The forthright former Notre Dame coach didn’t expect to go viral for her comments during a 2019 Final Four press conference. That is, until the likes of Barack Obama and Billie Jean King tweeted about them.
As Notre Dame marks the 50th anniversary of undergraduate women officially enrolled at Notre Dame, McGraw adds her thoughts on the current state of gender equality.
I didn’t know that it was going to end up being “a moment.”
Heading into the Final Four in 2019, my focus was only on the game. We had just beat UConn and would be facing the No. 1 seed — the Lady Bears of Baylor University. During the press conference, it was pointed out that I was not only the sole female head coach but I also had
Then came the question: “Muffet, I know you’ve made some comments on hiring practices and what you may do in the future ... Now that we’ve lost [University of Tennessee Lady Vols Head Coach] Pat Summitt, how seriously do you take being that voice?
I lost it.
“The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1967. And it still hasn’t passed. We need 38 states to agree that discrimination on the basis of sex is unconstitutional. We’ve heard that a record number of women were running for office and winning. And still, we have 23% of the House and 25% of the Senate.”
A few months prior to the press conference, I noticed that more women were being elected during the midterm elections. Wow, isn’t this great, I thought. And then I started researching it and uncovered these dismal statistics. Not only in politics, but in business: Only 5% of CEOS are women.
“I’m getting tired of the novelty of ... the first female governor of this state. The first female African-American mayor of this city. When is it going to become the norm instead of the exception? How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.”
I had no idea my comments would go viral. I just said what I thought needed to be said. And apparently, a lot of people also felt like it needed to be said as well. Immediately following the press conference, a manager came up to me after practice and said, “Barack Obama just retweeted your speech.” I was like, “What?” I had forgotten about it when I left the podium.
As the Notre Dame Women’s Basketball coach for 33 years and now as a Mendoza faculty member, I’ve had the privilege to work with thousands of bright, talented young women. I wrote my book, Expect More! Dare to Stand Up and Stand Out, to address the challenges I’ve seen women struggle with, both personally and professionally. It’s clear: To arrive at gender parity in sports, politics, business and culture, we need a lot more moments of women standing up for themselves, of men supporting them as allies and of legislation that clears the barriers for women to become leaders.
We need more women in power.
Fifty years ago was another “moment.” In 1972, undergraduate women were admitted for the first time into Notre Dame. The year also marked the passage of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program that receives funding from the federal government.
I started playing college basketball for St. Joseph University in Philadelphia in 1973, the first year the school fielded a women’s team. I don’t remember a lot of rejoicing about Title IX. We felt lucky we got to play. But we had no practice clothes, no sneakers. We did our own laundry and drove our own cars to away games. There were no scholarships. We had to wait for the varsity men’s team and then the JV team to finish practice before we could get on the court. And they practiced for as long as they wanted while we sat around and waited for our opportunity.
We played because we loved the game. We didn’t complain. And that was our problem. We never looked at the guys’ games and said, “Why don’t we have that? Why don’t people come to our game? Why don’t we get more attention?”
We went along that way for probably 20 years. And then women started to complain. They complained about salaries and the inequities between the men’s and women’s programs. When they started suing schools in court, that’s when things really started to change.
As a coach, I started to change, too. I became the head coach at Notre Dame in 1987 after coaching at Lehigh University for five years. It’s always amazed me that women don’t have the same level of confidence that men have. It’s as if men are born with it and women struggle to find it. In the book, The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman said women lose confidence around age 11 and don’t get it back until they are in their 20s. I didn’t think that would be true of the great athletes who I coached. I was surprised to find out otherwise.
How could these smart, talented women be accepted at Notre Dame as a scholarship Division I player, and still lack confidence? That was something I didn’t really understand early in my career. I didn’t work enough to help their confidence. If they lost their confidence and weren’t playing well, I just thought, “Hey, if you’re playing well, you’re going to play in the game. If you’re not playing well, you’re going to sit on the bench tonight.” Coaching was all about basketball. It was all Xs and Os.
Eventually, I started to realize that I needed to do more to help these women — to empower them, to build their confidence. I thought they probably learned many things about confidence and leadership at home or certainly had been given the right tools, but that wasn’t always the case. So I thought, “Well, if I don’t do it, who’s going to? And then what’s going to happen to them?”
I started to look at my players in a different light and talk to them about things off the court, more so than I ever did before. At the same time, we had our own battles here at Notre Dame with Title IX because we didn’t have the same things that the men had. Like most women, I thought, “Well, when we’re successful, as soon as we get good, I’m going to complain because then I have the right to complain.” And that’s so wrong.
It dawned on me that if I’m not complaining, what are my players thinking? Oh, you have to be good? You have to be in an elite program? You have to be a success? You have to earn the right to have equality? What a terrible lesson I was teaching them. Sometime in the late 1990s, I had the epiphany that I had to start fighting for my team, for my staff and for my program and letting them know that this was unacceptable.
When we won the NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship in 2001, people always described our team as businesslike. We went about getting the job done and we never tried to bring attention to ourselves. In a word, we were humble, where NBA and other teams were about everyone trying to get the attention from fans. I thought, “Oh my God, don’t ever do that because that is not what we’re supposed to be.” We’re socialized as women to get along, to go along, to not make waves, to be a good sport, to be a good girl and all that.
Things changed for me when Skylar Diggins joined the team in 2009. She not only had confidence but swagger. At first, I was taken aback like, whoa, is this good? Then I thought, “You should probably listen to some of your speeches because you talk about women needing to have confidence.” The thing was, she had swagger for our team. It wasn’t all about her. She changed our dynamics. She changed our culture. She brought confidence to our team. When I was in the locker room stressing out before a game, she and another player, Devereaux Peters, would say, “We got you, Coach.” Skylar made me feel better when it was supposed to be the other way around. I started to see that swagger was a good thing.
When you look at how slowly things have evolved for the past 50 years, even with the weight of federal legislation behind us, we haven’t yet arrived at gender equity. What has to change are our stereotypes, attitudes and mindset. That includes everyone’s, not just women’s. As women, we have to raise our daughters differently because, right now, we’re raising them with different expectations than those for our sons. This goes for men, too. They should think of what they want for their daughters, sisters and mothers, as well as their colleagues.
What I would love to see is for moms to coach the 5- and 6-year-olds’ soccer teams so we can teach our girls, “Hey, you want to be competitive. You want to be aggressive. You want to stand up for yourself and you need to have confidence.” Moms should coach their sons’ teams so they would develop a sense of being inclusive and look at women as their equals. It’s a start.
Certainly, I want to see a female president. I’d love to see more female producers and directors. We need more women leaders at Notre Dame because what women need is opportunity. I think another big change has been the #MeToo movement, which has put a spotlight on sexual harassment. I hope it’s given people the confidence to step out and talk about their story.
Billie Jean King said, “Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top, too.”
I named my book Expect More because women don’t expect more. We take what we get and we go with it. We don’t ask for a raise. Men ask four times as often. When we do negotiate, we never ask for enough, and we never ask for what we deserve. We have to do better. This is where men can help as advocates. We need men to share things about their salary and we need men who are in that room, making those decisions, to say, “I think we need to hire a woman,” or, “I think this woman would be a great hire for us,” or, “We need to have more diversity.”
Mentors are great, but we need people with some power to really do things. And there are a lot of men out there who are doing that but there’s not enough of them. We need more.
I’m very hopeful about the future because attitudes about women in leadership are changing in the current generation, and I am even more hopeful for the next. As Gen Z and whatever comes next move into leadership roles, I think we’ll see more women in those roles. I would love to see more activists, more feminists who are really getting the word out. We need more people to step up nationally. They’re out there; they’re just a little bit under the radar.
Title IX was passed in 1972 and although it was just 37 words, it’s considered one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in history. But here we are at its 50th anniversary and we still see inequity throughout women’s sports, as well as in higher education.
There’s an old saying that if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem. So what are YOU doing to solve the problem?