That Kind of Character: A History of Resilience & Determination in Govs Girls Athletics

That Kind of Character: A History of Resilience & Determination in Govs Girls Athletics

In 1971, twenty-four girls enrolled at Governor Dummer Academy, ending Govs 200-year history as an all-boys school. With female students eager to compete at the highest levels in athletics, the Academy began to build its girls athletic program. Around the same time, Title IX passed, and the Academy would continue to expand their program in a competitive independent school marketplace. Then and now, Govs female athletes are passionate and fierce competitors, and scores of alumnae have pursued athletics beyond Byfield as players, athletic trainers, coaches, consultants, and entrepreneurs.

Sit in the stands at any Govs track, field, court, or rink—where more than thirty girls and coed athletic teams offer top-level competition for today’s exceptional female athletes—and it may seem unbelievable that this remark by Judge Fitzgerald was made a mere fifty years ago. What’s even more surprising: the statement was part of the Judge’s dismissal of a 1971 lawsuit from female Connecticut athletes who wanted to participate on boys non-contact sports teams, a case that closely predated the passing of Title IX in 1972.

At the same time that this case was being dismissed, history was moving in a different direction here on the Governor Dummer Academy campus. In 1971, twenty-four girls enrolled in the Academy, ending Govs 200-year history as an all-boys school. As for girls athletics? The Academy stated that it would like “the newly enrolled girls to enjoy the advantages of athletic competition.”

This goal, however, was still far in the distance. During the early to mid-1970s, girls changed in their “locker room” in Boynton (a former common room when the building operated as a boys’ dormitory), practiced modern dance in the chapel aisles, and participated in their first official season of interscholastic sports without playing a single game.

After a girls physical education instructor was hired, female athletic opportunities expanded to one sport a season. Still, girls sports were neither thoroughly considered nor implemented in the first five years of admitting girls to the Academy, despite tremendous enthusiasm and athletic potential among the girls.

Although Govs was a private school and therefore not obligated to follow Title IX rules, the school needed to meet the demands of its newly enrolled girls in order to compete in the competitive independent school marketplace. Beginning with lacrosse as its only girls team, the Academy gradually added new options. By 1976, girls had at least two choices per season, and by 1979, the girls lacrosse team won the ISL Championship (becoming the first in a long line of Govs girls championship teams).

One of the outstanding athletes from this team was Sue Perry ’81, who went on to become Govs first female athletic director and an early inductee to The Governor’s Academy Athletic Hall of Fame.

In a 1992 Archon article, Perry described her struggles during her tenure, including one instance in which a man arrived in her office asking, “Who’s the guy in charge here?” Another man remarked, “Don’t you want to be someone’s secretary?” Despite these moments, Perry also mentioned one of the Academy’s major strengths that still exists today—that we “learn a great deal from the past, both the things we did well and the things we did not do well.”

Today’s female athletes and coaches benefit from the hard-won advancements of those who came before them. Perry’s athletic leadership was followed by subsequent women Bert McLain P’07,’09 (1999–2017) and Claudia Barcomb (2017–present).

As director of afternoon programs from 1999 to 2017 (and as one of only two female directors in the ISL), McLain described a very different experience from Perry’s, saying she was “pleasantly surprised by the respect that I was given.” She added that, in taking the job, she believed “it was important to represent the female side,” which had not always been given equal attention. Part of this meant advocating for equality in resources dedicated to girls athletics. When a donor wanted to update baseball field during her tenure, McLain argued that the baseball field could not be renovated unless similar work was done for the softball team. As a result, the softball field was relocated and renovated.

Current Director of Afternoon Programs Claudia Barcomb said advocating for female athletes is easier now than it was in the past, particularly at the secondary school level. She noted that things such as practice times, facilities, and equipment are more Equitable because, at Govs today, “there are people that believe in that, which is incredibly important.”

Govs current female athletes not only have access to better facilities, equipment, and opportunities for high-level competition, but also strong adult and older-peer role models.

Over the past fifty years, Govs has gone from one female coach for all the girls teams to having the majority of girls teams coached by female faculty members, with six varsity teams having women at the helm.

Govs female athletes appreciate these mentors, including their fellow students. Erin Ohlenbusch ’23 credited her teams’ captains for modeling how to meet responsibilities on the field, the ice, and in the classroom. “Looking up to the seniors, I noticed how much time they would spend in the library in between classes… [I saw that] it’s cool to go to the library… That’s where all my friends go because we all have additional athletic commitments outside of school.”

Ohlenbusch also explained the importance of her coaches’ support of her as both an athlete and a student. When she chose to decline a field hockey athletic scholarship in order to pursue her dream of becoming a speechwriter, she said, “I was a little nervous going to my coaches and saying, ‘After everything you’ve done for me, I’m not going to play field hockey in college’... But to be greeted with such happiness for me was awesome… Everyone was just as supportive.’”

Like Ohlenbusch, Callie Batchelder ’23, a four-year varsity athlete on two teams, appreciates Govs’ supportive athletic environment. Batchelder, who will be continuing her lacrosse career at Harvard next year, insists that “academics always come first for me… When I’m a better student, I perform better in sports.” Asked about her identity as a female athlete, Batchelder embraced the challenge. “You have to prove yourself as a female athlete, more so than men do, but seeing role models around here like Ms. Fitzgerald starting the women’s hockey team, tells you that it can be done.”

In more recent years, athletic opportunities have further increased for Govs girls. Varsity wrestling, which began with only a few girls, has grown into a popular winter sport for female athletes. Roughly one-quarter of the wrestling team is female, including junior Xavia Banigan ’24, who placed second in the women’s division at the New England Preparatory School Wrestling Association Championships and third in the women’s division at the National Prep Wrestling Championships during her first year.

“I remember not wanting to cut the tags off my wrestling shoes because I really did not want to commit,” she said about her early days in the program. “But after I won my first match, I realized that I like this feeling of winning.” Just one year later, she is a starter who pairs up against whichever opponent is the best in her weight class, regardless of gender, and is a two-time All-American.

While tremendous progress has been made since 1971, what is more exciting is the expanding landscape of opportunities for female athletes in the future.

Perhaps when those first female students were getting changed in their Boynton locker room they could not have envisioned today’s coeducational athletic and campus life. Or maybe they could … and that’s why they were able to pave the way for others.