Paying Homage To The Female Athletes Who Blazed The Way In Sports

Jan 1, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we're going to hear about another kind of big break. There's a new book out that puts a spotlight on the long-forgotten stories of dozens of women who fought to break through the glass ceiling of sports. The book is called "Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines Of Sports History." NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji has more.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: This book is dedicated to all the women who were forever told no. That's how filmmaker Molly Schiot opens her book "Game Changers," a book inspired by her own battles with no.

MOLLY SCHIOT: So I was pitching stories to a major sports network.

MERAJI: Stories she wanted to make into documentaries for that sports network.

SCHIOT: They were all about women. And I was just told this one isn't interesting enough or this one doesn't really resonate with us or try something else.

MERAJI: Molly put the rejections in a folder...

SCHIOT: That was called failed pitches to a major sports network.

MERAJI: ...And got angry. That anger compelled her to collect even more of these stories. And she found them hidden in dusty old books at the Los Angeles Public Library.

SCHIOT: Books that, like, nobody's ever opened in - like, since the '60s.

MERAJI: She scanned the photos she found and posted them to Instagram with long captions, dusting off these old stories for a new generation under the handle @theunsungheroines. That eventually became this coffee table book. On page 224, you'll meet Linda Jefferson, a running back for the 1975 Toledo Troopers and one of only four women inducted into the American Football Association's Hall of Fame. Or get acquainted with Florence Barnes on page 150. She convinced a World War I vet to teach her to fly and in 1930 took Amelia Earhart's title as fastest woman on earth. And on page 280, say hello to the women who made all this possible.

SCHIOT: The spring pad to the Instagram feed, which later became the book, was the first story that I ever pitched. And it's based off of the Wake-Robin Golf Club.

PAULETTE SAVOY: Well, any time you're in a book and somebody says you were the inspiration for the book, well, I mean, you know, that's just fabulous.

MERAJI: Paulette Savoy's been a member of the Wake-Robin Golf Club since 1985, but it was founded about 50 years prior by wives tired of staying at home while their husbands teed up on the weekends. Wake-Robin is the first black women's golf club in the United States.

WINNIE STANFORD: The white golfers, they weren't used to seeing black women play golf. And a lot of times they used to hit the ball into our foursome.

MERAJI: Ninety-three-year-old Winnie Stanford is one of Wake-Robin's oldest members.

STANFORD: You had to make up your mind if you were going to play golf. You were - just had to put up with it as long as no one got hurt.

MERAJI: The club fought to desegregate the D.C. public golf courses. And in those early years, they put up with overt racism and sexism. And while they were fighting for integration, they played at the Langston Golf Course, an old dump the city set aside for black golfers in 1939.

SAVOY: When people were playing, sometimes they had to move junk out of the way in order to hit the ball. But at least it was our golf course and we weren't bothered.

MERAJI: That's Paulette again. She and Jean Miller, one of Wake-Robin's most decorated golfers, say things changed a lot by the time they stepped onto the green. They didn't experience the same kind of harassment Winnie dealt with early on. But then again, they're a couple decades younger.

SAVOY: Well, Winnie and I will tell you the truth. You'll never get an age out of Jean (laughter).

MERAJI: Jean's in four different clubs. She travels the world playing golf and considers herself a fierce competitor. But she says there's nothing like Wake-Robin.

JEAN MILLER: It's like coming home. Yeah, there's a whole lot of history behind this club. I'm just so grateful that they accepted me in the group.

MERAJI: Molly Schiot's the first to agree there's a whole lot of history there. And it deserves more than a page in her book.

SCHIOT: My whole pipe dream from the start was to bring their story to life.

MERAJI: And she's not taking no for an answer. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.