Helen Richardson, '77, hits a grand slam home run during a game against Lafayette in 1977. Richardson was also a member of the first women’s basketball team at Lehigh in 1975. (Courtesy of Helen Richardson)

Women’s athletics come to Lehigh in 1976


It’s difficult to imagine a time in which women were not involved in the world of Lehigh athletics. Today, the institution offers 12 different varsity teams to eligible females, the same number as are available to men. But the ’70s were a different story with only six available programs for female athletes. 

The fall of 1971 marked the first semester that women were admitted to Lehigh. Varsity opportunities did not immediately follow, however. Before the university could implement greater athletic opportunities, there had to be an increase in female participation in athletics and society’s acceptance of such participation. 

Volleyball, lacrosse, field hockey, softball, basketball and tennis were the first programs offered for women at Lehigh. 

Joe Sterrett, Dean of Athletics and former star quarterback, was a part of the committee that discussed the implementation of Title IX in 1976, his first year working at Lehigh after his graduation from the university. 

“It took way too long for most people, and consequently, most institutions to realize that women were and are far more capable and far more inclined athletically and competitively than had been previously imagined,” Sterrett  said.

It took more than 25 years from the time that Title IX was adopted for Lehigh to support a comparable number of full-time head coaches for women’s teams as there were head coaches for men’s teams.

One of those notable coaches is basketball Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, who led the Notre Dame women’s basketball team to win the National Championship last year. McGraw became Lehigh women’s basketball’s head coach during the 1982-1983 season and served in the post until she moved to Notre Dame in 1987.

Helen Richardson, a member of the first ever women’s basketball team in 1975, said she remembers the shift in attitude that all the women embodied in trying to be as fair as possible when it came to implementing Title IX.

“Had we walked in and said, ‘Okay, let’s slash $100K from the football or wrestling budget to get new sneakers for the women’s basketball team,’ I would (and should) have been ready to be shown the door,” Richardson said.
“So the first task involved adjusting everyone’s expectations a bit.”

The team practiced and played in the basement of Taylor Gym, which is now home to the weight equipment in the Fitness Center. The rubberized floor, lack of seats (besides the player benches) and three bright orange walls that Taylor boasted did not create the perfect basketball playing atmosphere, Richardson said.

Grace Hall, however, had a shiny hardwood floor, padding at both ends, spectator seats and electric scoreboards at each end. It also happened to be the home court for the men’s team. 

Richardson wore farmer’s overalls because they had no warm-ups and wore her first pair of high-top Chuck Taylors that she bought from Bethlehem Sporting Goods.

“Sneakers provided by the school? Yeah, right,” she said.

Helen Richardson, ’77, participated in the Powder Puff game during her senior year at Lehigh. The first class of undergraduate women at Lehigh put together the Powder Puff game. (Courtesy of Helen Richardson)

Although basketball was a popular sport among women at the time, Powder Puff seemed to be the “it” sport, despite the fact that it was just a club.

Pam Watson, Lehigh’s first woman to receive an athletic scholarship, was a 1976 graduate and former quarterback of the Powder Puff team.

“We had really one mission and that was to beat Lafayette,” Watson said.

Clearly, some things never change.

The game was put together by the first class of undergraduate women, and although it was technically just a club sport, it was taken as seriously as any other varsity sport by the athletic directors and the players.

The games had paid high school referees and, Richardson said, a “chain gang” to measure the yardage. They played in Taylor Stadium in new, numbered jerseys, used the varsity locker room and attracted 2,000 fans to the Lafayette game.

“The coaches were saints,” Richardson said. “They were frat boys whose bad knees prevented them from continuing to play football. They treated us like football players, not delicate little flowers.”

Powder Puff broke up the “Battle of the Sexes” and brought them together.

Richardson was a fellow teammate of Watson and co-captain of the Powder Puff team in 1976. She said she recalls zero competition between the men and women’s teams. The women went to their games and the men did the same. She said she thinks that they could all find a complimentary beer (or six) when they went to parties on The Hill. 

As the years went on, whether it was basketball, powder puff or tennis, more women joined the athletic community at Lehigh.

“I’m proud of the progress that has been made at Lehigh, but not nearly satisfied with our current status,” Sterrett said. “We should have a few more assistant coaches, and we should pay all our coaches more than we do. So nearly a half-century later, the effort continues.”

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