Mary Ellen Pethel

Mary Ellen Pethel

Belmont University assistant professor Mary Ellen Pethel has written a variety of books throughout her 12-year career as an academic and author. 

Pethel spoke with the Post about her most recent book, Title IX, Pat Summitt, And Tennessee's Trailblazers: Fifty Years, Fifty Stories,” which is being featured in the 34th annual Southern Festival of Books on Oct. 14-16 at War Memorial Plaza and the downtown Nashville Public Library. The festival is returning to an in-person event for the first time since 2019. 

The book includes stories from former athletes and others between the ages of 20 to 93 who paved the way for young athletes today.  

“We are all beneficiaries of Title IX,” she said. “It's important to look back and see who we should thank for the opportunities that we have today, and this book is a celebration of the women that we should thank for their work 50 years ago.” 

Pethel is speaking at the library on Oct. 15 at 2 p.m., followed by a book signing.

Who were some people that you learned about in this process that you didn't know much about before and what were their stories?  

I would say out of the 50 women that I wrote about, I probably knew less than half of them when I started. It became this organic process. I would interview somebody and they would say,well have you talked to so and so from Fisk? Have you talked to so and so from TSU, the University of Memphis or UT-Martin? They would give me their contact information or send an introductory email. Before I know it, I'm talking to this person, whose name I didn't know the day before, who has the most incredible story I've ever heard.   

It was this amazing organic process, and I didn't set out to write 50 stories. That was not my idea, because it ended up being a heck of a lot bigger project than I anticipated. The more word got out and they would put me in touch with people from other universities and also lots of different roles, like some coaches, some athletes, some administrators. Once I hit 40, I was like I've got to get to 50.  

Are there athletes from Nashville that you wrote about that stick out to you in this book?  

Candice Storey Lee has an amazing story, being an athlete at Vanderbilt, and now rising through the ranks to now an athletic director at one of the most prestigious schools in the nation. The first female black AD in a Southeastern Conference. She is not only like a torch bearer, but she's now a trailblazer in her way.  

I would say another one is Chandra Cheeseborough‑Guice, who is the track coach at TSU today. She's the track coach for the men and women. She’s in the book as a trailblazer because she ran as a Tigerbelle in the 70s. She was the last Tigerbelle to win an Olympic medal in 1984. Then she came back in the 1990s to take over the track program at TSU. She's still there. She's been blazing the trail and carrying the torch for more than 40 years.  

Where do you believe women's sports stand now versus 50 years ago?

I'll quote Alex Walsh, who is a swimmer from Nashville. She now attends the University of Virginia, but she's a graduate of Harpeth Hall School here in Nashville. There was a mantra that came out in the 1970s when Billie Jean King formed the Women's Tennis Association, and the mantra was, we've come a long way, baby.

The truth of the matter is, they were kind of overstepping a little bit. They hadn't gone that far yet. I think they were trying to project confidence. What I say in the book is the truth of the matter is they had a lot further to go when they first made that claim in 1970.   

Fast forward to now, in the interview with Alex, I asked about the future, her future, and the future of women's sports, and she said of herself, but also women's sports: I've come a long way, but we've still got, I've still got, a long way to go. I think that young women today see the progress that's happened, but they recognize that there is still work to be done.  

What is the biggest lesson you learned from the women in this book?

What I've learned most is that I get to tell people stories, but also that I get to understand history in a better way myself. Something I learned from this project. I played sports growing up, I knew about the contours of Title IX. I had no idea the extent to which I was a beneficiary and daughter of Title IX, sort of as a second generation. 

I came of age in the 1990s and so I was the first generation to grow up completely underneath the protections of Title IX. Writing this book helped me understand my history as well, I think the history for all young women and young men. As I say in the book, Title IX doesn't just benefit girls and women. It also benefits boys and men. It benefits all of us. We're all beneficiaries of Title IX.