As Title IX era dawned, a first women’s athletic scholarship created national buzz

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In the pivotal summer of 1972, Mary Jean Mulvaney, the chairman of the University of Chicago women’s physical education department, went to the admissions office to point out that the university had an athletic scholarship for men named after Amos Alonzo Stagg, the Hall of Fame football coach and innovator, but no equivalent for women.

By that fall, the University of Chicago established the Gertrude Dudley Scholarship, named after the administrator who came to the Windy City in 1898 and quickly created organized sports for women at the school.

The scholarship gained national headlines while Title IX, passed into law that same summer of ’72, would bring meaningful change to college sports in following years.

The Dudley scholarship was billed by media as “what may be the nation’s first academic-athletic scholarship for women.”

Wayland Baptist University in Texas previously had scholarship female basketball players. Some female track athletes from Tennessee State’s acclaimed Tigerbelles program received paying jobs before the Title IX era. Also in early 1973, the University of Miami began awarding female athletic scholarships.

MORE: NBC Sports celebrates 50th anniversary of Title IX

So the University of Chicago calls the Dudley the first nationally advertised athletic scholarship for women. (There was previously a Dudley scholarship at Dudley’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke, a private liberal arts women’s college in Massachusetts, for a student in “good physical condition.”)

Parade magazine, inserted into Sunday newspapers across the country, mentioned the University of Chicago scholarship in its March 18, 1973 issue. In a section titled “Keeping Up … With Youth,” at the bottom of the page, under the headline, “For Girls Only,” the article ended by telling readers how to apply in writing.

Mulvaney, who died in 2019, said she received “bags and bags and bags of applications,” according to the university. Reports from 1973 said more than 1,000 applicants.

Originally intended for one recipient, the school ended up choosing two because of the interest: Noel Bairey, a nationally ranked swimmer from Modesto, California who graduated high school in three years, and Laura Silvieus, a basketball and softball standout (and class president and valedictorian) from Kingsville, Ohio. Neither remembered what the application entailed.

They were mentioned in The New York Times. Bairey, now Bairey Merz, made the cover of Parade with the headline, “Our Women Athletes Achieve New $tatus.”

“My high school had just started offering sports for women,” Silvieus said by phone. “So to learn that there was a full tuition scholarship to play sports? Sign me up. I had five siblings from a small town, and there wasn’t a lot of money to pay for school. So it just sounded like a dream.”

Bairey Merz and Silvieus said they weren’t thinking about Title IX when they were awarded the scholarship in 1973.

“It preceded the Title IX breakthrough,” Bairey Merz said. “We played a small part, being these first athletic scholars, and the University of Chicago played a role. It wasn’t Stanford. It wasn’t Harvard. It wasn’t USC.”

It was Mulvaney, the women agreed.

“Noel and I were just players on the stage, and she was the director,” Silvieus said.

Bairey Merz recalled Mulvaney standing six feet tall with elegant, coiffed hair and always wearing a skirt and pearls.

“She was a bit of a barnstormer,” Bairey Merz said. “She would enter the room and kind of take over.”

Even though both women had their tuition paid for, there were still disparities when they matriculated.

MORE: ‘In Their Court’ podcast examines evolution of Title IX through women’s basketball

“It just didn’t occur to me that they would give you the scholarship and then not provide you with the resources,” Bairey Merz said. “The men got to go off to all these great meets, and they got fed, and they got the Speedo suits, and they got workout gear, and the women got nothing.

“The first year, the swim coach was also the badminton coach, and she was also a chain smoker. They decided that the coach would drive me to these meets, which she resented a lot. She would chain smoke the whole time. So I would sit on the passenger side with the window open in the middle of winter.”

The female swimmers were provided a bus the following year, Bairey Merz said.

Bairey Merz and Silvieus graduated and continued their education. Silvieus got her MBA at Chicago and later managed a law firm.

Bairey Merz believes that, had she not gotten the Dudley scholarship, she likely would have stayed in state and gone to the University of California, Davis.

A University of Chicago degree helped her get into Harvard Medical School, launching a career that led her to become director of the Cedars-Sinai Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center in Los Angeles.

Soon after the University of Chicago created the Dudley, female sports scholarships proliferated.

The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which governed women’s college sports before the NCAA took over in 1982, prohibited athletic scholarships until a 1973 lawsuit. Hall of Fame basketball player Ann Meyers is often cited as the first big-time female college scholarship athlete, enrolling at UCLA in 1974.

Who knows what impact the University of Chicago, which became an NCAA Division III program, had on what was to come. What’s clear is that it was ahead of its time, even if by a matter of months.

“There was a lot of publicity surrounding this scholarship,” Silvieus said. “And I think it made other schools and women think about it.”

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As Title IX era dawned, a first women’s athletic scholarship created national buzz originally appeared on NBCSports.com