THE BLOG

Eleonora Sears and 40 Years of Title IX

07/11/2012 04:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2012

Girls can dream, but "Queen of England" is a title that will remain out of reach for most, despite the end of a thousand years of British tradition that favored male heirs.

Fortunately, the keys to another kingdom are available to American girls, thanks to Title IX, which became law 40 years ago. Title IX enshrines the principle that everyone, male and female, deserves equal access to opportunities in education and athletics, and it enforces that vision for all programs that receive funding from the American taxpayer.

Such equality of opportunity had long ago been dreamed and promoted by legions of women who strained against artificial barriers that kept them on the sidelines. Billie Jean King has likened their efforts to a relay race where "every generation passes the baton on to the next generation and... pushes the envelope for the next." If you trace that onrushing multitude to its source, you will meet a most singular woman, Eleonora Sears, a Boston socialite, whose indomitable will and wide-ranging talent made her America's first and, arguably, greatest all-around female athlete. When Eleonora Sears was born in 1881, American educators were still teaching Victorian notions of a woman's supposed physical and emotional fragility. Ladies were expected to confine their ambition to marriage and motherhood, and when they did engage in the limited sporting activities open to them, they were encouraged not to excel, but to proceed with "caution" and "moderation" to avoid risking their feminine allure and reproductive capacity.

For Eleonora "Eleo" Sears that dismissive attitude was like a red flag to a bull. She used her substantial wealth and unassailable social position (she was the great-great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson) as a launching pad into forbidden territory. She was the first woman to play polo on a men's team. She was a top-ten national tennis champion and the first female national squash champion. Eleo braved scandal by wearing trousers and practical sports attire in public, in an era when most women wore long skirts and floral bonnets. She was one of the first women to ride a horse astride, and she won blue ribbons for jumping, dressage and driving a coach with four horses "in-hand". When "automobiling" was in its infancy, Eleo learned to drive a car and do basic repairs and, in 1909, she became the first woman on record to fight a speeding ticket. In 1910, Eleo convinced the Admiral of the Pacific fleet to let her join the crew of a submarine and explore the ocean's depths. She won yacht races, golf tournaments and trap shooting contests. She was a long-distance swimmer. In a biplane piloted by British aviator Claude Graham-White, Eleo set the women's record for time aloft and distance. In 1912, Eleo walked 110 miles down the California coast, and her record-setting hikes in the 1920s, between Boston, Providence, Rhode Island and Newport sparked long-distance walking contests across the nation.

The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, liked to call Eleonora Sears his "favorite dancing and tennis partner" -- a nice sentiment certainly -- but her range was so much greater. This Hall-of-Fame athlete was a "lead-off runner" in the race toward Title IX, and she would be gratified to know that, in its first 40 years, Title IX has given literally millions of women the chance to demonstrate the scope of their own talents, on the playing fields, in the classrooms, in then in the board rooms.

The ball is now in the court of a new generation of women who must guard these hard-won opportunities, use them well, and pass them on!