March Madness is capitulating to its hyper frenzied conclusion. Even I, a life-long sports un-enthusiast, get swept up in the emotional fervor associated with this annual ritual. As a University of Kansas alum, however, I don’t have the fever as much this year–for reasons obvious.

I don’t like sports. I have bad memories associated with them, especially related to basketball. It stems, as many things do it seems, from my experiences in grade school.

Flash back to 1952, 5th grade, Lincoln Grade School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Since I was the tallest, I was always a Forward on our girl’s gym class basketball team. Why the gym class team? Because there was no such thing as a Girl’s school team.

Like most girls in grade school with my “condition”, I didn’t love being tall. When you add to tall my chronic gangliness and the ugliest white gym suit ever invented, it’s easy to see why it was not my favorite class period.

These girls are wearing gym suits much like we had to wear, only ours were heavy, white 100%, totally-wrinkled cotton.

I’m pretty sure all our mothers took one look at those monstrosities and said, “I don’t iron gym suits!”And to top it all off, we had to play by girls rules. I remember a few of them.


Girl’s Basketball Rules circa 1952 at Lincoln Grade School

  1. Only forwards could score.
  2. Guards and forwards had to stay on their half of the court.
  3. No player could dribble more than three times.

Why special rules for girls in those days? Well, of course not having Title IX (the federal statute designed to create equality in women’s sports) would explain a lot of it. However since that idea wouldn’t emerge for another few decades, these rules were grounded in the commonly held wisdom of the day, including:

  • Girls were the weaker sex.
  • Too much competition was too strenuous for girls.
  • Their delicate organs should be protected; therefore they shouldn’t (couldn’t) run very much.

Dribbling only three times protected girls from running too much but also kept the few girls who were skilled from dominating the game. In addition, running caused sweating that was not considered modest and unfeminine. Whoever designed those ugly gym suits had a bizarre definition of “feminine”!

A friend of mine showed me this ad, from Always (yes, the maxi-pad people) and it occurred to me in some ways, our minds can get stuck in 1952 South Junior High School mindset.

If you want to see the longer version, click here.

There are only two other times I can recall where I experienced blatant discrimination for being female, both times as an adult. The first was during my initial visit to my newborn’s pediatrician. He was sitting behind his desk as we chatted. I had one hand on the table when I asked him to explain something related to my son. “Now, little mother,” he said as he patted my hand, “don’t you concern yourself with things like that. You just let me do the worrying.”

Then, he stood up. He was almost 5 feet 4 inches tall. I rose to my full 5 feet 10 inches, bent over and said, “As you can see, I am not a little mother!”

The second incident occurred several years later. I was the CEO of a charity, and we were considering buying a building. A realtor, smoking a cigar, sweating profusely, and his belly hanging over his trousers, took me, and two (male) board members for a tour of the building. The board members and I all thought the building had possibilities but some challenges. At $9 million, it was within our fundraising reach. We walked outside and started discussing the details. I asked a question. Without removing the cigar, the realtor said, “Now little lady, why don’t you just be a good girl and wait in the car while the men settle this matter.”

Both of my board members were too stunned to speak. I wasn’t.

“Now, little man,” I said, “you have just lost the possibility of a $9 million dollar sale. Have a nice day.”

And we left. Like his cigar, his deal just went up in smoke.

To be honest, these few stories notwithstanding, I never had a ton of experiences that discriminated against me as a girl. In my family, we all were expected to go to law school, girls included. The only thing remotely girl-specific is my dad insisted I take typing and shorthand in case I ever “had to support myself.” Thank goodness it didn’t come to supporting myself as a secretary, however because I flunked shorthand!

I also have an unscientifically based suspicious that being a tall woman impacts the height and thickness of the infamous glass ceiling. If I stand up, I can break through.

I applaud the strides we made as a society in creating a more balanced world for both men and women. We have come a long way from protecting delicate women’s organs from the stress and strain of competition by only allowing them to dribble three times. Times have changed and even though it isn’t the economic juggernaut that men’s professional basketball is, there at least exists a Women’s NBA. Just think, if they’d let me play basketball with boy’s rules, I might have made it to the WNBA (not even close)!

As far as we have come, however, I still think we have further to go. But I am confident we can do it. And I will be rooting for the women in the NCAA Final Four—and thanking my lucky stars they don’t have to wear frumpy gym suits while they show everyone what it really means to play basketball like a girl.