Title IX pioneer tells of bringing girls basketball to Portland

Nearly 50 years after teenaged Lucy Jane Bledsoe helped convince Portland leaders to create the first girls’ basketball league in Oregon, she returned to Ida B. Wells High, her alma mater, to mark Women’s History Month.

She lugged a dog-eared scrapbook. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings and letters from half-a-century ago that document her fight to get the Portland Interscholastic League to field girls’ basketball teams. She and her allies won, and she went on to lead what was then called Wilson High to the first state championship.

Now an award-winning writer, Bledsoe used that story as the basis for her new young adult novel, “No Stopping Us Now.”

It’s all there in her scrapbook: A snippy letter from her high school’s then-athletic director, Bob McFarlane, calling her contention that male athletes were being given exclusive access to the gym for practices “totally and unequivocally preposterous and unfounded.” In a separate missive, McFarlane informed a then 16-year-old Bledsoe that her beef was not with the school’s athletic department, but with her fellow female classmates. To fix the problem, he told her, she should simply take it upon herself to “get more girls involved.”

Top brass at Portland Public Schools got their licks in too. In a December 1973 letter to Wilson’s then-principal Roy Malo, the district’s head of communications advised that the principal should “refute the girl and defend Wilson at the next meeting of your area committee.”

Unfortunately for McFarlane, Malo and the rest, the law was on Bledsoe’s side. Specifically, Title IX, passed in 1972, which outlawed gender-based discrimination in publicly-funded education programs and activities — including sports.

“The opposition, including from coaches and administration here at the high school was fierce,” Bledsoe told a schoolwide assembly at Wells on Wednesday. “One coach literally pushed me against a wall and told me I’d be sorry if I didn’t shut up. The principal told me I needed to be patient. Letters flew around the city and were published in The Oregonian calling me a liar. All I had said was that there was no basketball program for girls, and I wanted to play basketball.”

Bledsoe, who now lives in California, grew up in a large, athletic family in Portland and started pushing back against the status quo early. She lettered in tennis at Wilson, she said, and then tried to go to a meeting of the school’s lettermen’s club, even though girls weren’t allowed to join.

“I remember one fellow saying, ‘Well, it’s impossible for her to join, because it is the letter man’s club,’” she said. She wrote to the school’s administration to complain, which caught the eye of the school’s vice principal, who invited her to appear on stage at a downtown forum headlined by feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem.

“I was nervous, so I asked my mom what I should say,” Bledsoe recalled. “And she said, ‘Just tell them it’s okay to be a housewife.’ Because that’s how my mom felt! And of course, it is ok. So that’s the first thing that I said on that stage full of 3,000 feminists. There was just kind of this silence. And I was so embarrassed.”

But then another student in the audience stood up and started talking about how unfair it was that boys in her high school had so many more opportunities than girls. Bledsoe agreed and told the audience about her quest to form a basketball team. From there, her movement gained steam—she testified in front of the school board and at the Legislature in Salem.

A clipping from Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s scrapbook. This 1975 article from The Oregonian details her high school team’s triumphs at the PIL championship.

By her senior year in 1975, Wilson had a girls’ basketball team, and Bledsoe was a starter. When her team won the first Portland Interscholastic League championship in February, The Oregonian ran a picture of the team celebrating, arms raised in triumph, with Bledsoe at the center.

Bledsoe went on to play a few years of basketball in college and has since written nearly 20 books, for both adults and children.

Wells students said her story still resonates with them today. For example, the school, which is at the back of the line for high school renovations, has only one gym, and there’s plenty of jostling for practice time still, student athletes said.

Amari Savage, 15, a ninth-grade volleyball player at Wells, said that the school has only club volleyball for boys instead of a competition-level team. But still, the club team recently got new jerseys, she noted, while the girls’ team did not.

Amelia Brown, 15, a ninth grader at Wells who plays basketball, said, “I don’t feel like we have been treated unjustly, at least not at our school—I think they do a pretty good job of being cool about it. But, in general, with the WNBA, I feel like it is kind of crazy that they are not paid the same as the men and all that type of stuff. And I also think that women’s sports in general don’t get as much attention as men’s sports.”

—Julia Silverman, @jrlsilverman, jsilverman@oregonian.com

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