by Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, The
More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports
(Avon Books, 1995).
On the occasion of receiving the Guiding Woman in Sport Award
from National Association for Girls and Women in Sport, April
I learned about this award through an e-mail message from NAGWS
director Diana Everett. It said, Dear Mariah, Congratulations!
You have been
named the Guiding Woman in Sport!
However, because Diana is new to e-mail, as we all are, she
forgot to SIGN
the message. So I knew that SOMEONE considered me a guiding woman,
but I had no idea WHO.
It reminded me of something that used to happen in sixth grade.
we girls used to play kickball or baseball. Somehow I became the
decided what we played, and who played what position. I don't
know how this
evolved. The fact that I was already 5'7" might have had
something to do with
it. My memory of this is that all these little girls would stand
around me in
a circle, jumping up and down and waving their hands and asking,
" Can I be on your team?" " Can I play first base?" " Can
I pitch?" And I thought, Why are they asking me?
Nevertheless I tried to be fair and inclusive. I tried to make
everyone had a good time. I was the perfect AIAW sort of kid.
This was my first lesson in leadership: You never know exactly
looking up to you, or why. I concluded from this that I might
as well become
the kind of person who's worth looking up to, just in case anyone's
I started thinking about leadership then, and noticed that
lead by virtue of their institutional authority (as teachers or
example), and some people lead by virtue of their voice or vision:
passion or conviction or courage. And other people lead because
So when I received Diana's message, I wrote back and said,
Person: I'm delighted that you consider me a Guiding Woman in
would be happy to come to your conference, and will be happy to
speech, as you requested, and the subject of the speech will be
Then Diana wrote back and told me who would be here. I thought,
am I to talk to you about leadership? You're the ones who are
Official Leaders, with leadership training and degrees and actual
followers - students or athletes or a staff. Not to mention a
only do I not have any institutional authority, I don't even have
a real job.
Plus, women aren't comfortable with leadership, or so they
Supposedly, we want everyone to be EQUAL. Gloria Steinem has said
instead of looking UP to other women, we should look ACROSS.
Plus, women aren't supposed to talk about themselves as leaders.
supposed to be more MODEST.
But then I remembered that most of you in this room are NOT
with female leadership. Most of you HAVE looked up to other women,
benefited from and loved these leaders, these cherished physical
teachers and coaches. And you have in turn discussed your own
styles with the women you have mentored and groomed to be leaders
And I remembered that one of the strengths of feminism is women's
willingness to tell their personal stories.
And that that's one of my strengths too.
So I decided (FINALLY) that it's okay to talk about leadership,
my own. I gave myself permission.
THEN I realized that THIS is probably a key element of leadership,
least for women. Though we may have been born leaders, we were
not born into
a society that welcomed female leaders. So we have to give ourselves
permission to go ahead and lead.
I was talking to a group of high school girls in Wisconsin
competition recently, and I told them that my mom had given me
compete: to take risks, to win, to lose. During the question and
period afterward, one of the girls stood up and said, "Why
should we need
PERMISSION? Shouldn't we just go ahead and compete?"
I thought, Ah, we ARE making progress.
But a lot of OLDER women - and I can put myself in that group
I just turned 40 - still need permission to be different from
the "sugar and
spice, everything nice" little girls that we were raised
to be. We need to
give this permission to ourselves. We can't wait for Mom to give
it to us.
As I thought about what it might mean to be a guiding woman
in sport, I
looked up the word guide in the thesaurus. I found these synonyms:
teacher, authority, expert, guru, pundit, mentor. Then I got to
WISE MAN. At that point I thought, Ah, permission is not enough.
We have to
redefine leadership itself. We can't trust the authorities to
tell us what
leadership is. Roget, after all - author of Roget's Thesaurus
- was a man.
In fact the history of women's sports has been a history of
defining leadership for ourselves, defining teamwork for ourselves,
athlete and victory and success for ourselves.
It occurred to me that this in itself is a definition of a
leader: a woman
who defines herself and her world. To define is to make clear.
the late poet, has been called Gamba Adisa, an African phrase
for "a warrior
who makes her meaning clear."
So a leader makes her meaning clear. She defines for herself
what it means
to be a woman. She decides what games to play, what rules to live
decides for herself how to be the kind of person who's worth looking
just in case anyone's looking. And if the rules she lives by have
and if she is creative and ethical and passionate and effective,
At least, that's one of MY definitions of leadership, part
of how I try to
live my life. As a nonfiction writer, my job is to tell the truth,
the truth as I see it: to make my meaning clear. When I succeed
- when other
people tell me that my work has meaning for them - it's usually
told the truth about subjects that matter to them, or people who
them, or I've told my own truth, and that inspires them to do
How YOU define leadership will be different from how I define
that's good: we need an ASSORTMENT of leaders. But I'll offer
you two more of
my own guiding principles of leadership, in hopes that this will
your thinking about yourself and the young women or men you mentor.
The first is what I think of as refusing to be subordinate.
I also learned
this in sixth grade, on that crucial cusp between girlhood and
As I mentioned, the girls in sixth grade looked up to me. I
popular with the teachers. One teacher didn't like me at all.
She didn't like
that, after school, I played football with the boys. She didn't
like that my
girlfriends and I wore shorts under our skirts, ready for any
opportunity that might arise.
(I have to interject here that last night, when I was dressing
"black-tie optional" dinner, I realized that I'd forgotten
half-slip I usually wear under my sheer black dress. I searched
suitcase, but I didn't have many clothes to choose from. However,
discover a pair of shorts. So, under my fancy black dress, I wore
a pair of
shorts. Some things never change.)
Anyway, this teacher didn't like me. One time, after lunch
cafeteria, she made me line up with the boys, explaining that
since I was
going to "act like a boy," she was going to treat me
like a boy.
This same teacher was the first person to call me a leader.
She took me
aside in the hall one day and said, "You know, Mariah, you're
a leader, but
you're leading people in the wrong direction."
Another time she accused me, also in the cafeteria, in front
of the whole
fifth and sixth grades, of "silent insubordination."
I wasn't sure what to make this teacher. I was just a 12-year-old
a passion for sports. But my girlfriends thought the whole thing
hilarious, and they helped me laugh about it. In fact I'm still
in touch with
several of these women - we went on to play high school sports
all of us are still athletes - and we still laugh about silent
insubordination, and leading people in the wrong direction. Leaders
friends, I've noticed, and with the support of these girlfriends
thinking about what was going on. I concluded that insubordination,
silent or otherwise, is an important skill for women. For me,
this has become
another defining element of leadership: the refusal to be subordinate.
I was thinking about subordination again a few years ago, when
high school basketball. I was noticing that women often get accustomed
being subordinate, to being second class citizens, to being the
It comes to feel natural to us; it's the water we swim in.
Before I arrived at this high school, there were four coaches
boys, and three for the girls. Then the athletic director hired
me as the
assistant varsity girls' coach. And immediately the men brought
volunteer coaches. So we had four, and they had seven.
But what amazed me - and will probably not amaze you - was
that the girls
still practiced in the "girls'" gym. This was the 1993-1994
girls' gym is half the size of the newer gym - built for the boys.
played GAMES in the big gym, but they practiced in the small gym.
boys practiced and played in the big gym.
Then they hired me. And I said, gee, there's this law called
anyone heard of it? How about if the varsity girls and boys share
gym, and the other kids share the small gym?
What really amazed me was this: None of the other girls' coaches
do it. All three of them were women. Young women, even. But they
COMFORTABLE with the small gym. They thought it was sufficient.
of it as the girls' gym.
I said, What kind of statement is this making to our girls?
They said, Our offices are here, near the girls' gym. If we
the boys' gym, we'll have to carry the balls all the way down
I said, Since when is basketball-transportation a major hardship
And besides, why are your offices near the small gym, and the
the big gym?
Finally we proposed to the boys' head coach that we should
share the big
gym. He said, Okay. He had been at the school for 20 years, ever
IX was passed, so he'd been expecting this for 20 years. He didn't
But nor had he fought FOR us. All those years, and he hadn't
seen it as
his responsibility to give the girls equal access to the big gym.
men, he had not defined leadership as a commitment to justice
So our varsity girls played AND practiced in the big gym. And
The male basketball players, I'll add, were resentful. It was
Priest, Mount Holyoke athletic director, who pointed out to me
girls or women are given equal opportunities, men and boys often
discriminated against. They're so used to having sexist privilege,
like 50/50 is unfair.
As you can see by these stories, if you give yourself permission
if define the rules of the game for yourself; and if you refuse
subordinate, you will have opponents. Some will be women; some
will be men.
It takes courage to deal with these opponents, frankly - though
really, than it takes to be a female athlete in a male-defined
word courage has its roots in the French word, coeur, for heart.
always involves fear - if it's not scary, it doesn't require courage.
courage is when you're afraid, and you act from the heart anyway.
cumulative, I've noticed: the more courageous you are, the more
Still, failure is inevitable. Susan B. Anthony said failure
and she was right, but this is true too: Failure is inevitable.
when you have high expectations for yourself - as leaders should.
from sports that failure is just part of what happens on the way
Yet those of us who have high expectations tend to be very hard
when we fail to meet those expectations. We become our own opponents.
Which leads me to the final guiding principle of leadership
today: Forgive yourself immediately for all mistakes. This is
learned when I entered seventh grade, and met my first real physical
education teacher, Mrs. Bunting. Mrs. Bunting was also my lacrosse,
hockey and basketball coach, and she was the first woman besides
who accepted and encouraged my sports passion. She was very strict,
supportive, and very smart: in the seventh grade, in 1969, in
Pennsylvania, she taught our basketball team two types of full-court
They worked, too.
And she taught us, among many other things, that there's no
time in life
for self-recrimination. When, in basketball for instance, you
miss a shot at
one end of the court, there's not a single second for you to stop
angry with yourself. You have to hustle after the rebound, or,
if the other
team gets it, sprint back down court and play defense. If you
making two mistakes. Basketball is like that: very swift. Life
is like that,
too. It flies by quickly, and for every moment you spend regretting
happened in the past, you're missing a moment of the present.
You can LEARN
from mistakes, but there's no time to get mad at yourself about
have to sprint back down court, ready for life's next adventure,
that may be.
There's a French writer, Emile Zola, who said: "If you
ask me what I came
into this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud."
that. I came to live out loud too. To make my meaning clear, to
truth, to refuse to be subordinate, even in the face of opposition,
from women or men. And also to forgive myself immediately for
mistakes I make along the way.
I can't define leadership for you, or even point you in the
direction, and fortunately you don't need me to. I do encourage
you to give
yourself permission to lead, and to define leadership for yourself
figure out for yourself what it means to be the kind of person
looking up to.
All of you have little girls in your lives - or women, or maybe
and men - who stand around you in a circle, jumping up and down,
hands, waiting for your instruction and inspiration and advice.
"Can I play?"
they ask. Or, "Can I be on your team?" You might know
their names; or you
might not even be able to see these people. But they're there,
looking to you
for permission, for a sense of what's possible. They're looking
to you to
learn how to grow up, how to be women, how to be leaders themselves,
define the world in ways that make sense to them.
Gloria Steinem was right, I believe: we SHOULD look across
to other women,
from a position of mutual respect, teamwork, and support. I also
fine to look UP to each other for inspiration and advice. With
all of you, I
do both: look up to you as my mentors and teachers and across
to you as my
friends and teammates. In particular I'd like to thank Carole
serves as a wise mentor for me - as she has for so many of us
over the years
- and who is also a very dear sister and friend. I've been inspired
befriended by all of you, as well as by NAGWS as a whole. For
all of your
guidance and friendship - as well as for this award - I'm very
Mariah Burton Nelson
Author, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football
Mariah's speech at AAHPERD