Look How Far We've Come
If you were a girl in the 1960s (or earlier) and you wanted to play organized sports, your options were limited at best. Title IX of the Higher Education Act was enacted in 1972, prompting change at the local, regional, and national levels. At USM, change was also initiated by girls who shattered norms and broke barriers, and the coaches, administrators, and parents who supported them. They laid the groundwork so that the student athletes who followed could focus on the game.
To say that Mya Hartjes ’23 is a phenomenal athlete would be an understatement. In 2023, the diminutive powerhouse finished her senior year at University School of Milwaukee with a long list of awards and accolades under her belt. On the basketball court, she scored her 1,500th career point in February, making her the second-highest scorer in USM basketball history. She was twice named the Midwest Classic Conference’s player of the year. In cross country, she was a four-time state qualifier, finished in the top 10 twice, and set the school record for the fastest time in a 5K race at 18 minutes, 48 seconds.
As a junior, she started running track and field. In her first year on USM’s team, she set three records and took 3rd in the mile race and 4th in the two-mile run at state. Hartjes grew up competing with her older brothers and her father. She had the intense drive and desire to play sports, as well as the opportunity to choose from more than a dozen varsity girls’ sports at USM.
Connie Meek ’65 is also a phenomenal athlete. As a USM student, she played all three organized sports available to her: field hockey, volleyball, and basketball (boys at the time had seven), and won the best senior athlete award. As an undergraduate at Hood College, she was a four-sport athlete in field hockey, basketball, lacrosse, and swimming. In the 1970s, she returned to USM to coach numerous girls sports, while simultaneously competing as a distance runner and cross-country skier. She has run the Bellin 10k in Green Bay, Wisconsin every year since its inception in 1977, and completed her 38th American Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon in 2022. In 2008, she was inducted into Hood College's Hall of Fame as the athlete of the decade for the 1960s.
While both are gifted athletes, Hartjes had more girls’ teams to choose from, and greater access to practice spaces, coaches, uniforms, equipment, and transportation. What Meek was able to accomplish in 1965 is nothing short of incredible. “Every girl who is playing sports at USM today, and there are many of them, owes Connie Meek a thank you,” said Sue Baker, Upper School physical education and health teacher and varsity volleyball coach. “Well before Title IX of the Higher Education Act in 1972, Connie was proving that girls can and should play sports.”
But Meek wasn’t the only woman to pave the way. Marion Chester Read MDS’37 played multiple sports while attending Milwaukee Downer Seminary (MDS; one of USM’s three predecessor schools), and went on to earn 20 varsity letters in four years in tennis, field hockey, softball, swimming, and basketball at Bryn Mawr College. Alice Kieckhefer Fajen MDS’44 lettered in all three varsity sports recognized at the time by MDS, and won an intercollegiate tennis championship in the late 1940s while attending Smith College. While these women’s accomplishments are impressive, it’s hard not to wonder what they might have achieved had they been born 50 years later.
As a child, Meek, like Hartjes, relished playing sports with her family and neighborhood friends. “I remember shooting a lot of basketball in the driveway, and playing a lot of baseball,” she said. Meek was a strong athlete compared to her male and female peers, but her options to play organized sports were, as with many girls of the era, limited. “It was extremely disheartening when the boys could go on to play Little League and things like that, and there was nothing for me. So I did a lot of sports on my own as best I could.”
Female athletes at Milwaukee University School (MUS; another of USM’s predecessor schools, which Meek attended starting in 1960 as an 8th grade student) could join one of two varsity sports: field hockey or basketball. All girls were assigned to either a blue team or a white team and could participate in field hockey, basketball, volleyball, swimming, and soccer on an intramural basis. But limited space on the MUS campus meant girls got short shrift to boys. “MUS had one field, and we were only allowed to practice on it when the football team didn’t need it,” said Meek. “And maybe we could have our games on Saturday morning if there wasn’t any football going on.” For uniforms, girls wore their gym suits, with collared blouse-type shirts and no roster numbers. Their seasons were brief, and the girls’ teams followed specific rules determining how strenuous the competition could be.
Students at MDS, which was an all-girls school, had more options. There, long-running organized teams included field hockey, basketball, volleyball, and even baseball in some years, with a plethora of club-like offerings in tennis, Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, badminton, swimming, and archery, to name a few. The robust athletic program at MDS was largely thanks to Dorothy Weisel, who taught gym, headed the athletic association, and coached every sport at the school until her retirement in 1963.
When the three predecessor schools (MDS, MUS, and Milwaukee Country Day School) merged in 1964, the boys stayed on the old MUS campus and the girls were moved to the north campus on Fairy Chasm Road. As a result, Meek’s experience her senior year improved immensely. “We had a field, we had a gym, and we didn’t have to share with anybody. It was fantastic. It was, I’m sure, my happiest year of high school. And it just reiterated the fact that I wanted to go to a women’s college that had an athletic program.”
After graduating from Hood College in 1969, Meek returned to USM in 1971, where she taught physical education and coached (at the varsity and junior varsity levels) field hockey, volleyball, and basketball. When Title IX was enacted a year later, it didn’t take long for Meek and others to start noticing improvements in girls’ sports. Meek was able to order new uniforms for the sports she coached, as well as new equipment, and eventually she was given a dedicated field with permanent goal cages for field hockey. “Things weren’t perfect, but the administration was pretty darn good at standing behind me,” said Meek.
"It was extremely disheartening when the boys could go on to play Little League and things like that, and there was nothing for me."
Connie Meek '65
Girls’ sports offeringS steadily grew, along with participation. In the early 1970s, USM launched a girls’ tennis team, coached by the late Jim Laing, followed shortly thereafter by a softball team (initially coached by Meek, followed by then-Upper School History Teacher John “J.S.” Stephens), a girls’ track and field team, and a gymnastics team. In 1980, the school added a girls’ soccer team coached by then-Upper School History Teacher Steve Bruemmer. But there were still some inconsistencies. Record-keeping for both genders was spotty, but especially for girls. As a senior, Kate Elsner ’75 won an award for athletics, which was renamed the Marion Chester Read Sportsmanship Award in 1977. Names were added to the trophy, which currently sits in USM’s Quadracci Lobby, starting in the 1977–78 school year, but any prior award winners, Elsner included, were lost to history.
“I think my generation of women, and women before me, are lost in the records totally,” said Elsner. Records for the Henry H. Uihlein Sportsmanship Award, given to boys, date back to the 1963–64 school year. Spectators and funding for female sports were comparatively low, both at USM and schools throughout the country. And some sports, like football and hockey, were strictly off-limits to girls.
“I remember nearly causing a riot my senior year when I threatened to try out for the boys’ varsity hockey team,” said Margy Stratton ’84. A figure skater for many years, Stratton longed to play hockey. But there were no formal opportunities for girls in the Milwaukee area at the time. Even when she got to college, the options for women were limited. Her first experience playing the sport was on an intramural team at Yale University, where she and one other woman played for all four years. When enrolled in graduate school, she continued playing in a men’s league hockey while pursuing her MBA. “My opportunities didn’t just transform overnight,” she said. “I had to keep pushing my way into the men’s hockey world just so that I could play.”
Although Stratton competed in field hockey, soccer, and gymnastics at USM, the hockey snub still stings. “I don’t feel like ‘woe is me,’ but I think I would’ve really enjoyed it because I loved the sport,” she said. “Nobody wanted to take anything away from the boys, we just wanted the same opportunities to play and compete.”
That particular ice ceiling was broken in 1992, when Angela Donovan ’96 became the first girl to play on USM’s varsity hockey team, under then-head coach and USM Athletic Director Lowell McDonald. Donovan remembers the coaching staff and her teammates being supportive. “My coaches and teammates were great; it was usually my opponents who would come after me because I was a girl,” she said. “There were times I felt like I was targeted and pushed around a bit. But I could hold my own.”
As word began to spread that Donovan was playing on the boys’ team, interest in starting a girls’ team grew. In 1994, Donovan’s mother, Debra, joined forces with Liz Krieg ’79, then-varsity field hockey coach and USM College Guidance counselor, to start a club hockey team for girls. With further assistance from Kip Jacobs ’74, then-director of athletics at USM, the club became the varsity girls’ hockey team in 1999, and later became a WIAA co-op team in 2005. The co-op, which had teams from several nearby high schools join and leave over the years, won its first WIAA state championship in 2015, finishing the season on a 15-game winning streak.
"Nobody wanted to take anything away from the boys, we just wanted the same opportunities to play and compete."
Margy Stratton '84
Donovan was recruited by several college teams and ultimately attended Northeastern University in Boston, where she played on the Division 1 school’s conference championship team. “Thinking back to my time at USM on the boys’ team, I don’t think I realized how big of an impact I was making. But now, looking back, I see that it was the start of something much bigger. It makes me proud that I could be a role model for the younger generations and thrilled with the progress girls’ and women’s ice hockey has made today.”
Since Meek’s time, the USM Athletics program has steadily worked to make girls’ and boys’ sports more equitable at the school. The athletic administration saw the addition of many girls’ teams, female coaches, and two female assistant athletic directors, Kate Mouton ’02 and Sue Baker, who both also served as the Middle School athletic director. The Middle School athletics program has grown to include both interscholastic and intramural offerings, with co-ed options (depending on grade level) in flag football, cross country, tennis, track and field, and soccer.
USM’s current athletic administration, including Tim Williams, director of athletics, and Ivan Guzman, assistant director of athletics, continually work to ensure equitable scheduling of the school’s indoor and outdoor practice facilities, maintain diverse coach hiring, improve the collection and documentation of athletic awards, and ensure balanced access to funding and facilities, as well as equitable promotion of teams and players. With 24 varsity programs, 17 junior varsity programs, and hundreds of athletes in the Upper School alone, it’s a big task. “I think back in the 1960s, USM was probably typical of a lot of schools,” said Williams. “But it’s different now.
We work hard to make sure things are proportional and equitable for both genders. And I give a lot of credit to the coaches, who are great at sharing spaces, etc. It doesn’t matter if it’s for boys or girls, we’re all part of USM athletics.”
The work being carried out today by USM’s coaches and administrators is a continuation of what was started decades earlier by women like Kieckhefer Fajen, Meek, and Donovan, not to mention the countless mothers and fathers who pushed for change at USM and beyond. “When I come to work, I’m constantly reminded of the women who came before me,” said Jaime McGaver ’99, who is the assistant athletic director for compliance at Marquette University, and was herself an award-winning college athlete. “I’ve worked at the college level for 15 years and I’ve seen a lot of improvement in that time. But I also see female head coaches struggling with things that don’t impact their male counterparts as much, like taking maternity leave or scheduling practices around child care. Society as a whole has come so far, but we still have further to go.”
Many chapters have been added to the story of girls’ sports at USM over the years, and it’s nowhere near finished. And while we gladly celebrate all of today’s athletes regardless of skill, it’s important to recognize and honor the women who competed long before it was the norm. They are the reason athletes like Mya Hartjes can play, let alone win and set records. Theirs are the shoulders upon which girls today stand.
University School of Milwaukee’s Athletic Hall of Fame was established in 2016 to honor those individuals who have made a lasting impression on our community. Hall of Fame inductees include players like Alice Kieckhefer Fajen MDS’44 (inducted in 2019) and Connie Meek ’65 (inducted in 2022), as well as coaches, teams, and distinguished contributors from USM and its three predecessor schools.
Visit www.usm.org/hof to read about the current inductees, and watch videos celebrating their accomplishments. In addition, we invite you to nominate someone who you feel has positively impacted the USM athletic community, whether through athletic accomplishments or support from the sidelines, via the nomination form on the website.
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