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 women’s teams across the country went to support the men’s selection and travel. To add further insult, USARFU administrators forbid the women’s national team from calling themselves the ‘Eagles’.
The team arrived in Victoria two days before the match. They played well and defeated Canada 22-3. They followed that up in 1988 by beating Canada in Saranac Lake and garnering more press. The Women’s Committee kept their eye on the prize, which at the time was the growing influence of the women’s national team and the possibility of a ‘global women’s committee.’
The First Women’s World Cup
By 1990, the idea for the Women’s World Cup had been floated by a group of British women who were motivated by the WIVERN Tour of 1985 and the subsequent Women’s European Cup. The WRFU, the British equivalent of the Women’s Committee, saw an opportunity to replace the European Cup with a Women’s World Cup. The story of how the WRFU organized the first World Cup reads like a screenplay. They had just one year to organize the event with no funding, no sponsors, and little support. Yet this small group of young women persevered through immense obstacles, most notably the IRB, to pull off a miracle.
But the establishment and subsequent success of the US women’s national team did not budge USARFU, who continued the practice of helping themselves to the women’s membership dues but refusing to give the women’s national team any reasonable support beyond paying the entry fee for the World Cup (200 British Pounds) and sending out a press release prior to the Women’s World Cup.
The notes from the Women’s Committee throughout 1990-1991 attest to the tremendous amount of work the women’s committee did to get the US women to the World Cup.
We received a formal invitation to the World Cup, which had to be responded to by USARFU. Looking back, I’m sure it was a moment for USARFU because the invitation came from the WRFU, not the RFU. Because the women were still running our own show, under the umbrella of USARFU, it would have been difficult to stop us from going. I don’t recall anyone actually trying to do that. At the time, I had a rather good relationship with the staff of USARFU and with some members of the Executive Committee, and they understood our determination. We did enough to stay within the boundaries of the USARFU but still control our own game. In the end, the World Cup cost about $38,000, not including airfare for the players. Most of the trip was paid for by the players themselves. (Jami Jordan)
The 1991, US women’s national team chosen for the World Cup was a talented and experienced group that included six future Hall of Fame players including Kathy Flores, Patty Jervey, Jen Crawford, Candi Orsini, Tam Breckenridge, and MA Sorenson. (The entire 1991 team was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016). The team also included experienced players like Krista McFarren, Annie Flavin, Christine Harju, and Tara Flanigan who, with Tam Breckenridge, formed the infamous ‘Locks from Hell.’ The team captain was a surprising choice, Barb Bond, a young #8 from California. Barb had a reputation as a dominant, steady player but did not have the star power of many of the others. As she recalls, “I had no idea why I was chosen to be the captain and it was very difficult to lead a team of virtual strangers.” Her quiet, consistent leadership proved to be a good choice for a team of stars.
The tournament featured an interesting array of national teams, most of which stayed in cold, cramped dorms. The weather was brutal - freezing rain and muddy fields. The US barely squeaked by Netherlands in their first rain-soaked match and most of the players recalled fearing hypothermia during the game. The US eventually won their pool, setting up a final against a talented English side that was playing in front of a home crowd. The US women put together their finest match and beat England to win the first Women’s World Cup. As the sweaty players hugged and champagne corks popped, members of the Women’s Committee quietly breathed a sigh of relief. They alone, with no resources and no support from USARFU, had brought the team together from four territories, gotten the team to Wales, and now watched as the players lifted the cup.
There was no fanfare when the players returned to the US and few US newspapers carried the story. Most of the players were back at work within a day of returning. In celebration of Girls and Women in Sports Day, the team received an invitation to the White House and were greeted by First Lady Barbara Bush, who posed throwing the rugby ball like a football.
A Global Women’s Committee
While the players and coaches were basking in their success, the Women’s Committee was back at work fighting for resources. The success of the women’s national team pressed the question of why USARFU refused to support the women’s national team.
Leading this discreet inquiry was Jami Jordan, the Chair of the Women’s Committee (1989-1993). We were running women’s rugby on a volunteer basis. We didn’t tend to have strong relationships with one another outside of the Committee and only met to do business. Most of our challenges were dealing with the men and the ‘lowly position’ of women’s rugby in the USARFU pecking order. But we were a defiant group, committed to growing the women’s game
Given all that we accomplished between 1979 and 1994 as a young, volunteer organization, it’s pretty amazing that the women running things didn’t blow up. But we weren’t perfect. We fell victim to regional politics, particularly around the hiring and firing of USWNT coaches. By and large, the Women’s Committee operated on a consensus basis, but we did vote on things. My memory is that we agreed on many things and that we were usually in alignment or at least mostly in alignment. But the selection of national team coaches was the most contentious. Much of that can be attributed to intense regional loyalties to certain coaches that were off putting to other regions.
In 1994, the first International Conference on Women’s Rugby was held in London. The women in attendance harbored a vision of creating the first Women’s International Rugby Board (WIRB). Which they proposed would:
Promote, develop and extend the women’s game
Settle all matters or disputes relating to or arising from the playing of an international match
Control all matters relating to tours of national representative teams including the World Cup in which any union is concerned
Control any other matters of an international character affecting the game of women’s rugby
Abide by IRFB regulations and develop a formal, integrated relationship with the IRFB. (Paper submitted by Rosie Golby, Secretary, WRFU)
Unfortunately, the dream of a women’s international governing body was not to be. The IRB sent a representative to the meeting. While he was impressed with the organization and planning of the women, he recognized that a separate women’s organization was a threat to the IRB’s ongoing discussion with the Olympic Committee. Soon after, the IRB asked all its member nations to rein in separate women’s organizations and to fold them into existing national governing bodies. But to what extent women were to be ‘folded into’ existing governing bodies was up to the individual member nations. The decision to disband women’s leadership and curtail their autonomy was devastating to women’s rugby.
In the US, the Women’s Committee continued to operate as usual through 1994. In late 1994, USARFU folded the Women’s Committee into its existing list of committees and allocated a $1250 annual operating budget.
Almost in defiance of the IRB ruling, a women’s international conference was held again in 1998 in the Netherlands where women from different rugby nations met to contest the idea of ‘full integration’ into existing governing boards. The consensus was that there were gross disparities across countries for how national governing boards treated women’s rugby. But, as if to make it painfully clear that there would be no routes for women to bring their grievances to the IRB, the IRB incongruously appointed a man to be the chair of the women’s liaison committee, dismissing the experience, expertise and ability of women who had been moving mountains.
Some of the Women’s Committee members stayed active and worked on USARFU committees on behalf of women’s rugby, but decision-making about women’s rugby fell to committees populated mostly by men. Some men were longtime allies of women’s rugby and did much to support women’s rugby, others were ambivalent or obstructionist. The loss of women’s leadership and ingenuity not just in the US but across the globe was heartbreaking. But what these women accomplished was remarkable and worthy of celebration.
If you could take one lesson from their stories, it was they had confidence in themselves. They knew no system or organization was going to move women’s rugby forward. The task of growing the game was on their shoulders, with few resources they successfully created the Women’s National Team, the World Cup, Interterritorial Championships, Select Sides, Club Nationals, and Collegiate Nationals.
The members of the Women’s Committee were rarely recognized or thanked for the work they did. Over time, it has been easy for their names to be lost. No banquets honored them or Hall of Fames came calling. But I wonder what they must feel when they see what women’s rugby has become? I imagine they have complicated feelings. I hope they feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. But I believe it’s time they felt the collective gratitude of the women’s rugby community.
Alissa Augello - Midwest, Founder of the Women’s Committee, First Chair
Marsha Birkby - Midwest, WRFU Women’s Rep
Marcia Borge - Midwest, Women’s Committee Chair
Leslie Brant - West
Tam Breckenridge - Pacific
Paula Cabot - Pacific, Women’s Committee Chair
Chris Casatelli - East
Lee Chichester - East Secretary
Suzanne Cobarruvias - West
Darlene Connors - East
Ellen Cunningham - Pacific
Janeen Dell’Aqua - Pacific
Lisa Gardner - Midwest
Pat Glenn - Liaison to USARFU and National 7’s coordinator
Trudy Grout - Midwest
Leslie Jamison - So Cal
Jami Jordan - Mid-Atlantic, Women’s Committee Chair
Betsy Kimball - East, Women’s Committee Recording Secretary
Colleen Lanigan - East, Women’s Committee Chair
Mary Larkin - Midwest, National Events Coordinator
Krista McFarren - East, Convenor of Selectors
Vicki Middaugh - Midwest
Tracey Moens - West
Kathy Morrison - Pacific, Coaching Committee Liaison
Elaine Recchiuti - West, Convenor of Selectors
Jennie Redner - Midwest, Women’s Committee Chair
Lisa Riehl - Midwest
Kim Sheridan - Midwest
Julie Silverstein - Midwest
Diane Terwilliger - Women’s Committee Chair
Judy Tixler - East
M.L. Wernecke - East, Treasurer
Janine Wright - Fundraising
Roshna Wunderlich - East