Ann Arbor Author Debbie Gonzales Highlights Female Athletes Through History

In 1892, a daring teacher at Smith College named Senda Berenson Abbot coached the first women’s basketball game in history.  Using adapted men’s rules, this first game was played on a court divided into three sections with four women to a section.  The players couldn’t run, couldn’t touch, couldn’t bump and if they got sweaty, they had to come off the court.

And, only other women were allowed to watch the game.  No men were allowed for modesty’s sake, regardless of the fact that these women were covered head to toe with only their heads and hands showing.

It’s hard for young women today to picture such a restricted atmosphere in athletics, but it wasn’t so long ago that women were fighting hard for the right to compete in organized sports.

Author Debbie Gonzales is shining a light on these women, telling the stories of those who wouldn’t accept the status quo and sit quietly in the stands.  In her new book, Girls with Guts: The Road to Breaking Barriers and Bashing Records, Gonzales recounts the tales of women throughout history who have shattered the misconceptions of a woman’s ability to succeed in sports.  Her message to young girls is they can do anything – “stomp, jab, tackle, grind and SWEAT” – thanks to Title IX and the pioneering women in her book.

Over coffee at Carrigan Café in Saline, Gonzales spoke about her creative process in developing this book.  As part of her master’s degree program in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Gonzales had to write a creative thesis.  She decided to try writing a children’s book, and the idea for Girls with Guts was born.

“I was interested in the female protagonist and how she showed up in history,” Gonzales said. “When did she come to the page?  When did she get her own book?  What was her voice like?”  After much research to discover the earliest female athlete on record, Gonzales began to follow her through history.

You won’t find the stories of well-known female athletes like Jackie Joyner-Kersee or Billie Jean King in this book; their stories have been told time and again in many different media.  Gonzales chose instead to focus on lesser-known and younger women, to inspire young girls to pursue their athletic dreams.  Women such as Althea Gibson, a ping-pong champion in her teens who “traded her paddle for a tennis racket,” and went on to become the first athlete of color to win the Grand Slam title in 1956.

Or Donna de Varona, who was the youngest swimmer to join the Olympic team in 1960, bringing home two gold medals for the United States.  But, when it was time for de Varona to head off to college, there were no swimming scholarships for the woman crowned, “Most Outstanding Female Athlete in the World.” Athletic scholarships were for men only.  So, she changed paths and became the youngest female sportscaster instead, commentating Olympic swim meets at eighteen years old.  De Varona won Emmys for her work, then joined up with Billie Jean King to form the Women’s Sports Foundation, which is still going strong today.

“What I hope for this book is that the younger generations will understand not only the battles that were fought for them, but also appreciate the women who played before Title IX passed,” Gonzales shares.  “The interesting thing about this book is that, while I’m talking with women who couldn’t play before Title IX passed, I’m also talking with women who’ve never even heard of Title IX because it was never an issue for them.”

Case in point, Gonzales relayed a story that when speaking to a female fencer who competed in the 1996 Olympics, she called the fencer a “Title IX baby,” meaning both that she was born around the time Title IX passed and that she has benefited from its passing.  The fencer didn’t understand the reference, reinforcing Gonzales’ belief that the history of this law and the women who championed it needs to be told.

But Gonzales questioned whether she was the right person to tell the story.  Her biggest challenge in writing this book has been feeling confident in presenting such an important message.  “I want to serve it in the best way I possibly can,” she shared. “When a young girl reads this book, I want her to have a real understanding that when women fight for women, and when women really encourage another woman, it’s very powerful.  Empowering a girl with education, to go into business or to raise a family – whatever she may choose – an empowered girl can change the world.”

The stories included in Gonzales’ book are not only those of female athletes, but how Title IX was passed and the three women who made it happen: Edith Green, Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink.  These women were pioneers in their own right, as well as advocates for women.  Congresswoman Edith Green was known as “Mrs. Education” and worked to ensure rural areas had access to libraries and education.  Patsy Mink was the first congresswoman of color, and Shirley Chisholm the first African-American congresswoman.These women were pros at breaking barriers, and their persistence resulted in the passing of Title IX.

Girls with Guts: The Road to Breaking Barriers and Bashing Records can be purchased at many local bookstores and is also available in hardcover or e-book format from  For more stories of groundbreaking women athletes, visit Gonzales’ webpage at and check out her podcasts titled, “The Debcast Podcast.”  The 30+ episode podcast includes conversations with many amazing female sports figures such as Kathrine Switzer, the first female to run the Boston Marathon as a registered entrant, and Felicia Zimmerman, 2-time Olympic fencer and entrepreneur.

A book launch and reading by Gonzales of Girls with Guts is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 17 at noon at McPhearson Local, located at 105 N. Ann Arbor St. in Saline.  All kids who attend will receive a coupon for a free ice cream from Carrigan Café, and any that attend in their sports uniform will also get a prize.