Life in the Box: Girls’ Sports History


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“In  1966, 16,000 females competed in intercollegiate athletics. By 2001, that number jumped to more than 150,000, accounting for 43 percent of all college athletes.” –Barbara Winslow, Historian

I’m not a sports fan or a sports geek or even a sports participant, but I can enjoy sports stories if they are about the people in sports. So when sports came up in a recent interview with a 90-year-old friend, Ione “Shad” Shadduck, I realized I was talking to someone who changed history, and I was enthralled.

It seems that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sports for girls were like pink tutus for boys—not socially acceptable. But then, Title IX happened, and suddenly girls got their “game face” on–competing nationally in a few sports, like basketball and softball, and even getting sports scholarships.

My high school years—1971-1975—offered intramural sports for girls, and Physical Education classes included a potpourri of activities, including field hockey, soccer, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, track, and more. I took that for granted.

But after interviewing Shad, I did a quick survey of my friends, many of whom grew up in Iowa and are older than me. Their experiences in high school stunned me.

One of my good friends said her high school PE teachers gave girls a choice: “Drop the Hankey” or learn to juggle. “Drop the Hankey” was a child’s game like “Duck, Duck, Goose.”  This was a high school in a metropolitan area! My friend chose juggling.

In competitive sports prior to the 1970s, some schools offered slightly better choices like synchronized swimming, golf, and tennis. But, these could only be played with permission of classroom teachers (an excused absence was needed), and had to be begged for on a weekly basis. 

There was one sport, only one, which girls in Iowa high schools could play. Basketball. It was a huge deal for small towns, because the annual state competition had nothing to do with school size—it was possible for the tiniest small town to have a state champion team.  And since it was the only game in town, girls practiced it all through grade school.

The only problem with this set-up was that Iowa girls played half-court basketball, called 6-on-6. The national standards changed to full-court, called 5-on-5, but Iowa didn’t want to make the shift.

So, those girl athletes who’d played the sport one way for all their lives suddenly had no way to compete in college basketball, or at very least, they had a huge learning curve. One of my friends was a major player in high school, and said her college years were a disappointment—she was great at shooting, but didn’t have the aerobics or ingrained skills needed for running and dribbling full-court.

Back to my interview with Ione Shadduck. She changed history. She not only started the women’s sports program at Drake University in Des Moines in the early 70s, but she was also one of the main agitators behind the scenes to change Iowa’s high school basketball competitions to conform to national standards.

She changed the way of life for a whole state of girls. And people like her changed my physical education experiences in Illinois and nationwide by agitating for Title IX. Did you recognize her name? No? Is she honored anywhere? No? Am I going to agitate to get her story out there? You bet!

author-picture2smallerNancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box. 

Ione Shadduck Interview about Drake University Sports

Ione Shadduck Interview about Iowa High School Girls’ Basketball

Barbara Winslow’s article about how Title IX changed history