By Kristin Bender
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Tributes and honors for female athletes are cropping up around the nation. While many are limited to exhibits inside larger museums, a new planned center named for Billie Jean King provides the first-ever hall of fame just for female athletes.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Inside the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita, Kan., visitors come to see Ivan the Tyrannosaurus rex, an autograph of Benedict Arnold, a mummy from ancient Egypt, and costumed re-enactments of battles and events drawn from world history.
But soon there will also be a bit of women's sports history tucked among the museum's three floors of eclectic treasures. On Sept. 1, the museum will open the Independent Women's Football League Hall of Fame and induct its first honorees.
It was during a working press trip to Wichita last year that Merle Exit, a writer and comedian from New York, saw the sports memorabilia at the Museum of World Treasures and suggested that the New York Sharks women's tackle football team have a display of photos and a signed football. The display stayed up for a few months, but Exit, a die-hard fan of the Sharks, wanted more for the team and for the sport of women's football overall.
With a blessing from Mike Noller, the museum's president and CEO, an announcement came that the museum would be permanent home to the league's Women's Football Hall of Fame. Noller said women's contact football was about to "explode in popularity" and they wanted to be part of the new excitement surrounding the sport.
Since then, Exit has been collecting signed footballs from each of the 32 women's tackle football teams in the league to make a display for the permanent exhibit. The league started in 2000 and will host its championships in Atlanta Aug. 11.
"As I watch (the Sharks) and how powerful they are, I don't know where the team is going to go, but I want them to be a legend in their own time. I want them to view their legend while they are still alive," Exit said. "When somebody goes there they are going to see a football from each of the teams and they are going to see the logo of the entire International Women's Football League Hall of Fame."
The display will be the first permanent museum exhibit of women's tackle football, according to Exit.
The Minor League Football Hall of Fame at the Oasis Resort Hotel in Mesquite, Nev.--which honors both men and women--also inducted its first class this year, including in the women's category Diane Beruldsen, the founder of the International Women's Flag Football Hall of Fame, which does not have a physical home.
Around the country, small exhibits like these are finding niches inside larger honorary halls or museums, the places where tributes to athletes can acquire a monumental importance to fans.
But something bigger for women's sports stars is also coming along fast; a hall of fame and comprehensive museum dedicated solely to women's sports is now under construction in New York.
While male athletes have long had halls of fame--at least 89 so far--to tell their stories and display their trophies, medals, uniforms and photos, sportswomen have had few opportunities to show off their prized memorabilia or places to pay tribute to the strides made by female athletes in the last century. So far only two halls of fame are dedicated specifically to women: the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., and the Professional Women Bowlers Hall of Fame in the Sam's Town Hotel in Las Vegas, home of the Sam's Town Invitational, one of the major events of the women's bowling tour.
"Halls of fame for sports are really an American cultural phenomenon and as American culture embraces women athletes more fully there will be more halls of fame devoted to women's sports," said Lisa Antonangeli, a spokesperson for the Women's Sports Foundation, which is partnering with the National Sports Museum in New York on the new women's sports project.
Work on the Billie Jean King International Women's Sports Center at the National Sports Museum in Manhattan is well underway.
The center will have 3,000 square feet of exhibit space, a comprehensive women's sports library of more than 2,000 volumes, a women's sports film and video collection, and athlete and event memorabilia representing more than 40 sports. The Women's Sports Foundation has chosen the individuals, teams and coaches that they'd like to include.
While the entire exhibit will be housed at the National Sport Museum, portions of the exhibit will travel nationally and be displayed in other museums around the country.
King came to prominence as a women's tennis champion but earned her legacy as a champion for female athletes.
She pioneered for comparable pay and equal opportunities for female athletes in the 1970s and founded the Women's Sports Foundation in New York in 1974 to advance the lives of girls and women, not just tennis players, through sports and physical activity.
The museum will highlight female athletes in multiple arenas, from Olympic winning teams and elite collegiate coaches to inspiring community grassroots programs and Little League coaches who spent 50 years in the game.
With an opening date of April 2008, visitors will be offered a view of King's 20th Wimbledon trophy and her wooden racquet.
Also on view: the Olympic gold medal of track star Wilma Rudolph, the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold three times, inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1973 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.
The helmet of female car racer Janet Guthrie will also be in the collection. Guthrie, the first woman to earn a starting spot in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, was inducted last year into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association and often called the "first lady of drag racing," was inducted in 2004.
"Our biggest challenge is deciding which stories to tell," said Antonangeli. "There are so many great ones."
Project proponents hope the hall and the museum will make the accomplishments of women more visible. Media coverage for women's sports still lags behind men's coverage: female athletes receive on average less than 8 percent of print and 6.3 percent of television coverage, according to data from the Women's Sports Foundation.
"Women are a powerful force in the world of sports," said Philip Schwalb, founder and CEO of the National Sport Museum. "Female athletes serve as role models and provide inspiration and encouragement to countless young women and men."
Kristin Bender is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.
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