Health

She spent her life fighting for equity for women in sports

She made her
mark as a pioneering advocate for women’s sporting opportunity nationwide as an
athletic director at the University of Iowa. Grant died in hospice care on Dec
31, at age 85, on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the landmark
gender-equity legislation known as Title IX. She helped shape the law and
called it, apart from the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote,
“the most important piece of federal legislation that was passed in the 20th
century for women in this nation.”

Iowa did not
state a cause of death, but colleagues said that Grant had experienced chronic
breathing difficulties.

Of all the
passionate and persuasive trailblazers who sought respect and opportunity for
women in sports, “I think Christine was the most influential,” said Charlotte
West, another prominent activist of the Title IX era. “She was extremely
intelligent and her Scottish brogue won over a lot of hearts. She was very
gentle but extremely forceful.”

In 1972,
Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon at a time of more
bipartisan comity in the nation’s politics. The law, ambiguously written,
forbade discrimination based on sex in any educational program or activity
receiving federal funding but did not specifically mention athletics.

After its
passage, colleagues said, Grant helped to write guidelines that applied the law
to education and sports, served as a consultant to a federal civil rights Title
IX task force, testified before Congress and appeared as an expert witness in
more than a dozen legal cases involving Title IX and gender equity.

Amy Wilson,
the NCAA’s managing director of inclusion and a former doctoral student of
Grant’s, called her “the North Star” of women’s sporting advocacy who prevailed
with conviction, a persistent approach based on data and a spellbinding
speaking style. She was known to lay out decades of disparate treatment of
female athletes, pause masterfully and say, “Can you imagine that?”

Female
sports participation at the high school (294,015 in 1971-72 to 3,402,733
currently) and NCAA (30,000 to 215,486) levels has vastly increased with Title
IX. Grant acknowledged that women had come a long way, but continued to express
frustration months before her death about ongoing discrimination, which was
most recently and visibly evident in the inequitable treatment of female
basketball players during the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

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“I would
characterize her as just short of heartbroken that she wasn’t able to do more
and that there wasn’t more progress,” said Melissa Isaacson, a lecturer at the
Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and a longtime Chicago
sports writer who interviewed Grant in 2020 for an as-yet-unfinished
documentary.

At age 11,
Grant began playing netball, a rough equivalent of basketball without
backboards, in Scotland. Later, she helped form a national governing body for
female field hockey players in Canada. In 1968, she arrived at Iowa, where she
obtained a PhD in sports administration. She also discovered unexpectedly and
disappointedly that athletic opportunities for female athletes in the United
States felt as claustrophobic as the underground shelter in which she had
endured World War II.

In 1969, in
a story Grant frequently recalled, a field house on Iowa’s campus was to be
built with fees paid by male and female students. But architectural plans
excluded locker rooms and bathrooms for women, who were not to be allowed into
the building. She said she was told that women lacked interest in sports.

“And I’m sure
that was the trigger that made me a feminist,” Grant told Ellyn Bartges in 2009
in an interview for the Oral History Project at the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library. “I mean, I just — that blew me away.”

Grant
laughed and continued: “I’m thinking, ‘The greatest democracy in the world,
that’s what the U.S. always claims to be. Well, it’s only for a minority of the
population because women are the majority here.’ So that was the start of a
real understanding of how this world works.”

She had
intended to return to Canada but, instead, remained in Iowa and set out to
change these disparities over more than three decades as an administrator and
professor. In 1973, a forward-thinking male university president, Willard L.
Boyd, known as Sandy, named Grant as the athletic director of women’s sports at
Iowa at a salary of $14,000, making her one of the first women in the country
to hold the title.

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She held the
job until 2000, marshaling a dozen sports that won 27 Big Ten Conference
championships, then taught courses until 2006. According to The Athletic, Grant
grew the women’s sports budget from $3,000 to nearly $7 million. And in her
unflagging pursuit of equality for women, she was not allergic to showmanship
and mischief.

During the
1984-85 basketball season, Grant and university coaches and athletic officials
decided to try to set the NCAA record for attendance at a women’s game. On Feb.
3, 1985, a Sunday afternoon, they succeeded when 22,157 spectators crammed into
Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which was designed for a capacity of about 15,500.

As traffic
backed up for several miles, Grant took to local radio asking that drivers turn
around. After the 56-47 defeat to Ohio State, she received a letter of
reprimand for violating the fire code. She framed the letter and hung it in her
office, elated at the delicious irony that someone was finally complaining
about too many fans attending a women’s basketball game.

C. Vivian
Stringer, Iowa’s coach at the time, has said that tears rolled down her cheeks
when she saw the size of the crowd. On Tuesday, Stringer wrote in a eulogy of
Grant’s devotion to gender and racial equity, including paying Stringer a
salary equal to the Iowa men’s coach. “If there was a Mount Rushmore of
impactful female pioneers in sports, Christine would be on it,” wrote Stringer,
now the longtime coach at Rutgers.

Yet there
have been many roadblocks to equality, some petty, others grievous.

Grant told
of how, upon being named the women’s athletic director at Iowa, she was asked
to step out of the group photo of her male counterparts at Big Ten meetings.
And how in 1981, when the once-dismissive NCAA voted at its convention to
sponsor women’s championships, essentially killing the Association of
Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, of which Grant had been president, her
resistance was met with some boos and nasty caricatures drawn on pieces of
paper.

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Last March
in an interview with The New York Times, Grant noted the continuing lack of
administrative power for women in the NCAA and wondered yet again whether it
had been the right move for women’s sports to join the organization. “If your
values are money, going with the NCAA is probably a wise choice,” she said. “If
it’s more than money, you might want to rethink that decision.”

In 2017, when
Iowa lost a sex discrimination case involving a former female coach and a
senior athletic official, a retired Grant lamented to The Des Moines Register,
“I mean, where are our athletic directors? Where are our presidents? We cannot
continue as a nation to continue discarding the dreams and the talents of half
of our population.”

Around that
time, recalled Lisa Bluder, Iowa’s longtime women’s basketball coach, she and
an assistant were having lunch with Grant when Grant decided to give an
impromptu lesson on equality. She led the coaches from the restaurant to her
home to view her latest presentation on gender equity, telling them, “We are
still not there.”

Years
before, hesitant to seek a raise, Bluder said she asked the retired Grant
whether the request would be appropriate. The response, Bluder said,
impersonating Grant’s Scottish accent, was “Lisa, you’re not fighting for
yourself, you’re fighting for your daughters and all the women that come behind
you.”

Her status
as an outsider born elsewhere and her unwavering pursuit of the American ideal
of equality in sports and beyond, even amid her frustration, seemed to lend
gravity and legitimacy to Grant’s advocacy, Bluder said.

“That
disbelief she could have in her voice,” Bluder said, “made it more real for
everybody.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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