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Fifty-fifty: Title IX hits 50th anniversary in fight for equal opportunity

In the 50 years since its implementation, Title IX has given countless Lumberjacks and Beavers the opportunity to pursue sports they love. It’s not always been a smooth road -- nor has it always been perfectly equal -- but it’s a critical fight for the respect that Title IX promises.

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Sisters Betty (Fulton) Novotney, left, and Jean (Fulton) Weyer were some of the first female athletes at Bemidji High School. They, like many other girls and women who have played since 1972, are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX this week.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — On June 23, 1972, the 37 words of Title IX changed the landscape of female athletics. In Bemidji, thousands of girls and women have shaped the sports world ever since.

“It’s given us a voice. It’s given us a position,” said Betty (Fulton) Novotney, a 1975 Bemidji High School graduate and a charter member of the Lumberjacks girls basketball program. “What was not there now exists. It’s given not only a voice, but you’re seen now.”

Title IX, passed into law 50 years ago, prevents discrimination based on sex in federally funded programs and activities. As the ruling states, “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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

In other words: “Title IX meant not just that you get to play, but you get to play on an even playing field,” Novotney said.

In the 50 years since its implementation, Title IX has given countless Lumberjacks and Beavers the opportunity to pursue sports they love. It’s not always been a smooth road -- nor has it always been perfectly equal -- but it’s a critical fight for the respect that Title IX promises.

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“That’s the big word: respect,” said Jean (Fulton) Weyer, Novotney’s sister and a 1977 BHS grad. “It’s the opportunity to actually play and be equal to the boys.”

Pioneers of Bemidji State

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Ruth Howe, center, is pictured with two Bemidji State women's tennis players in the 1970s. Howe is a founder of BSU women's athletics and coached tennis and basketball during her time with the Beavers.
BSU photo

In the early days of Title IX, women faced an uphill battle in most every regard. For starters, coaches often fought against a cultural standard that was counterproductive to a successful team.

“The thing about it is, as coaches, we had to teach women to be competitive,” said Ruth Howe, Bemidji State’s first women’s basketball coach. “They were brought up to be not aggressive, and in order to win in sports, you have to be aggressive. So that totally changed.”

At Bemidji State College, three women embraced that challenge and plenty of others in those early days, even before Title IX. Marjory Beck, Betsy McDowell and Howe -- physical education faculty members at the time -- were recognized by the university in 2019 as the three official founders of BSU women’s athletics, which got its intercollegiate start in 1969.

Prior to that, BSC first offered extramural basketball, volleyball, field hockey and swimming and diving to female athletes starting in 1964. Howe coached the basketball team, while Terri Tarbell led the other three. Additional sports soon followed.

“To be able to say, ‘We’re going to have this now,’ was quite an advancement,” Howe said. “The challenge was facilities. A place to practice. We practiced at very unrealistic times sometimes. … Believe me, fortunately we had Marjory Beck.”

Beck was hired in 1964 and was BSC’s first women’s athletic coordinator. She was instrumental in organizing a competitive women’s league for schools in Minnesota and North Dakota called the Minn-Kota Conference, one of the first of its kind in the country, and served as its first president when it began in 1969.

A few years later, Title IX started doing the job that Beck had been doing all along.

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“We were fortunate to have Marjory Beck,” Howe said. “She was the one who opened up competition for women. She represented us in every capacity. … (And then Title IX) opened up competition for women. That was a biggie.”

Bemidji’s Mount Rushmore-worthy athletes

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Bemidji State's Rachael Norton (7) navigates around Wayne State's Natalie Rech during a 2017 game at Chet Anderson Stadium.
Pioneer file photo

State champions and All-Americans have long walked the halls of BHS and BSU in the past 50 years. Plenty others have simply played for the love of the game.

But a select few female athletes have cemented their legacies as the best that the Beavers and Lumberjacks have ever produced. In what’s certainly an incomplete list, here are 12 figures who can make a case to be included in the town’s Mount Rushmore of female athletes.

  • Kim Babula (1987 BSU grad): A force on the hardwood, Babula owns BSU women’s basketball records for assists (843) and steals (293) along with 1,137 points.
  • Erin Booth (2013 BHS grad): Booth’s boot was lethal for BHS girls soccer, and her 66 career goals and 53 career assists are both program records since at least 2005.
  • Sheena Devine (2008 BSU grad): Devine won three individual national championships in the shot put for BSU and still owns the program’s indoor record.
  • Sarah Erickson (2008 BHS grad): Erickson was named Minnesota Ms. Hockey as a senior, pacing the Lumberjacks with 42 goals and 17 assists a year after leading them to state.
  • Kayla Hirt (2011 BHS grad): Bemidji girls basketball’s all-time leading scorer, the Gatorade Player of the Year nominee racked up 1,757 career points while also starring in volleyball.
  • Lori Hutchins (1974 BHS grad; 1979 BSU grad): Hutchins won state in high jump for BHS in 1972 and 1973, the first two years of the girls track and field state meet, and was then a four-sport, all-conference athlete at BSU.
  • Karen Morrissey (1997 BSU grad): Morrissey is Bemidji State women’s basketball’s all-time leader in points (1,728) and rebounds (952), plus fourth on the softball team in career batting average (.335).
  • Brittni Mowat (2017 BSU grad): Mowat is BSU women’s hockey’s all-time goalie leader in career wins (62), goals against average (2.05), save percentage (.931) and saves (3,620), plus second in shutouts (17).
  • Liz Mulvihill (1988 BSU grad): Mulvihill was a 1988 national champion in indoor shot put with a then-Division II-record throw of 51-9.25 and also scored 1,276 points for the women’s hoops team.
  • Rachael Norton (2018 BSU grad): The most prolific scorer in BSU soccer history, Norton tallied 49 career goals and lifted the Beavers to national prominence.
  • Andrea Smith (2004 BHS grad): The only three-time individual state champ in BHS history, Smith won the pole vaulting crown from 2002-04, including a then-state record of 12-7 as a senior.
  • Jess Yost (2013 BHS grad; 2017 BSU grad): One of the most versatile athletes to jump from BHS to BSU, Yost set program records in both volleyball and softball between the high school and college.

‘You girls are the trailblazers’

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Bemidji won the sub-region championship in 1979, the first such award for the program. Betty (Fulton) Novotney, a member of the program's first team in 1973 and a 1975 BHS graduate, was an assistant coach in 1978-79 under head coach Jim Wahl.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Female athletics had a humble start at Bemidji High. The Fulton sisters and their teammates wore gym pennies for their jerseys, with blue electrical tape sewn in for the numbers.

But from those modest origins came an explosion of programs. Girls basketball and track and field were the firsts, but soon came swimming and diving, tennis and Nordic skiing. The list also included major breakthroughs with the inception of girls hockey (1996) and girls wrestling (2021).

“We had those electrical tape uniforms, but it was still just amazing to get to be on that same court that the boys played on,” Weyer said. “I think dad was the one who told us: ‘You girls are the trailblazers. You’re the first, the pioneers.’ We didn’t even really think that, but he knew that girls hadn’t played sports.”

Fifty years later, girls sports have won 42 region or section championships at BHS.

That legacy includes the 1974 Nordic skiers, the school’s first region champion for a girls team, and the 2004 golfers, the Lumberjacks’ first and only girls team to win a state championship. The school has also accumulated 10 individual state titles, none more than Andrea Smith’s three in pole vaulting.

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At Bemidji State, the success has reached a national stage. In addition to a number of conference championships among the women’s programs, three shot putters -- Liz Mulvihill, Patti Fitzgerald and Sheena Devine -- have combined for five individual national titles.

Girls’ sports were once seen as a fad, one that would soon be done and over with. But those athletes backed up what Title IX ensured: They were worth investing in.

“That was part of Title IX, too: It was equal opportunity, it was equal pay, it was equal uniforms,” Novotney said. “Obviously, it didn’t all come in at the same time. … To be on those first teams, we were just excited to have the adventure of playing.”

Thanks to trailblazers, innovators and record-breakers, Howe sees women’s athletics of today as the best it’s ever been.

“It’s a joy to watch women’s basketball. It’s a joy to watch any sport,” Howe said. “The amount of progress, you can just see it. Every year, it’s better skill and more knowledge. It’s beautiful to watch. I’m so happy for women and this opportunity, you have no idea.”

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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