Leveling the playing field: Women gather for a reunion game to celebrate accomplishments, recognize the work that remains

Sue Buckley, the long-time coach of the WRAC Rats, cheers from the sideline. — photo by Jason Smith

A friendly softball game in Iowa City’s Happy Hollow Park on Sunday capped off a weekend of events through the Iowa City Feminist Reunion celebrating the impact Iowa City women had on local and national culture and institutions during the mid-’60s and into the ’80s.

During that time, Iowa City women created organizations such as the Women’s Resource and Action Center (WRAC), the Emma Goldman Clinic, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) and the Rape Victims Advocacy Program (RVAP), as well as producing activist publications and a women’s press. The weekend’s events, including the Sunday game, worked to memorialize these accomplishments, recording women’s stories and collecting items for the Iowa Women’s Archive, while also exploring the need for further progress.

The game revived a rivalry between the WRAC Rats and the Bluestockings, two Iowa City women’s softball teams that once created a welcoming space for local women to hang out and have fun. The last game of the year between the two teams was always a costumed occasion and a number of players this weekend dressed up.

“Many of the women here over the weekend were part of fighting for Title IX and other opportunities for women,” said Bonnie Slatton at the Sunday game. “This group was fighting for the rights that young women have now. And this weekend was a celebration of that.”

Slatton was part of the University of Iowa’s physical education department and was the first executive director of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. She, along with many other women at the event commented on how far things have come since the ’60s and ’70s, with many opportunities now available to girls like participating in school sports under Title IX, which passed in 1972.

“These events are important to celebrate the fact that we have made progress, but also recommit ourselves to achieving equality, because we haven’t yet achieved it — not just in sport, but across the board,” Christine Grant said. “The younger generation really needs to learn that, and that progress needs to be continued. We’ve got to educate the younger generation, and I don’t think we’ve been doing a good enough job in that area.”

Grant, who served as the first women’s athletic director at the University of Iowa, cited continuing issues like the spending gap between men’s and women’s college teams at the Division I level.

“This is an issue that all women should care about, and good men,” she said. “Why should we be treating our daughters in an inferior fashion? Shouldn’t they have the same opportunities as their brothers? That just seems self-evident to me.”

The WRAC Rats and the Bluestockings gathered for a reunion game on Sunday, July 16, 2017 in Happy Hollow Park. — photo by Jason Smith

Laurie Haag, who works at WRAC as a program developer, played on the WRAC team for a long time, she said. The team always let anyone play, regardless of skill, Haag said.

“So that meant we didn’t win very much,” she said. “And over time there were fewer and fewer teams that understood that. It became really competitive.”

“Some women really had no business being out on the field, but wanted to be part of a community of women,” she added. “The teams were a great way to build community, a safe place, and an excuse to go out afterwards.”

Haag said the dress-up games between the two feminist teams were always more performance art than sport. One woman, a plumber, would come dressed up as a shower, complete with a shower curtain and running water. Some players would spend months planning out their costumes and occasionally a team would dress up in a group costume or would perform little scenes, including an instance in which a player rode her motorcycle around the bases.

Peg Burke, who was a founding member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women and physical education professor at the University of Iowa, was also at the softball game.

“It’s such fun to be around a feminist group,” Burke said. “There’s such warmth. It’s always exciting.”

“It’s a spoof on the super-competitive environment that sport has become,” she added. “It’s just people having a good time.”

Diane Finnerty shows off her Emma Goldman shirt during the softball game Sunday. — photo by Jason Smith

Diane Finnerty, of Iowa City, seconded the importance of laughter and a fun-loving atmosphere.

“There’s a quote from Emma Goldman: ‘If I can’t dance to it, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,’” she said. “As hard as these women worked, we also played incredibly hard.”

Finnerty was part of the Rats team, which was sometimes called Grace and Rubies’ Rats after the woman-only private club and restaurant that was located on North Linn Street during the ’70s. She said there were a number of reasons for the weekend’s events, including recording past accomplishments for history and reinvigorating activists today.

“Answering the question of what’s needed out of us today: How do we bring some of the same energy and vision to issues we face today?” she said.

Dale McCormick was among the planners for the weekend’s events. She said the turnout was more than they had hoped for.

“We created a beloved community here,” McCormick said. “The fact that the community can come together again is wonderful.”

McCormick, who apprenticed as a carpenter in 1971 and became the first journeywoman carpenter, was also part of the collective that published Ain’t I a Woman?, a women’s liberation newsletter produced in Iowa City but distributed nationally. She said one issue of the publication listed a number of demands, including free healthcare through a single-payer system.

“We’re still working on it,” she said. “Over 40 years later, I’ve been an elected official in Maine and we’re still working on that. We have a long way to go.”

Susan Birrell, one of the founders of the Bluestockings team, gets ready before a group photo after the game. — photo by Jason Smith