“You throw like a girl!” When I was young, it was the rare and lucky girl whose Dad spent hours playing catch with them in the back yard, teaching them to rotate their upper body and follow through. My neighbor’s Dad played a lot with his son and a little with his daughter who was a year older. He threw overhand to the son, but underhand to the daughter. What was the message? I remembered… I never asked out loud, but after 60 years, I remember. Look at Little League pitching star, Mo’ne Davis. Now it can be a compliment to throw like a girl!

What else has changed? I can’t remember the first time I had, or even knew, a female medical doctor. Now, of my 10 doctors, more than half of them are women. My lawyer is a woman; I didn’t know any female lawyers, either. They all played sports. None of this seems surprising or unusual now, let alone radical. When I started college in 1963, there were no varsity athletics for women. We had club teams in a few sports but there were none of the advantages of a Varsity program. I was a junior before my field hockey and basketball teams earned that status. In 1967, when I graduated from college, there were 20 with degrees in physical education. 18 were men; 2 were women. Advantage women: physical education classes in most schools were divided by gender. There were many more male applicants for their job openings than there were for the women. Competition was fierce for the men while the women were sought after to fill their openings. Once in the schools, however, there was frequent and accepted inequality. Boys programs often had more money, better uniforms, and got the newer gym. Everyone was expected to coach, but coaching pay was not equal even though the work was mostly comparable. Sometimes, it wasn’t. The boys’ teams often had more games on their schedules than the girls’. As an athletic director, I was often the only female at our meetings. With the passage of Title IX, things started to change.

Change brought opportunity. Opportunity brought experience. Experience brought challenges, victories and losses, which in turn brought growth. Growth enables confidence and confidence builds resilience. Resilience allows a person to take risks, make mistakes, even fail, then get up and start again. I was a double major in college – physical education and political science – and I loved them both. Fast forward to 2018 and the midterm elections. I followed them closely, starting with the primaries.

Whatever your political affiliation, you had to observe the number of women running for office this past year. If you weren’t paying attention as, one by one, women all across the country threw their hats in the ring for Town Selectperson, School Board member, Attorney General, Governor, State Representative and Senator, the US House and Senate and more, you had to take notice when so many of them won.  Reports abounded in newspapers, social media, magazines, tv and online programming.

To run for office, you need to be strong, persevering, confident and resilient. Could there have been a connection between political ambition and these qualities… between the desire to compete in athletics and the desire to compete in the political arena? Certainly, you need these characteristics to succeed in both. I did a little research locally and nationally and found that many newly elected or newly re-elected women did indeed play sports in high school or college. Here are just a few of these athletic politicians. Erin Herbig, my Maine State Senator, ran track in school and is now competing in curling. New York Senator, Kristin Gillibrand, played tennis and soccer in high school and was co-captain of the squash team at Dartmouth. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos of Illinois was inducted into the Illinois College Sports Hall of Fame for basketball and volleyball. Val Demings, who was the first female chief of the Orlando Police department and currently the freshman US Representative from the Florida 10th district, points to her sports experience in high school track for helping her with her political aspirations. Sharice Davids, Congresswoman from Kansas, is a mixed martial arts champion. The new Congresswoman from Nevada, Susie Lee, competed in swimming.  Lori Trahan, Congresswoman from Massachusetts, won a volleyball scholarship to Georgetown University. Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona regularly runs in marathons, Ironman and other endurance competitions. They all credit their athletic experience for the development of fortitude, determination and stamina, which led to their ultimate success. Many former athletes who lost in close races last November have committed to return for another try.

In a recent study of college students, Jennifer Lawless at American University found that “Women who played sports and were competitive playing sports were about 25% more likely to express an interest in running for office in later life.” She goes on to say that casual participation isn’t enough to have an impact on political ambition. It is those really care about winning that find success in politics.   In 2017, Fortune estimated “that 95 percent of its Fortune 500 CEOs played sports. While only 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, the proportion of women CEOs who were athletes is similar—90 percent of them played sports at some point, and 54 percent played sports at the university level.”

Change keeps coming, but for women in leadership positions it has taken time. Fortunately, for those who played sports, it has accelerated at a faster rate both for those entering politics and those in business. In every arena, change comes with challenge, confidence, commitment and character. We know those qualities develop in part through athletic competition. It certainly did for me.

I leave you with a great article, Where Will You Find Your Next Leader? EY and espnW explore how sport advances women at every level.

By Jane Hardy
Board Member