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Iowa women's basketball coaches continue a legacy of female empowerment

In this series, Local 5 explores the legacy of female athletes both before and after the passage of Title IX.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — This story is the second part in a series exploring the legacy of female athletes both before and after the passage of Title IX. To read the first part, click here

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Those 37 words changed everything when Congress passed Title IX into law in 1972.

Enter Dr. Christine Grant, a Scottish-born former field hockey player and coach. 

She made her way to the University of Iowa to continue her education in the late 60s. The state of women's athletics in America came as a total shock to her.

"I had been the coach of the Canadian national team and I was used to elite athletes, very highly-skilled athletes, well-funded programs," Grant said in an interview for the Iowa City Public Library's Tell Me Your Story series. "I came to the wealthiest country in the world and and I looked at the opportunities for men and then I looked at the opportunity for women and I was astounded."

She became the University of Iowa's first director of women's athletics in 1973. 

While she knew it would be an uphill battle, she would not be deterred in her mission to create change. 

"I was angry. I was really angry because there was such a disparity in how we were treating our young women and our young men and I just thought that if enough of us really pushed and really try to bring attention to the university that this wasn't right, that we could make differences," Grant said. 

Lark Birdsong was Dr. Grant's first hire to lead the Iowa Women's Basketball team back in 1974. 

"In some ways when we were all beginning, even Christine, we didn't know what was ahead of us. We didn't know what was going to occur," Birdsong said. "But she hired a group of people that were really dedicated to the sport and the program and the idea of opportunities for women in sports."

Grant went on to hire several more great coaches to lead the program, from the legendary C. Vivian Stringer, to current head coach Lisa Bluder, the winningest coach in program history. 

Even with trailblazing women like Dr. Grant leading the charge in the fight for gender equality in sports, things didn't change overnight. 

The difference in how female athletes were treated compared to their male counterparts was glaring, especially at the college level.

"It wasn't until I got to college that I began to understand that there was such a discrepancy," said Jan Jensen, who now serves as associate head women's basketball coach at the University of Iowa. 

"We would get the lesser practice facility," said Buder when asked about her college experience. "We would have the lesser locker room. We would have one set of this gear and the guys had all this practice gear and they were getting their books paid for. We were not getting our books paid for. They traveled by bus. We traveled by vans."

It wasn't until Bluder and Jensen began the coaching phase of their careers that they found their voice as advocates, not only for their players, but for women in sports in general.

"That's one of the things Dr. Grant would want us to do," Bluder said. "You know, the coaches that she hired, I would imagine that she taught us all this information because she wanted us to carry on her legacy and keep fighting the fight. So, I really believe that it's our responsibility to educate the people that come after us."

That message was carried forward by players who have their own stories to share, like Hawkeye basketball star Caitlin Clark.

"I remember I was in second or third grade in an all-boys league," Clark said. "I ended up winning MVP of the league and a bunch of parents were mad that a girl won it."

At the 2021 NCAA Tournament in San Antonio, she and women's players from across the country also experienced some of the same inequalities that their coaches faced.

 "Just all the inequities there: our weight room, the food, where we stayed and seeing that we were in a completely different type of hotel than our Iowa men's team in Indianapolis," Clark said. "So it was just kind of interesting seeing the differences there and you know, a lot has changed since then."

That's due to players as well as coaches using their platforms to bring attention to the issue and ultimately affect change. 

"Obviously I coach because I want to win. I'm competitive. It keeps me at my job. It keeps the fans happy," Bluder said. "But there's more to it than that. My goal is that I am empowering women to be the best female leaders as they leave our program, using the lessons of basketball to do that."

"I think sometimes as women, you could be misunderstood if you are coming in too hard or coming in too intensely," Jensen added. "I think Lisa and our staff have always tried to hit that balance of pushing with respect, but with confidence and with an attitude of expectation."

As we reflect on the 50 years of Title IX and how far women's sports have come since then, the legacies of those who helped pave the way are held in high regard by the Hawkeye women's basketball program. 

"I'm lucky that so many great women came before me and paved the path so I have the opportunity to play on ESPN and on ABC network and play in front of a sold out crowd because I don't know if it would be the same if it wasn't for them." Clark said. 

Jensen agreed with this sentiment, saying, "[Women] want to play and give it everything they got. Women have been doing that for years... Dr. Grant did it with no budget, changed things, shifted the culture. I mean, continually fought, fought, fought and I just can't thank all those pioneers enough."

Members of the Iowa women's basketball program are determined to continue working towards the vision that Dr. Grant had for women's sports when she first stepped foot on the University of Iowa campus over 50 years ago.

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