First Women in Sport Symposium Hosted for Swat Athletes

The first ever Women in Sport Symposium, sponsored by the College Department of Athletics, the WRC, and the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, took place this past weekend in the Scheurer Room. The 3-hour-long event featured a panel of women working in sports, dinner plus a screening of the HBO special Dare to Compete, and a keynote address from Jen Shillingford, president of the US Field Hockey Association and a fierce long-time advocate of Title IX. The symposium’s main organizers, seniors Anna Baeth and Erin Heaney, are themselves student-athletes and hoped the symposium would serve to highlight and promote women pursuing athletic careers.

Baeth says both she and Heaney were inspired to host the symposium after attending the Snell-Shillingford Symposium (founded by keynote speaker Jen Shillingford) at Bryn Mawr. “We attempted to bring what we learned there back to Swarthmore,” Baeth explained. In an environment Baeth often finds hostile to most sports players, it was important to Baeth to emphasize the importance of sports to her as a student, an athlete, and a woman. “The athletics department has been amazing to me over the past four years- I have met my best friends and mentors in the Athletics department. Many professors and students look down on athletes at Swarthmore…since I feel like most people at this school identify themselves as activists, I hope to convey that I feel that being an athlete, in particular a female athlete pursuing a career in athletics makes me an activist.”

The symposium kicked off with a panel of six women who work in many different sectors of the sports industry – from coaching to sports information/managing to athletic administration. A few of the speakers had local connections to the College such as Christyn Chambers, the current associate director of Swat athletics, Lurah Hess, an international field hockey umpire who is also an alumni from the class of 1999, and Courtney Morris, a Bryn Mawr graduate. The panel also featured Kim Wenger, the Associate Director of Sport Information for the Centennial Conference, Briane Weaver, a soccer coach at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and Jenny Chipman, a volleyball coach at Muhlenberg College. Over the course of the event, each panelist had the chance to discuss the impact of gender in their experiences, personal journeys through athletic careers, and their own outlooks on feminism in sport.

Most of the panelists’ careers in athletics began early on in life and continued through their college careers. As for post-graduation, many took a very circuitous road in realizing their ultimate passion. As a math major, Lurah Hess ’99 had never really considered a career in athletics, let alone one outside of academia. After graduation, however, she spent time volunteering as a coach for her high school team and eventually ended up umpiring middle school games. “I loved it,” Hess exclaimed, “and with the chance to travel all over the world professionally, I was hooked.” As for gender dynamics in her profession, Hess admits that she “has seen umpire jobs closed to men; it’s more of the flip side in field hockey. But, there’s little to no money in women’s sports, especially for umpires. I always have to supplement my work as an umpire with another job”

For St. Mary’s Coach Weaver, “gender has actually opened doors worldwide. It has complemented my desire and drive as a woman in sports to work all the harder.” Having grown up in Texas “where football is king”, Muhlenberg Coach Chipman had a different perspective on male-dominated athletics, “I tried to be a D1 athletic director, and I used to hear ‘you’re a woman, and it’s just a different business in Division I sports.’ That’s when I realized that you can only play along for so long before the glass ceiling really hits you.” This reaction was also reflected in the sports information industry where Wenger was often was banned from travelling with men’s teams and often received comments like ‘how can a woman really know about football?’ “We have to prove that we’re here to stay,” Wenger explained, “and that we know our stuff.” This concept of the “female tax” proved to be a common thread throughout the panel but was also frequently countered by the “persistence antidote” Chambers aptly summarized: “You do everything you can to get somewhere”

An interesting point in the talk came when panelists had to discuss if and why they identified themselves as feminists. Morris, admittedly a Mawrtyr, identified herself as a “feminist to the extent that there should be no social inequality. That goes both ways, including avoiding the exclusion of men.” At the same time, Morris notes that she never really saw boys’ or men’s teams coached by females “and hoped the universality of sport – for men and women – will right that.” Chambers also hoped that “we don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not all rosy, not all equal” while Hess ’99 simply hoped “programs become based more on merit with gender out of the picture”

Chepman interestingly threw the question right back at the symposium attendees, and only a minority raised their hands. Most audience members didn’t want to ally themselves with the ultra-radical (or otherwise “negative”) connotations of the label “feminist”. Chepman countered with her own take on feminism, “As women, we can only now vote, own property, divorce if we want to. Every woman who enjoys these rights should say “I am a feminist.” Being an athlete also puts you into that category. There are definitely expectations and perceptions out there that stack the cards against women as opposed to men. But, we can lead. And, we can excel.”

At the conclusion of the talk, the panelists dispersed among the tables to impart advice to the symposium attendees. Jen Shillingford, whom both Baeth and Heaney were inspired by to host the conference, followed the dinner with a lecture discussing Title IX and her own story on staying involved in athletics and fighting for women in sport. Zoe Hendrickson ’11, a sophomore soccer and softball player, thought the symposium an overall success, “you don’t normally associate women in sports with feminism. It was really cool to see that connection being made many times during the conference.” Baeth and Heaney, both seniors, hope the symposium will continue next year. “We want the symposium to be annual, but we’re graduating, so we are looking for women to take over next year.” If interested in coordinating next year’s symposium, email abaeth1@swarthmore.edu.


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