TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
This week, America lost one of its genuine heroes. Although I never saw
Joe DiMaggio play, I have always been a baseball lover and spent hours as a
child watching games with my father. I grew up hearing about DiMaggio's grace
and professionalism, and knowing that "The Streak" -- hitting in 56 straight
games in 1941 -- would be one of sports' most enduring records.
It was 10 or 11 years ago, in Charleston, W.Va.'s airport, that I had
the pleasure of meeting the "Yankee Clipper." En route to Arkansas by way of
Washington, I was standing alone with my bags looking up at the flight board
when a distinguished gentleman next to me asked if I needed help. When I looked
over, there he was. I managed to say, "Yes, thank you," and he proceeded to
carry my bags to the small commuter flight that he was taking as well. As we
neared the plane, I told him that I knew who he was and that, although I had
always been a Cubs fan, I had long ago adopted the New York Yankees as my
American League favorite. He couldn't have been more gracious or friendly.
For generations of American boys who wanted to grow up to be baseball
players, Joe DiMaggio was a hero and a role model. Now, girls, too, have sports
heroes to emulate -- athletes like soccer star Mia Hamm, Women's National
Basketball Association player Lisa Leslie and Olympic skater Michele Kwan.
When I was growing up, I could watch baseball with my father and throw
the football around the back yard with my brothers. I even played basketball,
but it was half-court, with a two-dribble limit. We were told a girl's heart
just couldn't take the exertion of playing full-court.
Girls, no less than boys, yearned to be active, but they were told that
sports were unladylike and would damage their reproductive organs. Finally,
pioneers like Trudy Ederle, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Wilma Rudolph and Billie
Jean King gave women the courage to step onto playing fields alongside their
Every girl who plays sports today should know the name of Trudy Ederle,
who in 1926 became the first woman to swim the English Channel, shaving more
than two hours off the existing men's record. She should know golfer Babe
Didrikson Zaharias, who is often called the greatest all-around athlete -- male
or female -- of the century, and track star Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold
medals at the 1960 Olympic Games.
Every young athlete should know the story of the "Battle of the Sexes,"
when tennis great Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets. In Billie
Jean's own words, "It wasn't about tennis. It was about social change." For the
first time, many women understood that it was acceptable to compete with men --
even to beat them.
Every girl who hopes to play sports in high school or win a college
scholarship should know the name of a different kind of hero, former Indiana
Sen. Birch Bayh, who sponsored the federal law that leveled the playing field
for female athletes. Before Title IX was passed in 1972, colleges spent 1
percent of their athletic budgets on women's sports, and approximately 300,000
high school girls played on teams. Now, it's the law: Money for scholarships,
coaches, uniforms, facilities, travel and all the other costs of running sports
programs must be distributed equitably. And more than 2 million girls play on
high school teams.
Last week, Billie Jean King, WNBA guard Nikki McCray and Olympic
gold-medal gymnast Dominique Dawes traveled with me to the Lab School in New
York City, where the girls' basketball team is the pride of the campus. Nikki
told the students that, when she was growing up, her male cousins didn't want
her to play basketball with them because she was a girl. Her heroes were male
players like Michael Jordan. Now, she's a hero to young fans.
After our visit to the Lab School, three generations of female
champions gathered at the White House to preview a new HBO film on the history
of women in athletics, a film that I wish every American could see. Called
"Dare to Compete," it celebrates the women who were told that playing sports
wasn't ladylike but didn't listen. It heralds all women who were discriminated
against but just kept standing up and speaking out -- demanding nothing less
than justice and equality.
As I looked around the auditorium at the Lab School and later the East
Room of the White House, I couldn't help but marvel at just how far women have
come. Thanks to role models like Trudy Ederle, Wilma Rudolph and Billie Jean
King -- and thanks to heroes like Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, who helped us love
sports even before we were allowed to play -- every American girl today finally
dares to compete.
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