In the pivotal summer of 1972, Marie Jean Mulvaneythe chair of the women’s physical education department at the University of Chicago, went to the admissions office to point out that the university had an athletic scholarship for men named after Amos Alonzo StaggHall of Fame football coach and innovator, but no equivalent for women.
This fall, the University of Chicago established the Gertrude Dudley Scholarship, named after the administrator who came to Windy City in 1898 and quickly established organized sports for women in the school.
The scholarship made national headlines while Title IX, enacted that same summer of 1972, would bring significant changes to college sports in the following years.
The Dudley Scholarship has been touted by the media as “what may be the nation’s first academic and athletic scholarship for women”.
Wayland Baptist University in Texas previously had stock market female basketball players. Some female track athletes from Tennessee State’s famed Tigerbelles program were given paid jobs before the Title IX era. Also in early 1973, the University of Miami began awarding women’s athletic scholarships.
Thus, the University of Chicago calls Dudley the first nationally announced athletic scholarship for women. (There was previously a Dudley Scholarship at Dudley’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke, a private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, for a “fit” student.)
Parade magazine, inserted in Sunday papers across the country, mentioned the University of Chicago scholarship in its March 18, 1973, issue. Headlined “For Girls Only,” the article ended by telling readers how to apply in writing.
Mulvaney, who died in 2019, said she received “bags and bags and bags of nominations”, depending on the university. Reports for 1973 indicated over 1,000 applicants.
Initially intended for a single recipient, the school ended up choosing two because of the interest: Noel Baireya nationally ranked swimmer from Modesto, California who graduated from high school in three years, and Laura Silvieus, a basketball and softball standout (and class president and valedictorian) from Kingsville, Ohio. Neither of them remembered what the application entailed.
They were mentioned in The New York Times. Bairey, now Bairey Merz, was on the cover of Parade with the title “Our female athletes achieve a new status”.
“My high school had just started offering sports for women,” Silvieus said by phone. “So to learn that there was a full scholarship to play sports?” Sign me up. I had five brothers and sisters from a small town and there was not much money to pay for school. So it felt like a dream.
Bairey Merz and Silvieus said they had no Title IX in mind when they received the scholarship in 1973.
“It preceded the Title IX breakthrough,” Bairey Merz said. “We played a little part, being those early athletic colleges, and the University of Chicago played a part. It wasn’t Stanford. It wasn’t Harvard. It wasn’t USC.
It was Mulvaney, the women agreed.
“Noel and I were just actors on stage, and she was the director,” Silvieus said.
Bairey Merz recalled Mulvaney standing six feet tall with sleek, styled hair and always wearing a skirt and pearls.
“She was a bit of a barnstormer,” Bairey Merz said. “She would walk into the room and kind of take over.”
Even though both women had their tuition paid, there were still disparities when they enrolled.
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“It just didn’t occur to me that they would give you the scholarship and not provide you with the resources,” Bairey Merz said. “The men were able to go to all these big meets, and they got fed, and they got the Speedo suits, and they got training gear, and the women got nothing.
“The first year, the swimming coach was also the badminton coach, and she was also a chain smoker. They decided that the coach would take me to these meetings, which she really wanted. She would chain smoke all the time. So I sat on the passenger side with the window open in the middle of winter.
The swimmers received a bus the following year, Bairey Merz said.
Bairey Merz and Silvieus graduated and continued their studies. Silvieus earned his MBA in Chicago and later ran a law firm.
Bairey Merz thinks that if she hadn’t gotten the Dudley Scholarship, she probably would have stayed in the state and gone to the University of California, Davis.
A degree from the University of Chicago helped her get into Harvard Medical School, launching a career that saw her become director of the Cedars-Sinai Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center in Los Angeles.
Shortly after the University of Chicago established the Dudley, women’s athletic scholarships proliferated.
The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which governed women’s varsity sports before the NCAA took over in 1982, banned athletic scholarships until a lawsuit in 1973. Hall of Fame basketball player fame Anne Meyers is often cited as the first major female athlete with a college scholarship, enrolling at UCLA in 1974.
Who knows what impact the University of Chicago, which became an NCAA Division III program, had on what was to come. What is clear is that he was ahead of his time, if only by a few months.
“There has been a lot of publicity around this scholarship,” Silvieus said. “And I think that made other schools and women think.”
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