Growing Forward: Much to Celebrate, Much to Do

Title IX's 50th anniversary is reason to celebrate progress and reflect on an unfinished journey

by Candice Lee

Dear Commodore Nation,

Leave it to track and field to show the world that Vanderbilt knows how to finish strong.

Running the proverbial anchor leg in a year of so much growth and energy for Vanderbilt Athletics, a special group of Commodores made their presence felt earlier this month in the NCAA Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Divine Oladipo earned first-team All-America honors in both shot put and discus, and Taiya Shelby and Grace Jensen earned second-team All-America honors in the 400 meters and 1,500 meters, respectively. In all, six student-athletes represented Vanderbilt across five events, a tremendous step forward for the program in its first year under director Althea Thomas.

From Gordon Sargent’s individual national championship in men’s golf to numerous conference titles and postseason runs, we had so much to celebrate this year—too much to even begin to adequately chronicle here. But as the 50th anniversary of Title IX approached, six strong, determined women reaching new heights of individual and collective success in Eugene felt a particularly fitting way to conclude the athletic calendar for the year.

I can’t help but think about the symbolism at play, knowing Althea Thomas is named in honor of tennis legend Althea Gibson. The first Black person to win a Grand Slam tennis title, nearly 70 years ago, Gibson inspired the generation that subsequently seized the opportunity afforded by Title IX. That included Billie Jean King, the activist and tennis legend whom I was fortunate to host earlier this spring when she participated in the Chancellor’s Lecture Series.

Amid all the deserved and important attention on Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibited gender discrimination in educational programs or activities and paved the way for a revolution in women’s sports, I’ve been thinking about another anniversary, too. It involves someone who few outside our university community know nearly as well as King. All the same, it is meaningful to me that this past November marked Stella Vaughn’s 150th birthday.

Although she lived a rich, full life that stretched nearly a century, Vaughn died more than a decade before Title IX. She lived in a different time. And yet the story of women’s athletics at Vanderbilt begins with her. In that way, my Vanderbilt story begins with her.

Vanderbilt was not created for Stella. You could argue that college athletics weren’t created for women like me.

In 1892, she was one of just 10 female students at the university. Upon graduation, she became the university’s first female instructor, teaching women’s physical education, and organized Vanderbilt’s first women’s basketball team. It wasn’t quite the sport we know today, but years before women even gained the right to vote, that team’s very existence whispered the same words that Title IX spoke boldly decades later. Women will not be denied.

If Vaughn could visit the university today, 50 years after Title IX, imagine her reaction. I’d love to listen to her talk X’s and O’s with Shea Ralph or swap stories with student-athlete Jordyn Cambridge. Equally, I would like to see the satisfaction on her face when she spoke to Adell Harris, men’s basketball chief of staff, or the many women working alongside Tim Corbin, Ian Duvenhage, Clark Lea, Scott Limbaugh and Jerry Stackhouse in helping student-athletes on our men’s teams realize their full potential. I hope she might get a kick out of seeing me, a former basketball student-athlete, serving in my role.

And yet, at this moment most of all, I also think about what might make her smile fade.

There is much that I imagine would frustrate Vaughn more than a century after she wedged her foot in the door and refused to let others close it. I know because I experienced the same feelings listening to Billie Jean King this spring. I was moved and inspired by an amazing woman, but also struck by how much still sounded familiar. We’ve come far from the days when King worked two jobs in order to play tennis at California State College, while male peers received full scholarships at nearby UCLA and USC. But there is still so much work that needs to be done.

People hear “Title IX” and think that may mean we’re only advocating for women. Gender equity, however, is for everyone’s benefit. Whether in a boardroom, university department or coaching staff, we all benefit when we bring together the best and brightest from across the human experience. Diversity is not just for the benefit of people who are underrepresented. Everyone benefits.

My peers and I, we have to make sure we’re as committed as pioneers such as Gibson and King—even as committed as Vaughn. But that’s the thing. It can’t be just us. A lot of times, if you’re a member of an underrepresented group, it becomes your responsibility to raise issues about diversity. That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s not fair. As a woman in the room, it will feel like real progress when it’s not just the women who are fighting for women but it’s everybody who is fighting for equity.

I’ve been asked about Title IX so many times since becoming the SEC’s first female athletic director (following in the footsteps of pioneering administrators like Theresa Phillips). I understand the questions. I welcome them. I am the beneficiary of Title IX and understand its power to this day. I also know it’s not just about “us,” the women who received the overdue opportunity to play. The real progress now comes, with all due respect, when equality becomes a part of our DNA. When it’s no longer something that needs to be quantified or defended.

We should thank generations of women and honor their hard work. We should know their stories—from King and the 1996 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team to the women of the U.S. women’s national soccer team who fought for and recently won pay equality. We should all know them. I want my son to know about those women as much as I would want my daughter, if I had one, to know about them.

I hope our sons and daughters know the story of Stella Vaughn, too. She didn’t just make Vanderbilt a better place for women. She made this a better university and a richer community for everyone. Because it isn’t just our runners and throwers who are better because of Althea Thomas or our men’s basketball student-athletes who are better because of Adell Harris, or our female students who are better because of Provost Cybele Raver.

We all benefit by bringing together the best and brightest to make each other better.

It’s our turn to take the baton. Some amazing women showed us how in Eugene.

As we begin the next 50 years, it’s time for us to follow their lead. All of us, together.

Anchor Down,

Candice Lee Signature

Candice Lee
Vice Chancellor of Athletics and University Affairs and Athletic Director