In 1995, Stanford retroactively awarded 2,200 varsity letters to women who played before Title IX
From the beginning, women have been Stanford athletes, as have Stanford men. Still, their playing fields were not equal. It took the implementation of 1972’s federal Title IX to create women’s athletic scholarships and access to world-class facilities, coaching, and institutional support. For decades, most women at Stanford and elsewhere competed at great disadvantage and only for love of the game.
On May 19, 1995, Stanford acknowledged these women athletes by retroactively awarding Block S varsity letters to all 2,200 women who had competed at Stanford in the days before Title IX. It was the first such move by a U.S. university.
The awards were bestowed in an emotional ceremony for the alumnae, some of whom graduated in the 1920s, in the Arrillaga Family Sports Center.
“These women found a way to compete, at club level or maybe even intramurally. They didn’t know that they were forging a path,” said Kim Carlisle, ’83, who helped win Stanford’s first national title in women’s swimming in 1980 and helped create the 1995 event.
Carlisle herself was an early scholarship recipient and Block S holder. She wanted to honor “the women who came before us who paved the way.”
The Block S was important to the women because it had long been out of reach for most of them.
Only the university could bestow an official Block S letter, and it did so only to members of officially sanctioned intercollegiate teams. Women athletes usually failed to clear this bar, because before Title IX they lacked the requisite organization or could only field intramural teams. Today’s Block S Society is composed of all former varsity athletes at Stanford.
Anne Warner Cribbs, ’79, spoke for the recipients at the 1995 ceremony. Cribbs had swum on the gold medal team in the 400-meter medley relay at the 1960 Olympic Games. Lacking opportunities to swim in college, let alone for a scholarship, she retired from her sport at 15.
“Your efforts made it possible for our daughters to have opportunities [in athletics], and for that I thank you,” Cribbs said.
Barbara Finn, ’75, a volleyball player, said at the event that her team was not allowed to play at Maples Pavilion, only on the blacktop outside.
“We’d go anywhere we could find a gym. We drove every day,” Finn said.
“Women like her were caught in a ‘no woman’s land,’” Carlisle said later. “They found a way to compete, but without the opportunities or recognition Title IX would ultimately bring.
“We decided to recognize them as a group.”
The ceremony drew volleyball, basketball and tennis players; swimmers; runners; archers; golfers, even modern dancers, who performed under Women’s Athletic Association auspices in the 1930s and 1940s. They ranged from former Olympians like Cribbs to club and intramural athletes. Some wore the white blazers that the association bestowed in the 1930s and 40s in lieu of Block S recognition, and that they had saved for 50 and 60 years. Some would live only a few years longer, and their families put the Block S in their obituaries.
“It was affectionate, and like a sacred ritual in some ways,” Carlisle remembered. “We wanted to honor everyone who had helped open the door.”
The event also marked the progress Stanford made in the years after Title IX’s enactment.
The university consolidated its men’s and women’s athletic programs under a single leadership as it worked toward parity. As women’s tennis coach Frank Brennan told the Stanford Historical Society, a separate-but-equal policy “never worked for segregation, and it didn’t work for women’s sports.”
Today, 47 percent of Stanford’s 900 intercollegiate athletes are female. They have won 46 NCAA championships, more than any other athletic program in the country.
They help make Stanford a place where academic and athletic excellence intertwine, a place with “a perception of unlimited possibility,” as water polo player Kim Krueger, ’11, put it, “a place where people … with huge potential and limitless ambition come to grow and to learn from each other.”