This is part two of our series, ‘When Women Ran Their Own Game’ - ongoing commentary on women’s rugby history. In this series we use documents and interviews to highlight the women who organized and administered women’s rugby in its first twenty years.
Read Part 1.
The ‘founders of women’s rugby’ were women from all over the US who grew up in the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. They were young, smart, idealistic and for the most part had no idea what they were getting themselves into - they just knew that the status quo was wrong. They started out sharing mimeograph lists and sending handwritten letters, but over time they became skilled at organizing, advocating, building coalitions and moving mountains.
Much of early women’s rugby organizing (1974-1991), including the formation of territorial and national championships and the creation of the women’s national team, was in the hands of the Women’s Committee, an intrepid group of young women from different regions of the US who shared a vision for what women’s rugby could be. They fought for women’s rugby at a time when very few, beyond those who played, cared about the women’s game. What’s unfortunate is that their story, their heroism, has never been acknowledged publicly.
The Women’s Committee, composed of representatives from the four territories (East, Pacific, Midwest and West), was formed in the spring of 1979 by Elissa ‘Jello’ Augello. Soon after, ‘Jello’ published the first copy of In Support, the newsletter of the Women’s Committee. On the first cover of In Support, the Women's Committee is described as a subcommittee of the USA Rugby Football Union (USARFU) which, as former Women’s Committee Chair Jami Jordan notes, was inaccurate.
While the women’s committee was technically a part of USARFU, it was more like ‘in name only.’ We [the Women’s Committee] would make decisions and inform USAR after the fact. But at the time that’s how rugby did business; rugby in the US was more a collection of confederations and regional and local unions, operating often independently of USARFU.
While women paid dues to USARFU and local unions, they lacked representation at every level. It was up to the whims of male administrators whether women could even join the regional and local unions. While some unions were supportive, others refused to admit women. Many male administrators were deeply opposed to women’s rugby and others thought it was a ‘passing fad.’ As one male administrator noted at the time, ‘we thought you’d just go away.’
In their first few years, the Women’s Committee focused on organizing and communicating with women’s teams. Jennie Redner, founder of Michigan State Women’s Rugby and Women’s Committee Chair, created the first contact list of women’s teams in the US. The list, published via In Support, consisted of names, phone numbers, and mailing addresses of teams. Jennie’s list was a game changer, not only because it allowed teams to find one another but it also became a way of identifying women who were organizing at the local level. Many of these women expanded their roles and began to post results, share information, and organize tournaments.
In 1978, the Chicago Women organized the National Invitational Championship, inviting teams from the four territories with successful tournament records to Chicago for a championship event. Chicago would go on to host the National Club Championship for the next three years and intermittently for many years after. The Chicago organizers, led in those years by Mary Larkin and Marcia Borge, were a talented group of women who had a reputation for outstanding, courageous leadership. They operated in a territorial union infamous for its lack of support for women’s rugby. Yet, not surprisingly, left to their own devices the Chicago Women moved mountains.
The early success of the Chicago-led National Club Championships was followed by the creation of women’s territorial championships. This created a means for the best teams in each territory to play for a bid to the national championship. It also opened the door for territorial select side teams to become a venue for national team selections. Although, in those early days, the idea of a women’s national team seemed far-fetched.
The opportunity to play for a national championship and to make territorial select sides or the all-tournament team was hugely motivating to many women. Not surprisingly, women’s rugby improved, and the blueprint for a women’s national team began to take shape. In 1985, Patrick Foley, a coach from the Midwest, invited top players to take part in an invitational touring side, the WIVERNS. The response to his invitation was overwhelming and, in the fall of 1985, thirty players left to play select side and club teams from England and France. The US dominated their opponents, and the British press took notice. When the team returned home, the Women’s Committee was already working on organizing the first women’s international match against Canada.
The vision, subsequent selection of the first women’s national team, and the scheduling of the first international match happened because Mary Larkin, Marcia Borge and Diane Terwilliger made it happen. Sadly, very few members of the team were aware that the honor of pulling on the first USWNT jersey happened because those three women ‘willed the team into existence.’ The only resources they had was their organizational aplomb and fierce determination, which they leveraged to make history.
The first USWNT match took place in the fall of 1987 in Victoria, Canada. Members of the team were required to pay all their expenses, including the costs of attending the first selection camp at Stanford and all costs associated with the match in Victoria, Canada. USAR provided no support. All the dues for