IX AT 50: Marian Washington lays foundation for women’s sports at Kansas

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 10:19 PM CST
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June 23, 1972, President Nixon signed Title IX into law, prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Title IX has largely been considered the springboard for high school and collegiate women’s sports to get where they are today — but the fight for equality is far from over. Every Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. leading up to the 50th anniversary of the law’s passing, 13 Sports will honor the women who changed the game for girls’ and women’s sports in Kansas.

“IX at 50: The Trailblazers of Women’s Sports in Kansas”

LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - Marian Washington fought for her place in sports.

“You had to constantly qualify that you belonged and that you had a right to exist,” she said. “It was that tug of war. I never knew whether it was because I was a woman or because I was African-American — or both. So that was a difficult time.”

After leading her college team to the first-ever national title for women, Washington became the first of two black women to compete for the United States internationally on the 1971 world championship team.

“I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled,” Washington said. “I remember sitting in the room while coach (Alberta) Cox started calling the names of those that had made the team. And I was sitting in the corner and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s just calling names after names.’ I didn’t hear my name at all. My name was the last one she called because she went in an alphabetical order.”

She was also set to be part of the first-ever women’s Olympic basketball competition in 1972 — but it never happened.

“They (the IOC) forgot about us,” she said. “And so they over-scheduled the men, so there was no room for us. When we were told that we were not going to be included in the ‘72 Olympics, it was devastating for me and my teammates. I mean, we had really worked hard.”

She was training in Missouri at the time. An opportunity arose to hop the state line to the University of Kansas.

“When you’re that young, you know, when someone talks about Kansas and you’re from Pennsylvania, it was like, okay, you know, that’s not gonna happen,” she laughed.

She accepted KU’s head women’s basketball coaching position in ‘73.

A year later, she added the title of women’s athletic director. Title IX, requiring gender equity in institutions that receive federal funding, was in its infancy.

“You hope that with Title IX, it gave you some leverage to try to get some things changed,” Washington said. “I had to go about finding space for offices. I managed to work with the department of physical education and I purchased two banks of lockers. They were half lockers and all of our women’s sports rotated through using those lockers. We had a physical therapist who was taping our kids and I found a vacant office with a desktop, and that’s where she placed our athletes to do the taping.”

Washington’s team would use the public bathroom for a halftime hub.

“I think the biggest challenge for me was that as much as the men had, they were still afraid that women were going to take from them,” she said. “I was just as proud of our men’s program, but I felt that there was room for our women’s program. I felt that our women could bring as much prestige and honor to this university as many of the men did. And I never deterred from that vision.”

Slowly, Washington began winning more and more battles for women’s programs.

“Eventually we had better salaries,” she said. “We were able to, instead of having bag lunches, bag meals to take when we’re traveling on the road, we had access to finally the training table for the women, things like that. We didn’t have to have our halftime in the public bathroom. You know, we were able to finally have a locker room.”

But it wasn’t without consequence.

“It was tough to have to pick up the newspaper and my daughter having to read, you know, maybe some negative articles. ‘Fine, they reached this milestone, but when are they ever going to reach this one?’” she said. “Always comparing us with the men who had many, many more years to get to where they are.”

In 31 seasons, Washington led Kansas to 560 wins, 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, two Sweet Sixteens, seven league titles and six conference tournament championships.

Recently, the KU women’s basketball team named its locker room for the woman who helped build it: the “Marian E. Washington Women’s Basketball Suite.”

“I don’t think that I’ve been someone that patted myself on the back a lot,” she said. “You know, I certainly took a lot of pride in the accomplishments that myself and others that were there to help support me and work with me, but I just never had time to just think about any one milestone. And now that I’m older, much older, I really am comfortable with looking back and I can appreciate, you know, at least my effort, the vision that I had for this program here at the University of Kansas.”

Washington also became the first African-American woman to coach a US team in international competition in 1982. She later became the first black woman on a US Olympic women’s basketball staff, serving as an assistant on the 1996 gold medal-winning team.

Washington retired from coaching in 2004.

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