TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
March 10, 1999
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 brothers.
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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