Editor’s Note: On June 23, 1972, a federal civil rights law was passed that prohibited sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funding. Title IX also gave girls and women the equal opportunity to compete in sports across the country. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX’s passing this summer, Hope College Athletics shares the memories and perspectives from Hope College student-athletes, coaches, and alumnae on the 9th of each month during the school year.

Author Eva Dean Folkert

In this fifth installation, Eva Dean Folkert, former co-director of athletics at Hope and now the interim director of public affairs and marketing at the college, reflects on her early playing days just after Title IX was passed — starting in recreational leagues and high school in New York in the 1970s and then at Hope in the early 1980s. Her experiences in the world of collegiate athletics were life-changing because of mentor, Dr. Anne Irwin.

When I was a baseball-loving 12-year-old growing up in central New York in 1973, I had no idea that 600 miles away, a woman with the tenacity and determination of a second-wave feminist was about to pave the way for girls and women like me to one day be taken seriously as female athletes. 

All I knew and felt back then was this: Girls’ sports were at best an afterthought and at worst an annoyance. 

Why did I feel that way even at that young age? Because in the mid-1970s, all I wanted was a “real” uniform when I played softball for my summer league team. Like the big boys in MLB and the younger boys in Little League, I too wanted a jersey, stirrup “socks” and knee-length pants. Instead the girls who played softball on my team in Cayuga County only got cotton t-shirts and plain truck caps which, by the way, were not that cool then.

The trend somewhat continued in high school. The girls of Union Spring Central School (and at many other high schools around the country) wore the same uniforms for three seasons when we played field hockey, volleyball and basketball. The boys had different uniforms for each of their seasons in soccer, football, basketball and baseball. At least, we got knee-length pants when softball season rolled around, but our jerseys remained the same.

Anne Irwin and team in 1978

I matriculated to Hope College in 1979 and never expected that I’d see and experience a uniform change by season for women. But then again, I didn’t know Dr. Anne Irwin, Hope’s first director of women’s athletics, was here and had already begun to make women’s sports a prioritized presence, and not the afterthought that I had experienced. 

From the moment she stepped on Hope’s campus in 1976, Anne went to work to ensure Hope female student-athletes received equitable treatment, not just in the uniforms they wore, but also with the transportation they were provided, the practice space and times they were awarded, and even the “shoe money” they were allotted. When I received reimbursement for the purchase of my Adidas All-Stars, even as a Hope basketball benchwarmer extraordinaire in 1980, I felt like I had won the lottery. For 27 years, Anne helped hundreds of other student-athletes feel like they were some of the luckiest people in the world too, even if they may not have realized it.

Anne Irwin, 2001

When Anne retired in 2003 and I became the next director of women’s athletics, I was the beneficiary of her wisdom both tangible and intangible. Her spirit of fairness (and detail orientation) permeated the Excel spreadsheet I opened regularly which laid out a 15-year plan for rotating uniform purchases for both genders. The policies she helped create and oversee addressed multiple levels and areas of equity for all. Today’s Hope student-athletes, both male and female, owe a debt of gratitude to Anne for her trailblazing ways and mindset. Her unfailing advocacy proved that gender equity is right and necessary and good, no matter your sport, no matter your gender.

Anne passed away on April 3, 2021 at 79-years-young. I was hiking a trail in northern Michigan when I received a phone call from my longtime friend and colleague Tim Schoonveld who let me know she had died. Regrettably, Anne and I had not seen each other in over a year because of the pandemic. I finished my walk filled with sorrow but also with a profound appreciation that my playing and professional life was deeply impacted by a woman who forged a way for me, and thousands more, to experience excellence in athletics at Hope.

Shameless plug: To learn more about Dr. Anne Irwin’s impact on and legacy in Hope College Athletics, order a copy of In Pursuit of Excellence by Tom Renner ‘67, the newest Hope sports history book that covers stories from 1970 to 2020. In it, you will find a chapter about Anne’s arrival and tenure at Hope that details how she helped lay the foundation for the first-rate program that Hope Athletics is today. Full disclosure: I wrote a chapter about Anne in that book, too.

Eva Dean Folkert (center) and the 1981 Hope softball team coached by Anne Irwin (in the gray sweatshirt, right) after they won the state of Michigan AIAW Championship.

(Historical aside: The AIAW was the only national collegiate women’s sports governing body until 1983. When the NCAA began offering women’s championships in 1981-82, it proved to be the end of the AIAW.)

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5 Comments

  1. Eva,
    Very nice tribute article.
    I worked for Anne in 1986 and 1987 with the volleyball and softball programs.
    She was as genuine as they come and a trailblazer.
    She laid a foundation of “excellence” for ALL Hope sports to follow today.
    One of my fond experiences at Hope was riding shotgun back and forth from Holland to Ocala, FL.
    Along with great discussions and eye-opening stories, we got to spend 4 hours at a van repair shop in the mountains of TN (I think it was TN), waiting for the Hope van to be repaired.
    Great lady, who loved Hope.
    Miss her!

  2. Eva,

    Great piece! As you know, Anne was just as true in the classroom as she was on the field! (I will always remember how we made her laugh with our remake “Revenge of The Nerds” piece with Karl Koelling.

    And I think we’ll agree the uniforms the Hope woman have now are pretty sweet!

    Blessings,

    Donnie K

    1. Eva
      Thank you for the wonderful tribute to Anne. She served as a role model for so many students and student athletes. Her consistent, purposeful efforts to make the sport experience fair, impactful, and transformational will be her legacy. Thank you for sharing your journey.

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