Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kit Saunders-Nordeen and justice for girls’ sports
UW-Madison’s first director of women’s athletics turns 80 today.
A remarkable story about girls’ high school sports in Teaneck, New Jersey was published in the New York Times on Sept. 23, two days before the 80th birthday of a Madison woman who came out of Teaneck and helped changed the landscape of women’s athletics in the United States.
The Times’ story details how, in 1972, a Teaneck High School sophomore named Abbe Seldin, a gifted tennis player, wanted to try out for the boys’ team because Teaneck had no girls’ tennis team.
Seldin was not allowed to try out.
Her mother, through the ACLU, hired a lawyer who filed a lawsuit against school officials and state agencies in New Jersey. The lawyer was a young Rutgers University law professor and ACLU volunteer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Today, in Madison, Kit Saunders-Nordeen turned 80 years old. She is ill with Alzheimer’s and living Oakwood Village, a Madison retirement community. A family member was planning to bring cupcakes and decorations to Oakwood to mark the occasion.
I have been working on a book about Kit, who in 1974 became the first director of women’s athletics at UW-Madison.
The Times’ story about Abbe Seldin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg resonated with me because Kit grew up in Teaneck, also desperately wanting to play sports. There was almost no opportunity.
Kit graduated from Teaneck High School in 1958 – several years before Seldin attended. The school’s yearbook, The Hi-Way, described the year in girls’ sports with this: “There were numerous inter-school play days.”
Teaneck did have a girls’ field hockey team, and on “sports days” participated with other schools – though they mixed players from different schools together to fill out team rosters.
In an interview, Kit said, “I remember in high school being so disappointed after we practiced to find out we had to split our team because we weren’t supposed to have that competitive school spirit.”
Kit came to UW-Madison in 1964 to study for a master’s degree. She eventually earned a doctorate. I wrote earlier this year about the numerous women at UW-Madison in the 1960s who went on to distinguished careers in athletics administration, including Judith Sweet, the first female president of the NCAA.
Kit’s own career included being named UW-Madison’s first director of women’s athletics in 1974 and building, with the help of colleagues such as Paula Bonner and Tamara Flarup, a first-rate program. Kit was also national vice-president of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women – the preeminent women’s college sports organization in the 1970s.
Many people wrongly assume that with the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972, women’s athletics attained equal footing on college campuses. It did not. There were court challenges and male administrators by turns obstinate and dismissive.
When Kit retired in 1990 – the same year the Badgers’ women volleyball team packed the Fieldhouse for a match – some were surprised. She was young, just 50. But as her highly-successful track and cross-country coach, Peter Tegen, told me recently, “She fought some battles.”
Kit wanted to spend time with her new husband, Dale “Buzz” Nordeen, who was her biggest fan and approached me about doing the book. Buzz died last year. I so wish he’d lived to see the book published, but he did enjoy the chapters I shared.
The Sept. 23 Times story noted that Ginsburg’s lawsuit on behalf of the young tennis player Abbe Seldin was dropped “after the state reversed course and agreed to allow girls to try out for the boys’ teams.”
Seldin was injured during practice, so she didn’t play for Teaneck. But according to the Times, she became the first woman to receive an athletic scholarship at Syracuse University.
Seldin also, for the rest of her life, was able to add a singular kicker line to any discussion of Supreme Court Justice and cultural phenomenon Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Hey, she was my lawyer.”
In 2009, Teaneck High School established an Athletic Hall of Fame. Kit Saunders-Nordeen is not in it. How could she be? She was not allowed to play.
But Teaneck High also has an exhibit highlighting distinguished alumni of that school. In 2018, a plaque honoring Kit was added. The text cites her leadership role in advancing opportunities in athletics for girls and women.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.