When Marianne May walked into the Dean of Students’ office at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, Ill. in 1973, she was told the school offered girls’ sports. Overjoyed at the thought of transferring somewhere she could compete, May stepped foot on campus in the fall of her sophomore year only to find she was deceived.
“I walk into the school, and there’s not one sport for girls,” May said. “That’s what it was like to try to participate in women’s sports at Marian, or really anywhere. It’s everybody’s story from the early ‘70s.”
Furious yet determined, May established Marian’s first girls’ volleyball, tennis and track teams before she graduated from high school in 1976 with a volleyball scholarship to Northwestern — an opportunity only made available to her thanks to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. In less than four years, May went from attending high school with no girls’ sports to a university where her athletic ability was valued to the point that the school would pay for her education just to get her on the volleyball court.
Title IX, signed into law by Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, barred “discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” with the simple addition of “activity” affording women the right to equal opportunity in collegiate athletics as well as in the classroom.
May’s generation — those who grew up pre-Title IX but felt its immediate effects in late adolescence and early adulthood — was the first to experience the bill’s benefits in college and made up the first class of female varsity athletes to graduate from Northwestern. On its 50th anniversary, June 23, 2022, what they continue to emphasize is their gratitude to Title IX for making their scholarships possible by placing a permanent stopper under the door of educational and athletic opportunity for women.
“It really made us feel important. It made us feel valued,” May said. “It made us feel like we could change the world.”
Four years after Title IX’s passing, Northwestern established five women’s teams at the varsity level — field hockey, volleyball, basketball, tennis and softball. May and the rest of the inaugural scholarship class of newly recruited fall female athletes arrived in Evanston in late August 1976, a few weeks before the school year was set to begin. This set the precedent that women’s sports at Northwestern were varsity sports and would operate on the same schedule as their male counterparts. However, at the moment, the school was not prepared to provide the level of equal treatment its female athletes deserved.
“They weren’t quite ready for us,” said Mary Kopacz, one of May’s former volleyball teammates. “We had to use the visiting coaches’ locker room — it was very nice and had carpets and little wood cubbies for all of our stuff. But we had to share training rooms with the football team, and it wasn’t always comfortable.”
Kopacz, then Meyer, and May were dual-sport athletes at Northwestern, both recruited to the softball team in addition to their volleyball duties, by Mary Conway, the head coach of both programs at the time. Women didn’t receive athletic scholarships when Conway started playing both sports at Brooklyn College in 1971. So, when she assumed the head coaching positions at Northwestern in 1975, she was tasked with recruiting athletes ahead of the volleyball team’s first season having never been recruited herself. That being said, she did have help.
“I went to the football coaches, and each one of them spent time with me to talk about how to recruit, how to set up visitations, how to dress for those occasions,” Conway said. “They taught me so much. And they were always there if I had questions.”
Despite the help of her male colleagues, finding players was just one challenge Conway would have to tackle. When training started, the volleyball team had no uniforms and used the school’s PE gym and equipment for practice. These smaller inequities, ones that almost seemed like simple oversights at the time, persisted throughout the first few years varsity women’s teams were on campus. Cynthia Beebe, one of May and Kopacz’s softball teammates who arrived in 1977, recalls inequalities they experienced on the diamond as well.
“We had one bench and we sat out in the snow. Our uniforms weren’t that great, right field wasn’t that great,” Beebe said. “But I didn’t care. I don’t think anyone cared.”
Before Title IX, opportunities for girls to play sports competitively weren’t guaranteed, and they were virtually nonexistent past the high school level. What mattered to the athletes above all was the fact that they could continue to play their sport while receiving an education.
Kopacz grew up the youngest of seven in Wheeling, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago. She had four older sisters, with whom she grew up competing in various sports at home alongside the little bit of organized volleyball and basketball she played in junior high. Furthermore, Kopacz recalled her experience playing volleyball her freshman year at Wheeling High School the year before Title IX passed. District 214 had always hosted a “play day” once a year where all 12 high school girls volleyball teams in its jurisdiction, including Wheeling, played each other one-on-one in a big gym from sunup to sundown.
“That was all we were allowed to do in terms of competition,” Kopacz said. “With Title IX, just my sophomore year in high school, all of sudden we were able to compete. We went all over the place — I competed in four different sports in high school.”
In the first year the bill was in effect, the first year Kopacz competed for real at the high school level, the number of girls participating in high school sports increased from 300,000 to over 800,000. By the time Kopacz, May and their teammates began competing for Northwestern in 1976, that number was approaching two million.
Just four years earlier, it hadn’t occurred to girls across the country that they could attend university at all, let alone play sports there. Sharon Dierberger, another dual-sport athlete who played softball and field hockey from 1977 to 1981, said Northwestern wouldn’t have been an option for her before Title IX.
“I would not have had the same opportunities if I hadn’t gone on scholarship because I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise,” she said. “And, Northwestern saw the wisdom in pursuing women athletes to come to the university. The discipline they had playing sports carried over to academics, so they were a great fit.”
Dierberger, then Eggerding, said her academic experience at Northwestern set her up for success later in life just as much as her athletic experience. She knew there was minimal opportunity at the professional level for her to continue playing either of her sports, though it “bugged” her there was professional baseball yet no softball equivalent. Dierberger “played for the love of the game,” understanding for her, being able to play was contingent on her completing her education. Kopacz echoed her former teammate in that education was the focus, and sport the perk.
“For me, it was a chance to go to school. That was the primary impetus for most of the athletes, simply because there were no pro sports for the most part,” she said. “That just didn’t exist. For us, it was all about the opportunities that education would afford to us.”
Without Title IX, Kopacz wasn’t going to university at all — she said she would have stayed in Wheeling and maybe found a job at the local battery factory. Instead, she graduated debt-free from Northwestern in 1980 with degrees in anthropology and history before working in historic preservation and archaeology throughout the midwest.
Dierberger graduated a year later with a degree in political science, eventually receiving her Master’s degree in clinical exercise physiology from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She went on to teach for several years in California before returning to the midwest and continuing her career in Minnesota. She looks back on her time at Northwestern fondly, much like all the other women, despite disparities between men’s and women’s programs.
“We thought it was a big deal we got to go to Oklahoma on a bus for a softball tournament until we found out the baseball team got to fly to Hawaii for theirs,” Dierberger said. “So there were still inequalities and inequities between the sports.”
Marilyn Cepuran, then Minchk, also a member of Northwestern’s field hockey and softball teams from 1977 to 1981, recalled a weekend when field hockey played at Iowa. The team didn’t have enough money for hotels, so Cepuran, her teammates and coaches slept in her grandmother’s house outside of Iowa City. Though they lacked the minifridges and reasonable player-to-shower ratio a hotel might offer, a home-cooked meal and valuable time spent ended up being a worthwhile replacement.
“It was hugely, hugely fun. Those were the things you remember,” Cepuran said. “I hope that more women get the opportunity to have that experience of being on a team and competing together. There’s something about that relationship you have with those teammates that’s going to be with you for the rest of your life.”
The first few years of Northwestern varsity women’s sports were rocky, consisting of pivotal coaching and administrative changes. However, the care in which the school took in filling those open positions showed as teams began to have success. Northwestern invested in its women’s sports by hiring legendary coaches like volleyball’s Jerry Angle and softball’s Sharon J. Drysdale to replace Mary Conway in 1979.
Angle took over the volleyball program and quickly transformed it into a Midwestern powerhouse, posting a 108-46-5 record over his first three seasons. As for Drysdale, her greatness from the dugout was a big enough deal to make “The J” a household name in college softball. High-profile hires early on furthered interest in the school as a viable destination for female athletes, which attracted more and more attention in a small but growing talent pool.
“[Title IX] took off with baby steps. By the time we graduated, it was running,” Kopacz said. “It blew up within a couple of years in terms of not just singular opportunities for individuals, but on a growth scale for all different sports and opportunities being introduced.”
Since the early 1980s, when Kopacz and the remaining first wave of Northwestern female varsity athletes graduated, the school has added six more women’s programs and upgraded both their lakeside and Central Street facilities significantly. In the beginning, field hockey played on the small field beside Anderson Hall and what would become Sharon J. Drysdale field. There was no official seating, and mostly friends and family peppered the sidelines on gamedays.
“Now, the field hockey team has its own field and the buses with the fancy Wildcat stuff all over them,” Cepuran said. “It’s awesome how far it’s come. They’re on a much more level playing field.”
While treatment of women’s programs by the school appears to be among the best in the country, Northwestern’s teams have also benefitted recently from growing interest in women’s sports on a national level. Northwestern played in the first NCAA Lacrosse Tournament broadcast on ESPN, and their eventual Final Four run played a part in the buildup to the final between Boston College and North Carolina, which ended up being the most-watched women’s college lacrosse game ever.
Northwestern softball participated less than two weeks ago in the Women’s College World Series aired on ABC, averaging one million viewers per game, per ESPN PR. The deciding series between UCLA and eventual champions Oklahoma was the second most-watched of all time, beaten out only by the 2019 final.
With increased visibility and NIL legislation creating an avenue for female athletes to support themselves at the collegiate level in addition to scholarship money, there has never been a better time to be a woman in collegiate sports. Yet breaking barriers doesn’t end come graduation, just as it didn’t end for the first generation of female student-athletes.
“I don’t think the groundbreaking bit we did with Title IX stopped when we finished college,” Cepuran said. “I think a lot of the changes came in the workforce and what we went into when we started our careers.”
A lack of opportunities at the professional level did not stop these women from bringing the lessons they learned in college, in the classroom and on the field, into their post-grad life. After Northwestern, Cepuran worked several jobs while raising three sons with her husband — the youngest of which, Ethan, 22, won a bronze medal in speed skating at the Beijing Olympics earlier this year. Beebe went on to become one of the first female ATF agents in the country, retiring as a senior special agent after 27 years investigating violent crimes. May received her Ph.D. from Northwestern and worked in education while raising two daughters who now play beach volleyball at Florida State.
Somehow, though, amid their careers and raising their families, they always find their way back to Northwestern — at the very least, all of them follow their own teams. Every homecoming, Cepuran and her field hockey teammates venture to the shores of Lake Michigan to watch the team play, using the contest as a reunion and time for reflection while supporting their team.
This year, field hockey officially joined lacrosse as one of two Northwestern women’s teams to have won NCAA championships. Hoisting that trophy is the ceiling in both sports without serious professional leagues, excluding Olympic participation. For Cepuran and company watching the journey with a personal connection to it, it represented several generations worth of progress that began to accumulate nearly 50 years ago.
“There was something very special about them when we went to see them this year,” Cepuran said. “Winning our first national championship, that is the fulfillment of a dream that started when we all walked on campus.”