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What If?: Bartlett Came Along a Few Years Too Early
by Chuck Gordon

“Wingate Junior College sophomore Sue Steadman of Shelby came out for the track team this week and seriously hopes to compete this spring in the 440 run. Coach Jerry Cross says he has no objections and he didn’t foresee any from the school’s opponents.” – caption accompanying Associated Press wire photo, Feb. 20, 1971

Sue Steadman Bartlett ’71 got her first inkling of what the world expected of her in the early 1960s. In her hometown of Shelby, N.C., she spent her afternoons and summer days running around the neighborhood, playing football and baseball and tag with the other kids. She could hold her own. In fact, she could outrun most of them, even some of the older boys.

A natural athlete, Bartlett wanted to play organized sports. There were no softball leagues for girls, so in seventh grade she marched past the “Boys Welcome” sign and signed up for Little League. She could hit, she could field, and she could darn sure run, and she demonstrated all those skills during tryouts. She gave it her all and then awaited word.

Bartlett got a call later that night from an intrigued coach. “If I ask for you to be on my team, will you?” he asked her. “Absolutely,” she replied.

No dice. Little League Baseball had a boys-only policy, and they were going to stick by it. “They said absolutely not,” the coach explained to her. “No girls on the team.” Bartlett went back to water ballet, field hockey and backyard football.

“That’s one of the first times I was told I couldn’t do stuff because I was a girl,” she says.

Sue Steadman holding track shoes

Bartlett grew up in an especially male-dominated era. Girls learned to be homemakers; women raised kids and cooked dinner. Bartlett’s parents weren’t going to go to bat for her, not for athletics. “My parents would never fight something like that,” Bartlett says. “They just weren’t built that way. My dad didn't really believe girls ought to be doing anything like that.”

Seventy-five miles east down U.S. 74, things were much the same. People might have been experimenting with drugs and free love in parts of the country, but at Wingate the 1960s was a chaste period. Women had to wear dresses to class and be in their dorms by 7 p.m. If they left for the weekend, they had to sign out in the main office, writing down the address where they’d be staying and a phone number. Public displays of affection, even holding hands, were a no-no. Intercollegiate athletics was a men’s-only domain.

By the time Bartlett enrolled at Wingate in the fall of 1969, things were changing, albeit slowly. In the early ’70s, members of the Student Government Association successfully lobbied to allow female students to wear pants while out on campus after class and before going to the dining hall for dinner. By then, Wingate hosted a twice-a-year “open house,” when male students could visit the women’s dorms – doors open, the president’s wife walking up and down the halls. An involved student who liked to stay busy, Bartlett acted in every play at Wingate, in part because practices often ran late, giving the actors an excuse to stay out past curfew.

Title IX was also on the horizon, but too late for Bartlett to make athletics a large part of her life. Throughout the 1960s, Wingate Junior College offered no intercollegiate athletics opportunities for women, despite having fielded women’s basketball teams for decades up to the late ’50s. By the time Bartlett earned her associate degree and was preparing to head off to Western Carolina University, women’s basketball had returned to campus, and over the next couple of decades women’s sports grew quickly at Wingate and became part of the fabric of the school.

But as a youngster, Bartlett had to settle for the scraps of opportunity offered to girls in the pre-Title IX era: neighborhood swim team, for instance, or the annual State Games for Girls.

It was at the latter that she really shined. Essentially a school field day but for high school students from all over the state, the Games were held at North Rowan High School, and Bartlett always looked forward to them. For one thing, it gave her a chance to sate her competitive appetite. “I always say, ‘Somebody’s gotta win. Might as well be me,’” she says.

Bartlett played softball during the Games and ran the 50- and 100-yard dashes. In the sprints, she set state records that lasted for many years. Despite not having the traditional physical stature of a sprinter, she could really fly.

At Wingate, athletic opportunities for women were limited to intramurals. Even academic classes that stressed physical activity limited women’s inclusion. One semester, Bartlett, for at least the second time in her life, ignored a “boy’s only” dictate, signing up for Senior Life Saving, even though the course was traditionally taken only by men. Not only did the instructor, Dr. Tom Faulkenberry, happily allow her to sign up, but she finished at the top of the class.

“Unfortunately, the boys in the class weren’t as happy about it,” she says. “I never had any of them talk to me, joke with me. I was ignored.”

Back on dry land, Jerry Cross, coach of the men’s track team, heard about Bartlett’s running exploits and approached her about running with the team. Bartlett was game.

The school photographer was brought in to document a Battle of the Sexes taking place on Wingate’s conservative campus. In the 1971 Gate yearbook, Bartlett appears in the team photo, which sat alongside a couple of staged shots of her running in front of a pack of Bulldog men, under the title “‘A Girl Named Sue’ Runs Track.”

Yearbook photo of Sue Steadman running ahead of a group of boys

Bartlett says she may have practiced with the team a couple of times, but she never competed with the guys. The logistics of it in that day and age made the idea untenable.

“They weren’t going to have coed buses,” she says. “They weren’t going to let a girl go off with 35 men. And my parents might even have said something then. There’s so much to consider. Things that seem normal now weren’t normal then.

“He (Cross) kind of did it as more of a photo stunt. I didn’t go out there to practice with the boys. I did it for a photo op. I did run a little bit, but I didn’t run much, and nobody ever cared about me running.”

By those last six words, Bartlett meant that, from a moral standpoint, most people were OK with her being on the same field as the guys, but she might as well have been saying that people really didn’t care about her athletic proclivities, didn’t care that she was naturally fleet of foot and wanted to participate – because they didn’t. No one encouraged her to train, bought her shoes to run in or helped her with her form. No one took her to track meets (if there were any for girls). She wonders to this day how Team USA fielded female runners during the Olympics. How did Wilma Rudolph make it that far? “Where did they go to school?” she used to wonder. “What happened to them that they got to be in that?”

It still perplexes her – how someone who didn’t just win gold medals but set state records got only an “Atta girl!” and a pat on the back. “Somebody, I think, looking back, should have taken an interest in me,” she says. “Somebody should have said, ‘Sue, this is something you can do.’ And nobody did.”

Most people recognized the photo op for what it was, but the novelty of a female college student running with men (gasp!) wasn’t received well by everyone. One of the photos of Bartlett darting ahead of the men’s team, wearing a Wingate singlet, did the 1970s version of “going viral.” It was sent out on the Associated Press wire, where publications around the world ran it.

Not only did Bartlett never get to run the 440, but the wire photo prompted people from far afield to let her know how sinful she was. She got hate mail just for wanting to compete. “I was a sweet little Baptist girl,” Bartlett says. “I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, and there are people telling me I’m going to Hell. It was very unsettling to me that people could be so mean.”

Bartlett did get some positive letters too, and perhaps the photos represent an incremental softening of attitudes during a great awakening regarding the role of women in society. Perhaps they helped set the stage for the women’s sports movement that eventually emerged at Wingate in the ’70s with the establishment of women’s softball, volleyball and tennis teams.

Bartlett went on to a 30-year teaching career, got married, became a 5K runner and was usually the parent who played catch with the kids. These days, she beams proudly when talking about the athletic genes that have blessed her family: A couple of nieces have played Division I soccer, with one even making the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Those girls have been encouraged to compete and are celebrated when they do. Their matches are hardly a marketing stunt.

It’s a far cry from 1971. Bartlett’s photo op, as light-hearted as it was, even came with a dose of Mad Men-style misogyny. A photo in the yearbook of Bartlett running a couple of yards in front of a group of eager male runners was accompanied by a very of-its-day caption: “Hey Coach, are you sure my track pants aren’t too tight.”

There’s still some distance to go, but we’ve come a long way, baby.