Season 1

Feminist Files: A Pause Between Acts

Between the first part of our story and the second – we take a moment to pause and reflect on the role Title IX played in Leigh’s early life, when the budding activist is Leigh was born, and the relationship of the artist to history – how the personal is the political – setting the stage for what’s yet to come.


Leigh: I’m someone who makes theater. If our series on the origin story of Title IX were a two-act play, the passage of Title IX would definitely be the act break. The end of the first act: they’ve won a victory. They’ve gotten the bill passed, but the biggest fight is still on the horizon.

As the women will have to beat back the men in power who attempt to weaken, derail, and dilute it. You see, the men have not taken the women seriously up to this point, and they will pay a very high price for that.

 What happens in the act break at the theater? Well, first there’s a mad dash to the restroom. The women’s bathroom line is usually a lot longer than the men’s. Sometimes at the act break, there could be a lobby display. Or people read the program, talk to their friends, hop on social media, grab a drink. Or if you’re like me, sit and contemplate what you just experienced. The act break gives us space and time to think about the characters, the story, and how we relate personally to what we’re experiencing in the theater–to make connections and to think about what’s yet to come. Where is this story going? How will this story end?

And sometimes in the theater, there is something called an entr’acte: a short piece that happens between the acts. It can be a moment to step outside the narrative and reflect a bit, something I’d like to do here.

I was first introduced to the origin story of Title IX when I met Rora Brodwin, Bunny Sandler’s great niece. Rora and I met at what can best be described as theater camp, a residency for playwrights and theater directors in upstate New York. Rora and I sat together one day at lunch. When I asked her what she was working on, she told me about the play she was writing about her Great Aunt Bunny, who was the godmother of Title IX. I spontaneously blurted out, “your Great Aunt Bunny saved my life,” which I think surprised Rora and surprised me too. She asked me what I meant, and I told her that as a queer kid growing up in a small working-class town in Western Massachusetts, the participation in sports—being able to express myself on the field and on the court—was a way to be myself in a world that did not accept me for who I was.

In my town of 10,000 people, there were three Catholic churches: the Polish Catholic church, the Irish Catholic church, and the French Catholic church. It was a town built on immigrant labor, a place where Catholicism and civics merged—where church rituals and festivals and Friday night Bingo mixed with little league and soccer and basketball teams organized by the town. The Polish Catholic church was the center of our family life. Playing sports gave me some ground on which to stand.

Putting on the softball uniform, the socks, the pants, and the cleats—liberated from school uniforms and church clothes, I was home. The crack of the bat, the perfect pitch. Now granted our softball field was all the way in the back of the park, mosquito infested bases that wouldn’t stay put.

Our coach, Buddy Patterson, was a local plumber, and I have to hand it to Buddy, because he didn’t treat us girls as delicate. He didn’t treat us as girls at all. He just treated us as athletes. He wanted to win. And so did we.

It’s been established that Rora is a private person. I’m a private person too. And I opened up to Rora in a way that day that surprised both of us, I think. I told her all about Buddy Patterson. I told her all about my town. Eventually Rora shared her story with me for this series and introduced me to many consequential feminists whose names I did not know.

One of those figures is activist Pauli Murray. Rora referred to Pauli as gender queer before we had a term for that. I mentioned Pauli earlier in the series when I spoke of the ’60s history class I took in college. It was one of my favorite classes of my academic career, but there was no mention of Pauli in that class. Nevertheless, the class was where to quote John Lewis, the activist in me “shook loose,” and I realized that there was a way in which I wanted to devote my life to making our society more equitable, more compassionate, more accepting.

I was still deeply in the closet in college. I went to Fordham University, the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. And there were only a handful of openly gay students on campus. And as I now know, many closeted ones, including myself. Homophobia in the church is real. It runs deep. It harms a lot of people. I went to Catholic school my whole life: first educated by the Felician sisters in full habits, then by the sisters of St Joseph who were more liberal. It was the ’70s; they all wore their hair short but they had left their habits behind, wearing only crosses to symbolize their vows. And some of them even wore pants. And then finally in college, by the Jesuits.

I was the first generation in my family to go to college. I knew then that I wanted to get myself to New York City. And Fordham met both my parents’ criteria—that it was Catholic—and mine—that it was in New York. Still, homosexuality was a sticking point. The secrecy, the shame were a part of daily life.

One of the books we studied in the ’60s history class was a book called Personal Politics by Sara Evans. Sara documented women in the movement, women who started out in the civil rights and anti-war movements and came of age as activists, when they claimed their own space in the women’s liberation movement. I wrote my term paper for the ’60s class on this book, “the personal is political,” and I wrote many, many pages about social justice and social change and how important it all was to me. I was so proud of this paper, but I didn’t realize that there were two parts of me that were on a collision course. The budding activist in me. And the gay person who was still in the closet. But my professor Dr. Mason, a brilliant man, saw this too. When he returned my paper, he returned it to me without a grade. There was no grade. There was only a note from him in magic marker across the front. “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” I knew immediately that he was prompting me to come out of the closet. It was a brilliant pedagogical turn because indeed the personal is the political.

So I went back to my room and I rewrote the paper and I came out to Dr. Mason, the first adult I ever came out to. I said, “Yes, I’m gay.” And that too is part of my personal story, my personal politics and that experience of bullying and otherness—feeling under threat, being under threat—puts me in a position to better understand the underdogs and the outcasts and the people society deems less than in any way. It actually makes me a better activist. And, as it turns out, a better artist too.

Years later, I got to speak on a panel with Sara Evans, and I told her this story. The panel was about what it means for historians and artists to write about history.

In this act break, this entr’acte, I’m contemplating a lot. One of the big takeaways for me is how these stories still speak to us today. I would hope and wish and pray that these stories felt historical, felt entirely outdated, but sadly they do not. They are relevant. They still speak to us today. We have a long way to go as a society.

We still have the second act to go: how the women in Washington beat back the fierce opposition to Title IX. And we’ll find out what happens to Bunny, Pauli, Patsy, and Edith: four unlikely nerdy revolutionaries who changed the world, who changed me too.

We’re off next week. But join us in two weeks as we embark on the next half of our journey. Act 2, if you will, of the origin story of Title IX.

 I’m Leigh Fondakowski. Thank you for listening. This is Feminist Files.

© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.