Sue Macy on Women in Sports, Feminism, and the Impact of Title IX

Sue Macy, whose books center on the intersection of women's history and sports, discusses the impact of Title IX, feminism, and why she writes about real-life heroines.
Sue Macy is the author of 16 books for children and young adults, many of them focusing on women's history and sports, including Bull's-Eye: A Photobiography of Annie Oakley, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom, Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber, and Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century. What were some of your favorite books growing up?

Portrait of the author as a young reader. [Photo courtesy of Sue Macy.]

I grew up as a newspaper reader more than a book reader, but in middle grade I discovered Scholastic’s book clubs, and I loved so many of those books. I remember The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey and Julie’s Heritage by Catherine Marshall and Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan and Helen Keller’s Teacher by Mickie Davidson. In fact, I still have them all. I guess I liked a mixture of historical fiction, inspiring biographies, and kid adventure stories. You’ve written extensively about women in sports. What was your own experience with sports when you were young? When I was a kid, there weren’t many opportunities for girls to play sports at school, outside of gym class. But I went to summer camp and that’s where I fell in love with all sorts of athletic activities. I first learned to swim when I was about five years old and I have been swimming ever since. I also played softball and volleyball. At home, my dad used to pitch a rubber softball to my friends and me on our driveway. I once smacked a line drive that broke the glass in my neighbor’s lamppost. I was very proud of that. A lot of younger women do not know the full impact that Title IX had on women’s educational opportunities. What do you feel is the most important result of Title IX? Title IX does not just apply to sports. It guarantees male and female students equal opportunities in all aspects of education at schools that receive federal funds. But its impact on women’s sports is undeniable. In 1970, there were virtually no college sports scholarships for women. Thanks to Title IX, today there are approximately 85,000. More schools—colleges and high schools—have teams for women in a much larger variety of sports than in the 1970s. Girls play school sports as a matter of course, and that helps them become more physically fit, more confident, and better able to contribute in all kinds of situations later in life including business, where being a “team player” is an important skill. Ultimately, the opportunities Title IX has brought about for women have empowered them in all aspects of life. While you write a lot of biographies, Wheels of Change and Motor Girls are more about societal movements than a person. Is it hard to “shift gears” from focusing on individuals? Is the research much more difficult? It’s actually harder for me to write biographies than social histories. I studied U.S. history in college and was trained to try to look at the big picture, the underlying causes and effects behind moments in history, and the impact one invention or event or trend might have on future generations. I love researching those social history books because I can find little straightforward news clips that perfectly illustrate the points I am trying to make. It’s like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. In biographies, you have to figure out the pace of a person’s life and weigh how much space each portion of that individual’s life should take in your book. Since every person is different, there are no guidelines to follow. You have to construct a different outline for each biography. I find that very challenging! Young readers often have trouble imagining the world being different from their own experience. How do you keep that perspective in mind while you work? What have you found to be the most effective ways to paint an informative picture of another time period? Primary sources help a lot. That includes newspaper articles, photographs, advertisements, artifacts, and all other items from the period I’m writing about. Motor Girls and Wheels of Change have a scrapbook quality that I really love, because you can both read about the time period I’m describing and look at items from that period. When I was growing up my father subscribed to This Fabulous Century from Time-Life Books. It was a continuity series that dedicated one book to each decade of the 20th century, through 1970, when it was being published. Those books also had a scrapbook quality, and I absolutely devoured them. Before I started writing books I convinced my dad to let me take the whole series to my house. I still use them every time I start a new project. You've written both picture books and longer works for middle grade readers. Do you know what the format of your books will be before you begin your research, or does the information you find determine the finished product? In most cases, I decide on a book’s format before I start the serious research. I may do preliminary research just to get an idea of the scope of the story, but I usually approach a topic with the format already determined. I’m fairly new to picture books. I’ve done only four, as opposed to a dozen middle grade or YA books. But I like that format if I want to focus on one moment in time, such as Gertrude Ederle’s 1926 swim across the English Channel (in Trudy’s Big Swim), or if I want to do a biography of someone I think would "speak" to younger kids such as sports reporter Mary Garber (in Miss Mary Reporting). You’ve said that competing in sports is the ultimate feminist act. In some circles, feminism has some negative connotations. What reply would you have to a young woman who claims she is “not a feminist”? For me, who came of age in the 1970s, declaring that I was a feminist was an act of pride and defiance, and I did and do embrace that term proudly. Throughout my life, I’ve watched women fight for the right to hold certain jobs, get promotions, play sports, control their own bodies, and generally gain the respect and recognition we deserve. I know that young people today grew up with the fruits of our labors, but as we’ve seen in recent months, equal pay, respect, health care, and opportunities are still not a sure thing for girls and women. If you’re upset about that reality, you’re thinking like a feminist, even if you don’t like the term. The last year has been a very interesting one in terms of women’s issues. Do you think that these events will motivate people to write and publish more books about women’s issues for middle graders?  I think so, and I think the books will be written by people of more diverse backgrounds than in the past. Publishing programs do reflect what’s going on in society. Look at how nonfiction for kids on LGBT topics has been expanding in recent years since marriage equality became the law of the land and issues facing trans people became more prominent in the news. Have you considered writing books about influential women, in sports or other fields, who are still alive? Do you have any particular people on your wish list?  I like having a little historical perspective when I write, and it would be a different type of challenge writing about someone who’s still living, especially if it’s a biography. But I never say never. It would be neat to interview past and present female sports stars, maybe for a series of articles, rather than a book. I’ve been lucky to meet many of them through my work, but it would be interesting to sit down and talk. Martina [Navratilova] and Billie Jean King and Mia Hamm would be at the top of my list. Do you have any upcoming projects that teachers and librarians should have on their radar? I’m hoping to continue my thematic look at women’s history by focusing on the 1920s, this time through the lens of sports. Sports helped women express their newfound freedoms in that decade, but there was pushback from some surprising places. I think it’s an interesting way to consider the changing role of women in U.S. society at that time.

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