Title IX impact far-reaching for one of Vanderbilt's first female scholarship recipients

Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 9:37pm

Title IX didn’t just impact Cathy Bender-Jackson. It influenced her entire family.

Bender-Jackson was the first in her family to attend college when, in the wake of the landmark legislation, she became the second woman — and first African-American female — to receive a full athletic scholarship from Vanderbilt in 1978.

To her seven younger siblings, receiving a higher education was no longer an obstacle. They all followed in her footsteps and went to college.

“It changed the whole face of my family,” she said. “Education became important and I probably would not have ranked it nearly as high if I had not had a door opened for me through athletics.”

Title IX celebrated its 40th anniversary on Saturday and Bender-Jackson still feels the effects of the amendment that prohibited sex discrimination in education.

Thirty years removed from her collegiate basketball career, the Mt. Juliet native is a vice president and senior advisor for Merrill Lynch.

“I work now in a predominantly male environment and athletics gives women a much broader sense of how to survive,” Bender-Jackson said. “We’re very competitive. We’re self-motivated, self-starters. If you look around you, I’d say the vast majority of student-athletes really do very well.”

The numbers agree.

According to the Associated Press, a 2002 survey by Oppenheimer Funds found that 82 percent of female business executives played organized sports beyond elementary school.

Bender-Jackson nearly missed being part of that statistic.

After she was cut from her seventh and eighth grade teams, she had all but given up on basketball. She planned to try out for the cheerleading squad as a freshman at Mt. Juliet but finally made the team. In 1977, she helped lead the Golden Bears to the school’s first state championship in any sport.

She played with Mt. Juliet’s then-all-time leading scorer Sheila Johansson, who joined Bender-Jackson at Vanderbilt and actually was the first female athlete at Vanderbilt to receive a full scholarship.

“It was definitely a game-changer for both of us,” Bender-Jackson said. “When I got the scholarship offer that was the conversation we had: ‘This is a big deal and 10 years ago this probably wouldn’t have happened for you.’ I was an honors student. I would have attended some school probably but it would not have been Vanderbilt University. And it would have been a different road. When I left Vanderbilt I didn’t have loans.”

When Bender-Jackson arrived on campus, the women’s basketball program was one year old.

The Commodores improved every season she as there, reaching 20 wins for the first time in 1981-82. They also reached the postseason national tournament for the time in the last year of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) before the NCAA stepped in to run the tournament.

“When I look at that basketball program over there I feel like I’m a pioneer,” Bender-Jackson said. “When I see those girls hit the floor and they’re winning, I’ll always be a piece of that. It was a tough time. It is like anything else you integrate, it’s tough. But there is a lot of reward that comes with it.”

She continues to give back to the school that opened doors. She serves as board member of the Vanderbilt Alumni Association and recently co-chaired the school’s first African-American endowed scholarship.

She frequently visits campus for board meetings and notices how different — for the better — the school is because of Title IX.

She believes the legislation, which does not mention the words athletics or sports, impacted a broader spectrum. Well after she graduated, she continued to see the results on a social, educational and professional level.

“When I started at Merrill Lynch [in 1987] there were maybe 50 guys and me. I was the only female and generally the only black,” she said. “[Title IX] created a mindset that empowered women. It opened all kinds of avenues and I think the world reaps the benefits of those today.”