From Harvard Soccer and Title IX to First-Time Author
Thinking about sports equity would be incomplete without recognizing that it has sometimes been necessary to pass laws to ensure equality. In 1972, Title IX was passed in order to prohibit gender discrimination in federal education funding. This means that education institutions had to provide equal access to sports to both girls and boys. Originally from California, Susie LeLellis Petrucelli played soccer for Harvard University. Now raising three kids in New York and actively advocating for gender issues, Susie recently published Raised a Warrior: One Woman’s Soccer Odyssey. This novel chronicles Susie’s personal journey to play soccer in a world dominated by male sports and highlights the role that Title IX played in securing equal access for girls. Susie and I had a zoom interview to discuss her new book.
Your novel chronicles your personal story and struggle to conform to society’s expectations. Can you talk about the single biggest obstacle you had to overcome? “We are all faced with expectations that come from all around us in different ways. Our parents put them on us, we see things on tv, in magazines, and we assume we are supposed to fit into a certain mold. For me, it took five or six years to realize that being a girl meant I was different from boys. I grew up in a family where we idolized American football, basketball and baseball players in LA. Our teams were the Dodgers, the Lakers, and the Rams. This childhood created the first barrier in my life, but at the time it was just a gut feeling of unfairness. I wanted to play football and baseball and all these sports I grew up loving with my family, but I was told no. Luckily I was born in 1974 when women were first being allowed to play soccer. AYSL started to let girls play in my neighborhood a few years after I was born when I was at the perfect age to start. I had these barriers, but it’s almost as if I bounced off them. I started playing soccer and I was happy. However, this didn’t permanently fix that gut feeling of unfairness I had, especially as I got older. For example, one night at the dinner table my dad and grandmother were talking about who would take over the family business. My grandmother suggested that me and my sister take over but my dad said “I can’t give the business to one of the girls.” He didn’t say it with malicious intent, it was just the truth at the time. However, I remember it hit me so deeply and was such a stab in the heart. Nobody ever said anything and that’s just the way things were.”
Do you think that society is any easier today for a young athletic girl to love, be accepted and excel at sports with the support of her family and community? “Yes it is easier today and I think a lot of that has to do with Title IX which was passed in 1972. It’s been contested and overturned twice, but for the most part it’s revolutionized the youth sports landscape. That wave has had ripple effects all over the world. However, a lot of the benefits we’ve seen are still confined to this middle class sports culture in the United States. We still have a long way to go outside of this country and with members of the lower class. These middle class families have the resources to get their kids on teams and even travel if necessary, which is a luxury not everyone can afford.”
Let’s talk about Title IX which paved the way for equal access to sports for girls. Right now, in our society, we are seeing that history sometimes gets forgotten or is underappreciated. For example, much of the country has only recently learned about Juneteenth which had not been taught in schools. How do you think that learning about Title IX can affect young girls who are interested in sports? Should schools teach more about Title IX so girls can understand the history? “One of the reasons I wrote the book was because I felt like I was almost blindsided when I was in college. It was only when I was at Harvard that I realized the reason I was able to pursue my high academic and athletic goals was because of Title IX. I was benefiting from Title IX my whole life without even knowing it existed or appreciating the people who fought for it. After I heard about it and it started to dawn on me how important it was to my life, I started asking people if I was the only one who didn’t know about this law. The general consensus I received is that it was mostly unknown to the majority of people. In general, there are so many parts of history we are not taught; the school system focuses on a very filtered white upper class version of history. We don’t hear about Native American history, Black history, Women’s history and many other topics that are excluded. This shocked me and as I said before, it became a major reason I wrote this book. So definitely I’d love to see that Title IX was taught more in school.”
Overall, what do you hope your book does for girls and women who read it? “My original hope for it was that people would learn the history of Title IX and the backstory of women’s sports history as it fits into overall women’s history. I wanted to express this history through a more human story in which a wider group of people could connect with. That’s why I open up the book by pretty much laying my soul out for readers in the first part of the book. In the hopes that by sharing so much of myself, people will connect and create their own desire to read through to the last third of the book which talks about more of the history and Title IX. As far as my personal side of the story, it’s also about letting people know it’s ok to be vulnerable and open up to small insecurities you wish to hide.”
I know that you are actively advocating for gender equity in sports through many other projects. Could you highlight some of your work and the issues you are trying to address? “Right now I’m working with Kely Nascimento on her film which is the most important thing I’m doing right now. With that we want to expose people to more of the history and status of women’s soccer around the world.”
Parts of this interview have been condensed.
I keep going back to my question about what schools do and do not teach. Susie became aware of Title IX’s role in the history of gender/sports while in college and Americans started to understand the history of Juneteenth through social media last month. There is a strong argument for advocating for a more diverse school curriculum that brings in “other” histories. In June 2020, Governor Cuomo declared Juneteenth a state holiday. However, having a holiday is not enough – will schools teach its history? How can schools be motivated to teach about Title IX? Perhaps Susie’s book can be put on high school required reading lists.