Looking back with four decades of wisdom, it was a landmark moment in American history. With only 37 words, the legislation that became known as Title IX dramatically changed the landscape of women's athletics — even if the word "athletics" was never even mentioned.
Marilyn Watkins was going into her 10th-grade year at Ferguson High when President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 into law. But as she remembers it, there was no celebration, no visions of promise, on June 23, 1972. In fact, there wasn't much of anything.
"I really have no recollection of it," she said. "It wasn't until later that it started to resonate with people."
Three years later, Watkins received a partial scholarship to play basketball at Norfolk State. She followed Smithfield's Vivian Greene, who in 1974 became the first female athlete to earn a scholarship at NSU.
"When I think of the athletes back then, all of us were given a step for other female athletes to follow," Watkins said. "Title IX has given more females the opportunity to compete. And along with competition, you were granted the opportunity to get scholarships."
In 1972, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, females made up only 7.5 percent of all high school athletes. Ten years later, that had jumped to nearly 35 percent. For the 2010-11 school year, it was 41.3 percent.
With the rise in participation has come a rise in scholarships. At least 20 female seniors from the Peninsula and Bay Rivers districts will be receiving at least partial grants to play college athletics in the next school year.
"You don't want to dwell on history, but you don't want to forget where it all started," said Joyce Sisson, a co-director of athletics with the Virginia High School League. "There was a time in my lifetime that wasn't available. Now, there is a world of possibilities."
Possibilities were virtually non-existent before Title IX.
Surprisingly, the VHSL record book lists team champions for girls' basketball from 1920-25. Then there's a 50-year gap before the next champion is recognized.
Just after World War II, a VHSL committee looked into restoring state competition in girls' sports. It's unclear what exactly came of that meeting, but there was no female champion recognized in any sport until 1969, when individuals were recognized in gymnastics.
In the early 1970s, girls who wanted to play sports were confined mostly to intramurals — or the Girls Recreation Association, as it was called. In the Warwick 1969 yearbook, 28 pages were devoted to the boys' teams. There are four, with no team pictures, for the girls.
When girls played basketball, it was usually a watered-down variety. Each team would have six players on the court — three who would do the shooting on one end, three who would do the defending on the other. When a shot was made, or the miss rebounded by the defense, the ball was sent to the other end of the floor for another possession.
The reason for this? Girls were seen as not being athletic or strong enough to run and play both ends of the floor.
Even after Nixon signed Title IX into law, change was slow. Willard Hunt, Tabb's athletic director from 1976-97, remembers how difficult it was to get girls interested in athletics.
"I was bound and determined to have a field hockey team, but our biggest concern at first was finding enough girls to participate," Hunt said. "So I had to coax three or four boys to play. There wasn't any VHSL rule against it, and nobody cared because we didn't win any games."
It wasn't until the fall of 1975 that the VHSL held a state tournament for girls basketball. And if you're wondering why the girls played in the fall, it was because the boys played in the winter.
That changed in Group AAA in 1977-78. But girls in Single- and Double-A played fall basketball until the 2003-04 season.
Switching to winter was the result of a lawsuit filed in 1997 by 11 female athletes from Suffolk, who claimed the VHSL's seasonal schedule for girls' sports violated Title IX. A federal jury agreed, and rather than appeal the VHSL agreed to schedule all sports in their traditional season.
It was done in the interest of equality. But several women's coaches and administrators didn't like it.
"The thing about it is, not everybody had the facilities to make that work fairly," said Trish Mitchell, athletic director at Hampton from 1985-2001. "We were lucky, we had the two gyms. But one was a good gym, and one was an inferior gym. So one team didn't have the advantage of a better gym in the name of Title IX."
Equality wasn't always equal. June Tharpe, the girls basketball coach at Kecoughtan in the 1970s, said her team had to practice and play its games an auxiliary gym with a leaky roof and had only one set of game uniforms.
"Everything the boys got was top-notch and we had to fight for time in the main gym," Tharpe said. "The whirlpool was in the boys locker room and if we wanted to use it we had to wait until there were no boys in there."
But 40 years later, there is obvious change.
"You saw glimpses of it as you went along," Watkins said. "I look at the opportunities female athletes have now, and there's such a wealth of scholarship money from volleyball, track, basketball, swimming. If you do it right in high school, take care of academics first and compete, there's a possibility of gaining an athletic scholarship in college. And you never know where you're going to go from there."
Marty O'Brien contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun