympic games were held in 1896, women were banned from participating in any sporting events. Not until 1900 were women welcomed to compete in the games, and then the only sporting events open to women were tennis, golf and yachting.

Today, women are surpassing the boundaries. At the 1998 Winter Olympic games in Nagano, Japan, an unprecedented number of U.S. women were fierce competitors in sporting events ranging from downhill skiing to snowboarding and won the first-ever gold medal in women's ice hockey.

Women have indisputably opened up new playing fields for future generations. Yet women in sports are still shortchanged in schools and in the media.

"NOW Foundation recognizes the accomplishments of the female athlete and celebrates the rise of women s sports," said President Patricia Ireland. "We support every woman and girl in her quest to compete."

In February, the NOW Foundation co-sponsored the Women's Institute on Sport and Education's (WISE) national symposium. Established in 1991, WISE is a leading organization within the women's movement in developing platforms for speaking out on equality in health, athletics and education. Their annual event highlights the contributions made by women and girls to sports and education and the improvements effected by women's rights organizations over the years.

The theme of this year's event, "Of Primary Concern: Health and the Female," focused on advances in women's health issues and the impact of physical education on women's and girls' well-being.

"The event was an outstanding success," said Laurel Dagnon, director of WISE. "We are looking forward to working with the NOW Foundation in coordinating future projects."

Scaling the Hurdles

Athletics have been challenging young girls and women for years, but thanks to NOW's efforts in enacting Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in education, women are given more opportunities to play. Once women are on track, though, many find more hurdles to jump than expected.

When 12-year-old Melissa Raglin, the starting catcher in Boca Raton's Babe Ruth League, was benched from a baseball game for not wearing an athletic cup designed for boys, she found herself challenging the rules to play ball. With the local NOW chapter behind her, Raglin changed the rules and made it to her team's play-off game.

"Melissa is not the only one having to struggle to keep her place in the game," said Ireland. "All of us are faced with a strong backlash to our progress and we must remember to honor women who have achieved great things."

The weekend long symposium included pioneers in the field of women's physical and mental health. Workshops dealing with HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, eating disorders, alcohol abuse and other important health issues were held. And faculty members and administrators of leading institutions shared research and ideas about women in health, sports and physical education.

At the seventh annual event, those who have made considerable achievements in these fields were inducted into the National Girls and Women in Sports Hall of Fame, an honor NOW received in 1995.

"These award winners have made an incredible impact on women's sports and today's youth," added Ireland. "We are proud to recognize the difference they have made."

Among those inducted into the Hall of Fame were: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General; Marjorie Albohm, author and expert in sports medicine; Lucille Hester, director of the National Youth Sports Program (NYSP); Dr. Mary Lydon; Dr. Carol Gilligan, renowned equity researcher; singer and women's rights spokesperson Anne Murray; Dr. Jan Richardson, president of the American Physical Therapy Association; and Dr. Christine Wells, a leading researcher of exercise science and breast cancer. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Ladies Professional Golf Association were also inducted.

WISE presented the Woman of the Year award to Ms. Marilyn Brooks, a local television reporter who was recognized for her groundbreaking news stories on women's health issues.

"She is a foremother in leading the women's health movement and has opened the doors to the realities facing today's women," Dagnon said.

NOW's recognition of women and sports continued at the Women of Color and Allies Summit where the NYSP was honored for its efforts to support and encourage young women in sports. Founded 30 years ago, NYSP provides youth from low-income communities the opportunity to receive benefits from structured sports and education programs. "The genuine care and relentless encouragement has motivated me to live by the NYSP motto, to walk tall, talk tall and stand tall, too," said Chelsea Richmond, a high school student and dancer, who accepted a Women of Courage award on behalf of the organization at the Summit.

Organizations like WISE and NOW Foundation have joined to raise awareness that participation in sports is vital to women's health. Regular exercise alone can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and depression, according to the National Institutes of Health. Involvement in athletics can harvest healthy attitudes and strengthen women's self-esteem. The NOW Foundation Women's Health Project combats today's most hazardous health problems affecting women, particularly eating disorders, tobacco and alcohol abuse.

Making it all the way to the Olympics takes more than just athletic prowess. It takes the encouragement of parents, coaches and school administrators. It takes the enforcement of Title IX. It takes media attention. It takes educators like those recognized at the 1998 National Girls and Women in Sports Symposium. And most of all, it takes young girls like Melissa Raglin.

"We need to be committed to women's participation in sports. We need to strengthen young girls to find their voices and demand to be treated with dignity and respect," said Ireland.

NOW Foundation is the education and litigation arm of the National Organization for Women. Contributions to NOW Foundation are tax deductible.

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