OPINION: 'Lady Cats'? Nope. It's time for gendered team names to go
When I was hired to cover high school athletics at the Woodburn Independent in 2013, my first task was getting to know the five school districts in my immediate coverage area.
When I was conducting my initial coverage of each school, one thing stuck out to me as somewhat peculiar — the dual mascot names at Gervais High School. I was initially drawn to the school because it flashed the same blue and gold colors of my alma mater, Canby High School, along with the same Cougar mascot. Even the fight song is the same tune.
But Gervais differed in its girls athletics. The boys teams were referred to as Cougars, while the girls teams were dubbed the Lady Cats. I had never come across a high school that had different names for its boys and girls teams. I found it odd, but didn't make much of it, using the name off and on for the first year of my tenure at the paper.
As time wore on, though, the name began to trouble me. Why Lady Cats? Why did the girls team need to be separate from the boys? Sure, the name gives the girls programs their own identity, but what was the point of gendering the name? A cougar can be either male or female. Did the girls teams really need a mascot name that made it so abundantly clear that they were separate from their male counterparts?
I consulted the expert in all things related to Gervais athletics last week — Jeannine James — to find out the origin of the moniker. James was the first inductee of the Gervais High School athletic Hall of Fame and in her 50 years working in the district, she has been involved in nearly every athletic endeavor the school has offered. She came to Gervais in 1969, before Oregon reintroduced girl extramural athletics
in the '70s. If anyone knew about where the Lady Cats name came from, it would be her.
James speculated that the Lady Cats came about some time in the 1980s. This was arguably the peak of Gervais athletics, and the girls basketball team made back-to-back state championship appearances, winning the Single A state championship in 1988-89.
"That was the time the women's college teams were Lady this and Lady that. So someone decided we should be the Lady Cats," James wrote to me. "It has come and gone since then."
James also made it clear she was not a fan of the name.
"I said something to someone one day that I didn't like it," she remarked. "This person said 'They need their own identity.' My response to that is 'What's wrong with being Cougars?'"
That's what I was asking myself as a sports editor about a year into the job. What's wrong with being the Cougars? Or the Bulldogs, Huskies, Trojans or Buckaroos? Gervais was the only school I covered to have a different name for their girls programs, but every school I wrote about frequently referred to their girls programs with a "Lady" prefix before the mascot.
I saw it as antiquated. A call back to an age in which girls athletics were not the norm. It was a superfluous addition, one I felt could easily be eliminated from the newspaper's lexicon. I stopped using the term in print and the change went unheralded. Programs were simply referred to as the boys teams and the girls teams.
I'm revisiting the topic this month after the Colton School District announced it would
no longer use the "Lady" prefix for its girls athletic programs, resulting in a vocal backlash from the community.
I'll admit the level of outrage took me somewhat by surprise, but I also understand where the passion comes from. High school athletics are the lifeblood of small communities like Colton or Gervais. The school is the community hub, where past generations come to cheer their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. People grow up, raise a family and retire in these communities. The school — and by extension its mascot — is an identity that is never shed.
When Colton School District Superintendent Koreen Barreras-Brown decided to eliminate the official use of "Lady" by the school athletic programs without consulting the community she serves, I believe she made a mistake — but I do believe her decision was ultimately the right one to make.
Community members deserve to be a part of these conversations. District superintendents often have a relatively short tenure at their position, while the communities they serve feel the impacts of their policy decisions for generations.
In November, the Daily Astorian reported that the Astoria School District was considering eliminating the "Lady Fish" nickname for its girls athletic teams. The school's official mascot is the Fishermen, which has been the case for more than 100 years, and high school principal Lynn Jackson expressed in the article that any change should be a communitywide and student discussion.
Girls high school athletics has been around in Oregon long before the state began officially recognizing female state champions in the 1970s. Fifty years earlier, girls teams were suiting up throughout the state in the '20s, most frequently in small communities like Knappa, Vida and Pleasant Hill, according to a 2008 Oregonian article by Rachel Bachman, who is now a senior sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
"As the 1920s unfolded, girls and women nationwide enjoyed more freedom than ever before," Bachman wrote. "They won the right to vote in 1920, ditched their corsets and tackled the new world of girls team sports."
Bachman noted that while small school districts embraced girls basketball, larger schools in Portland and across the country eschewed the idea of organized girls athletics.
"In 1907, Illinois had banned girls high school basketball, disbanding nearly 300 teams statewide," Bachman continued. "Officials from the Illinois High School Athletic Association cited the sport's roughness, according to an online story by current IHSAA staff member Scott Johnson, and declared, 'the exercise in public is immodest and not altogether ladylike.'"
Bachman noted that in 1925, the Women's Division of the National Amateur Athletic Foundation voted 72-7 to ban extramural competition for girls. The vote was supported by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In the decade after, competitive girls athletics began to gradually disappear, replaced with intramural programs that were deemed less strenuous, and presumably, a bit more "ladylike."
Girls high school basketball was largely dormant for 30 years until the OSAA's 1976 state championship tournament, coming four years after Title IX legislation banned sex discrimination in schools.
In the decades since, girls high school athletics in the state has flourished to extraordinary levels, with more student athletes competing in the past decade than in any other time in the state's history.
But remnants of the antiquated past of girls athletics remain. "Lady" is employed by programs ubiquitously throughout the state. It's a term that is used both as a form of respect, but also as a way to differentiate women from partaking in activities traditionally reserved for men. The boys teams are the default. The girls teams are something different, something other.
"At Woodburn we are very big on 'Team Woodburn' and 'Bulldog Pride.' That does not have gender attached to it," Woodburn girls soccer head coach Andrea Whiteman said when I asked her about the topic of gendered mascots. "They are student athletes. Period."
Whiteman took over the Bulldog girls soccer team in 2017 and within three seasons, turned a struggling program into the first girls state champion team in school history. A former student athlete at Philomath High School, Whiteman has played under the "Lady" moniker and questions the purpose of its use.
"... I believe the prefix "lady" is not very inclusive, it creates divisions where it doesn't need to be there, and it feels a little condescending as a female athlete," she said.
On a personal level, I think parents, coaches and student athletes should be free to make that choice. Many former student athletes feel a great sense of pride in being a "Lady Viking" or "Lady Trojan." Many current student athletes are proud to carry that tradition and feel there is nothing offensive with being called a Lady. I don't disagree.
But on an institutional level, I think it's time to retire the term from official use. Schools should be seeking to be inclusive of its entire student body, boys and girls. They shouldn't be referring to their girls activities as "Lady" programs any more than they should be making an effort to pointlessly gender boys activities.
Phil Hawkins is the Woodburn Independent editor.
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