Dr. Charlotte West: From Athlete to Advocate to Athletic Director: Blazing the Way for Women’s Basketball
Charlotte West was a little worried. She’d been told she has only five minutes to speak at her Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame induction. “I thought, my Lord, I’ve been involved in competitive women’s basketball for 70 years. I started listing things that I want to say that I’m like, oh my gosh, this should be an hour and a half.”
Born in 1932 in Michigan, West and her sister were adopted by a couple in New York. She spent much of her early years “snow-birding” as her family traveled from upstate New York down to Florida until school administrators put a stop to it. “That out and in several times a year was really interfering with [my sister’s] progress in school. My parents were called in and they said, ‘she needs to be tutored and to put keep her one place or the other.’ So starting in the fifth grade, I did all my schooling in St. Petersburg.”
West’s earliest sports memory is playing 7th grade basketball. “We probably only had three or four games,” she recalled. “But I can remember playing and feeling very empowered.” She so wanted her own hoop and a basketball but, though her parents were supportive – even though neither of them were particularly athletic — it was wartime. “Everything was rationed. If it was rubber or leather, like a basketball would be, you couldn’t get it.” Yet somehow, they managed. “We were on our way to Memphis to visit my father’s relatives where we spent our Christmases and spent the night in Dothan, Alabama,” said West. “We were walking around after dinner and found a sports store and it had a basketball. So my father bought me that for Christmas. I tell you, that basketball got plenty of use.”
Basketball in the land of oranges
West played three years in junior high and three years at St. Petersburg High School. “I had a great high school coach,” she reflected, who “did it for the love of the sport because they didn’t get supplemental pay.” As a player, West describes herself as “Fast. Very, very fast. So I mainly played forward. I did play guard sometimes, when they wanted to substitute different people, and of course I loved the rover because she got to move.” Things changed, though, when she started college. “I went to Florida State and we had nothing,” she stated bluntly. “Nothing.”
Fortunately, St. Petersburg was part of the AAU/Industrial Leagues that swept across the country during World War II. Many companies such as Maytag, Kelvinator, Dr. Pepper and such, sponsored basketball, softball and volleyball teams in an effort to build worker cohesion and brand recognition. “When I was junior or senior in high school St. Petersburg had R.H. Hall (an appliance store company). They would play [teams from] Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa. So I got some early experience with a higher level of play. When I got into college, I played with them a few times when it was convenient to get away from school.”
While at FSU, West completed a double major in Math and Physical Education. “I loved math and I was good in it,” said West, “but I also loved sports and I knew I wanted to teach. And at that time there was a little stigma if you were in Phys. Ed. I don’t know if there was some protective mechanism there or not, but I did my practice teaching in Physical Education in Jacksonville, but I did it with the condition that I could go in and do a class in plain geometry at the high school so I’d be qualified to do both.” After she graduated from Florida State she returned to St. Petersburg to be with her mother – her father had died two months previously – and started as the physical education teacher and, eventually, coach at Boca Ciega High School.
Pushed off the court and into organizing
West continued her studies at UNC–Greensboro, one of the two prominent graduate schools for women in Physical Education (Texas Women’s being the other). “I visited with both chairs of the department and I just liked the connection at Greensboro.” It couldn’t have hurt that there was a local AAU/Industrial team that seemed more and willing to bring on West and her fellow student, Joan S. Hult (who later went on to write “A Century of Women’s Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four”). The two arranged a tryout during a game and, she recalled, “we clicked. We did really well and [the coach] was excited about us. He said, ‘Now you ladies, you are coming back every time aren’t you?’ I said, ‘yeah.’ Unfortunately, the news didn’t go over so well at the University.
“We got to school the next day and we both had a note in our boxes in our mailboxes in the P.E. Department. The head of the department called us in and she said, ‘I understand that you’re down playing city league basketball and we just don’t let our majors do that.’ She turned to Joan and said, ‘You’re a graduate assistant, so I’m telling you, you will not play.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I can’t tell you that (West was on an academic scholarship) but I think it would be to your advantage not to.’ In typically direct fashion, West countered, “Miss. Morris, I love sports, I love to play and I think it’s a crime that we don’t have more for women.’ So,” continued West, “she puts me in charge of a inter-class tournament for all the PE majors. So we played, but that was her ‘solution.’”
After West completed her Masters in Physical Education and Dance, the same department head directed her to Southern Illinois University because, explained West, “she said they do more for women sports and she knew my intent to work towards varsity athletics for women–which I was told might hinder my professional success.”
Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Small acorns, great oaks
West arrived at Southern Illinois in 1957 began a 41-year career of advocacy and action in women’s intercollegiate athletics. She coached of the women’s golf team for over 12 years (winning the national championship in 1969), badminton for seven years, and volleyball for one year. She also coached women’s basketball from 1959 to 1975 – all while serving as a professor in the Department of Physical Education. In 1973, she became a full professor (having gotten her doctorate at Wisconsin-Madison in Physical Education with a minor in Educational Measurement) and developed SIU’s graduate program in Sports Management, which she directed until June 1991. From 1960 to 1986, West was director of intercollegiate athletics for women and led the transformation of the department into a nationally recognized program with a budget of more than $1 million for 11 sports. After the merger of the men’s and women’s athletics departments, she served as associate athletics director for one year, interim director for another and associate athletics director for 10 years.
In parallel with her duties SIU, West became heavily involved with Title IX legislation, serving as a consultant for the Health, Education, and Welfare portions of Title IX that related to athletics. Since the NCAA was not willing to sponsor championships for women, West helped do so through the American Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) – and organization for which she also served as president. With the dissolution of the AIAW (1981-82), West continued her work advocating for equity in in athletics by serving on the NCAA’s Committee on Financial Aid and Amateurism, the Committee on Athletic Certification, and the Gender Equity Task Force. She spent five years (1992-97) on the NCAA Council, a 44-member group that governed collegiate athletics and was the first woman member of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), eventually being inducted into the NACDA Hall of Fame (2006). The first recipient of the Woman Administrator of the Year Award from the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators, in 1996 West was also named the first recipient of the Honda Award of Merit— a national honor given for outstanding achievement in women’s collegiate athletics. She retired from SIU in 1998.
Looking back, looking forward
When she reflects on all she did, the teaching, the coaching, running tournaments and serving on panels and committees, she laughs. “Billie Jean King talked about their efforts in the ‘70s and she says, ‘when I think back I have to take a nap.’ It’s a good line. I think back and wonder, ‘My gosh, how did I live through it? How did I do it?’ But you know, you are driven because you love what you were doing. We could see so much progress. And, yes, we had setbacks, but it just it was exciting. It was an exciting time of seeing your efforts come to fruition.”
For all that was accomplished, West knows that the work is not close to being over. “You know, we’ve documented that men’s participation is growing at a more rapid rate than women. We’re not even close to equity in participation. The budgets are just extreme,” she continued. “The men are just gaining twice as much every year as the women, and people just seem to say, ‘well, as long as the women are getting a little something everything’s okay.’ The administration is going down you know the number of women in athletic director roles has been flat or now starting downwards, which is a huge surprise.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that if it hadn’t been for AIAW, we wouldn’t have had that growth and we wouldn’t have had a billion dollar television contract — all these things that really happened in the 70s. It’s a kind of a paradox for some of us,’ said West. “We worked so hard to give the athletes the benefits they have today, the opportunities. So you rejoice in that. But then you’re saddened by the fact that they don’t know how they got there. No respect whatsoever, you know they expect these benefits which — I’m glad that they’re there for them — but they don’t appreciate them. They don’t understand how you have to continue to strive.” She takes some comfort from a friend who heads the SIU Department of Philosophy. “She said, ‘every great movement rises, and then there is always this falling back.’” West paused a moment. “Just so long as it doesn’t it fall back to where you started.”
Historical note: Women’s basketball history owes a debt to Dr. Ellyn Bartges, who earned that prefix through her research on and interviews with Dr. West. “Circle more before you land”: an ethnography of feminist leader Dr. Charlotte West is now posted at IDEALS: Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship.
Additional information: Charlotte West, interviews by Ellyn L. Bartges, audio and print transcripts, Family Memories Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL. Three interviews over six years were conducted, (March 2005, June 2009, and August 2011) .
You’re also invited to check out “What about the character of the girls?: Girls and Women’s Basketball in Illinois, 1968-1977.”
Illinois hosted its first Girls’ State Basketball Tournament in 1977, five years after the U.S. Congress passed the landmark Title IX legislation. Title IX led to an explosion in the growth of women’s sports in the United States, dramatically changing American culture in the process. This collection of oral history interviews chronicles that story and the early struggles for both Illinois girls’ basketball (high school level) and women’s basketball (collegiate level) throughout the country. The twenty-six interviews in this collection were conducted beginning in 2004 by Ellyn Bartges, herself a participant in Illinois’ first tournament in 1977. Ellyn designed the oral history project and conducted the interviews as part of her master’s capstone project at Western Illinois University, under the direction of Dr. Virginia Boynton of the WIU History Department.
In 2010 Ellyn Bartges was interviewed about her own life story and the creation of this oral history collection by Mark R. DePue, Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Oral History program
The page includes interviews with various folks including: Dr. West, Jill Hutchinson, Gail Marquis, Billie Moore, Chris Voelz and Holly Warlick.
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