Before Title IX, Women's Sports Pioneer Claussen Found a Path

Nov. 16, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

Connie Claussen with UNO softball team
Connie Claussen, in coat, confers with members of the 1970 UNO women's softball team. (Photo: UNO Archives)

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Connie Claussen became a legendary figure in the history of women’s sports in Nebraska at a very specific time.

Prior to 1968, softball leagues in Omaha attracted hundreds of girls to the ball diamond. The enthusiasm of the players had not convinced the administration at the University of Nebraska Omaha to create a team that could compete against other schools.

In fact, there were no sanctioned sports for women at UNO. Perhaps that was not unique at that time, but it was a little embarrassing when Omaha was selected as the host for the first women’s World Series of softball.

UNO's 1969 Women's Softball Team in two rows (kneeling and standing) with trees and grass in the background.
UNO's 1969 Women's Softball Team. Claussen stands, back row, left. (Photo courtesy UNO Archives)
Claussen staffing third base on a softball diamond with a player in the infield ready to field a ball in the background.
Claussen serves as third base coach during a 1970 softball game. (Photo courtesy UNO Archives)

Claussen taught physical education at UNO. She figured if the women’s world series was coming to town, the hometown university “probably should have a team.”

With borrowed uniforms and a brief practice period, the team entered the tournament. They lost two games and were out. History probably should not mark those games as a loss.

Claussen’s spur of the moment decision opened up generations of opportunities for female athletes in Nebraska, whether school administrators wanted it or not.

“That was the beginning of women's athletics at UNO,” she told Nebraska Public Media News. This was four years before Title IX. That law, passed in 1972, required equity in academic and athletic programs at any school receiving federal funding.

Earlier this year, UNO, recognizing Claussen’s contributions, named its softball complex after her. She remains one of the most influential people in Nebraska sports.

Recently Claussen reflected on what it took to get women out on the playing field years before it was required.

Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media News: Was there an assumption from the start there would eventually be more sports available to young women, beyond softball at UNO?

Connie Claussen: Yes, I think there was an assumption that one sport would lead to another, but there certainly wasn't any money or any support for it.

Kelly: At those very first games how did the team pay for uniforms and equipment if you didn't have a budget?

Claussen: Well first, I borrowed uniforms for my summer (club league) softball coach and he had the equipment. I could use the (softball) equipment (used for Phys Ed classes) because since I was also head of the women's physical education department, I would use that softball equipment. The (UNO) Alumni Association bought one set of uniforms that we used for softball, volleyball, and basketball.

Softball team on the field holds Connie Claussen up on their shoulders as she holds a large trophy.
UNO's softball team holds Claussen aloft after winning the Women's College World Series in 1975. (Photo courtesy UNO Archives)

Kelly: You had to share uniforms between three different sports?

Claussen: You never ever had to worry about someone wearing the wrong uniform. There was only one! And that was because the Alumni Association gave that to us.

Kelly: Was there immediate interest among the women students?

Claussen: Yes! I had no problem getting the softball team. I just got the word out to a few people that I knew played summer softball, and before I knew it, I had a team. I never had a problem getting the athletes because they were so excited that they could participate in an athletic event.

Kelly: What was the nature of the resistance that you got from the administration?

Claussen: Someone said, "One athletic program is enough. We didn't need two." I won't say who that was but I got the written note that said that, and I thought, “Oh!” That note is now in the archives at the university.

Kelly: Was that resistance, openly hostile ever?

Claussen: No. As we went along (we had outside support) in little ways. There was a Mayor's Commission on the Status of Women and they got to supporting me and helping me fight and helping the (athlete’s) parents fight to get some money so we could start hiring some people. I had some parents of student-athletes so interested in getting money that one of them was ready to take the university to court.

I had a lot of support outside so that I didn't have to do a lot of fighting and possibly lose my job.

One of the chancellors wanted me to say that everything was going good (between the administration and women’s athletics). I knew if I didn't say that, things would get much worse. I thought I may lose the battle, but I've got to win the war.

Claussen told reporters everything was fine.

Claussen: There was a cartoon in the World-Herald. The chancellor had me on his lap, like a dummy, moving my lips that everything was going fine. It was very frustrating. It was hard. But I knew that the student-athletes were appreciating it, so we just kept on plugging away.

Kelly: I want to make clear on that. Were there times you felt like (any progress you were making) could just all go away?

Claussen: No, I did. I didn't think it would go away because I didn't think I quit. I just kept fighting.

First pitch at Connie Claussen Field with Claussen preparing to throw a bright yellow softball from the pitcher's mound with a large scoreboard and the field in the background.
In March 2021, Connie Claussen threw out the first pitch before the inaugural game at the softball complex bearing her name. (Photo courtesy UNO Athletics)
A change in at the top of UNO’s administration in the late 1970s brought new support, appreciation, and funding for the expanded women’s sports programs led by Connie Claussen.

Kelly: In starting this program, from the start, did you view this as something that was just fun or was this actually something important for the community?

Claussen: No, this is something very important, not only for the community, but also for our female student-athletes so that they could continue to participate. I was giving those student-athletes, opportunities that they deserved. They were so appreciative. We had nothing but they were so appreciative of having the opportunity.

Kelly: Today, when you see what's happened in this state with women's volleyball; when you see nationally what's happening with women's soccer and the profile that women in tennis get these days. How does that make you feel as somebody who had to fight to even get women out on the field?

Claussen: Well, it makes me feel that it was all worthwhile, that things are finally turning around the way they should be.

Kelly: Do you think the young women right now have a real understanding of what it was like?

Claussen: No. I had a videotape of the beginning of things and I always made sure the coaches showed that tape to the incoming student-athletes so they could see where it was and how far we had come.

Kelly: Perhaps they certainly took it for granted.

Claussen: I think so. They can do it when they're in grade school now and get on all these club teams. They got the opportunities. The only thing that's lacking is we need more female coaches and more female administrators.