Student Activism for Women's Varsity

Throughout the history of U-M, athletics for women represented the greater struggle for women’s place, opportunities, and recognition. The issue of women’s athletics also brought persistent debates about whether women should be treated the same as male students or remain a separate category due to their biology and allegedly more delicate health. By the 1960s and 1970s, the context of second-wave feminism forced the question of equality in sports.

The administrative structure of the women’s athletics program changed substantially during the 1960s.  When the physical education departments merged and the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) approached its final days, Marie Hartwig spearheaded the founding of a new organization to unite men’s and women’s club sports teams. Beginning in the 1970-71 school year, this group, the Michigan Sports Club Federation (MSCF) took over the management of women’s basketball, field hockey, volleyball, tennis, gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and diving.  Female athletes allowed a more independent existence under this new structure than they had had under the supervision of the Department of Physical Education for Women (DPEW). Yet the separation from the DPEW and the removal of the physical education requirement for women also presented new pressures on the teams regarding facility use, scheduling, coaching, and publicity.[1] What’s more, the women’s club teams were at a competitive disadvantage because they played varsity teams from other institutions that enjoyed more funding and coaching.

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First Women's Varsity Field Hockey Team

Sheryl Szady (top row, second from the right

Women athletes and the student managers of the club teams, who bore the brunt of pressures related to access to resources, argued for women’s sports to become varsity at U-M. They found little sympathy among administrators until Sheryl Szady, student field hockey manager, finally got the attention of Robert Knauss, Vice President of Student Affairs.   

In June 1971, Knauss urged athletic director Don Canham to review the possibility of varsity sports for women.  The following year, Szady spoke about the limitations of the club sports system to an alumni organization, calling for a move towards varsity programming.  Szady’s proposition provoked a discussion between the alumni and the administration, but no tangible response ensued.[2]


Marie Hartwig, U-M Women's Athletic Director, 1973-1976

Szady refused to give up, arranging a meeting with the new Vice President of Student Affairs, Henry Johnson.  Events soon overtook her campaign: Michigan State University refused to schedule games with U-M club teams because they did not meet intercollegiate standards. MSU even hinted that other universities would follow suit. In other words, even the limited, existing intercollegiate sports program for female athletes at Michigan was in jeopardy.  Szady and other student managers spoke with Johnson, who then arranged for them to make a presentation before the Board of Regents. Because time was short and because neither Hartwig or Canham had matched their push for women’s varsity the student managers did not reach out to them.[3] At the meeting, the focus remained on the immediate competition concerns rather than on Title IX implementation.  When President Robben Fleming “asked for direction,” a Board member pointed to Hartwig who was sitting in the audience.[4]

In response to this meeting, the Board of Regents in June 1973 created the Committee to Study Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (CSIAW), which included both Szady and Hartwig, to delve into these matters.[5] Ultimately, the committee requested varsity status for women’s sports, and the first women’s varsity teams were established in the Fall of 1974 under Hartwig’s supervision.[6]

[1] Sheryl Szady, “The History of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women of the University of Michigan” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1987).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

[4] Ibid., p. 126.

[5] Action Request: Approval of Revisions to Bylaw Sec. 11.210, Board of Regents University of Michigan records 1817-2011, 1899-1989, Box 132, April 20, 1973 Complete), University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

[6] Chronology of Implementation, Title IX Chronology of Implementation 1979, Box 6, Women's Athletics Records, University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

Title IX
Student Activism for Women's Varsity