After a year and a half of legal arm-wrestling, the city’s offer of four softball fields for a suburban girls league may not seem like much. But experts, steeped in a quarter-century of battles to level the playing field for women, say it was.
Since 1972, when Congress passed a federal statute known as Title IX that banned sex discrimination in public and private education, most skirmishes have played out at schools and universities.
But the federal lawsuit filed last year by the West Valley Girls Softball League was something different, propelling the fight for gender equity into a new arena.
Rather than demanding equality in schools, the young softball players and their parents--fed up with games on shabby fields while boys played ball on lush, manicured turf--insisted on equal treatment at the hands of a municipality. The city of Los Angeles settled the civil rights suit without admitting fault last week, agreeing to pay the league $100,000 to construct four fields.
“It’s a big deal,” said Neena Chaudhry, of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. “I think it will send a signal to recreation departments and other associations throughout the country that they can’t treat girls as second-class citizens.”
The frustrations of the West Valley Girls Softball League are echoed by girls teams across the nation, according to attorneys and advocates for women’s sports. Each year as the weather warms in East Meadow, N.Y., the phones at the Women’s Sports Foundation start ringing.
“We have an advocacy hotline, and when spring comes around ... there is no question that we have tons of calls about the unavailability of facilities or the lack of adequate facilities for girls in sports,” said Donna Lopiano, the foundation’s executive director. “We find that the city facilities problem is a very serious one, because most cities are siting fields based on previous use.”
And previous use too often means the most desirable fields go to boys, advocates say. If boys have played ball at the same city park for decades--as was the case in Los Angeles--any attempt to divvy up space along new lines is likely to cause a stir.
In Los Angeles, public playgrounds have long afforded different opportunities to boys and girls.
According to Ellen DuBois, a UCLA history professor who wrote a report for the plaintiffs in the softball lawsuit, when the first city playgrounds opened at the turn of the century, boys were given fields for baseball, handball, basketball and other play equipment. The girls got swings, seesaws and maypoles, and were steered toward sports like croquet and tennis.
Despite major advances in women’s athletics--and studies that have shown that athletic activity improves girls’ mental and physical health--gender stereotypes have persisted, said Michael Messner, an associate professor of sociology and gender studies at USC.
“There are lingering attitudes that can’t be legislated by law,” Messner said. “There’s a sort of inertia there. Despite the enthusiasm for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team or the WNBA, that inertia continues in giving more resources to boys and men, more fields and more equipment, whether it’s in schools or in public parks.”
Because the West Valley case was settled out of court, it did not set a legal precedent. Still, legal observers say the case was a landmark that built on the momentum of earlier legal advances for women.
“My hope is that it will in fact prevent lawsuits, that other cities will look at Los Angeles and examine their own practices,” said Martha Davis, legal director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.
In Los Angeles, the lawsuit had an impact beyond the 500 girls who play softball in the West Valley league.
In response to the suit, the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks launched an innovative “Raise the Bar” program in February to attract more girls to city-run athletics, an initiative the girls’ attorneys helped develop and continue to monitor.
The program set specific goals, such as increasing female participation in municipal sports by 10% this year and by 25% next year. The Los Angeles settlement may also serve as a model for girls leagues nationwide.
On Bainbridge Island, a suburb of Seattle, a mother whose son plays baseball and daughter plays softball kept a close eye on the California lawsuit. That mother, Kim Koenig, is also a lawyer specializing in gender discrimination cases. She is now considering filing a federal lawsuit against Little League Baseball, which runs both the baseball and softball programs in her town.
“They have provided the baseball component--which is predominantly boys--with the nice green fields. They have a scoreboard, bleachers and a P.A. system,” she said. “What they gave to softball players is a field trampled by football players all fall. There’s a goal post at second base.”
Koenig said she has already used Los Angeles’ “Raise the Bar” program to create a proposal to revamp Little League.
Paula Pearlman, an attorney at the California Women’s Law Center who represented the West Valley girls, called the Los Angeles case an important advance for gender equity.
“What we’ve seen is Title IX is too narrow because it doesn’t cover parks, clubs, private Little Leagues and all these other organizations in our society that provide athletic opportunities for girls,” she said, adding that the recent settlement goes a step further.
“That’s what’s so significant to me,” she said. “It’s this continuum. You can’t discriminate in schools, you can’t discriminate in the workplace, and now you can’t discriminate in our public institutions and parks.”