I’m on the phone with Molly Schiot, the Los Angeles-based author of Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History, and she is simultaneously answering my questions and doing a search on Amazon for “women’s sports books.”
She reads out the results: “There’s my book first, which is super nice, and next there’s ‘International 2017 Wall Calendar: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit,’ and then the next one is Romance: Playing the Field. So, yeah, that’s about it.”
Her point is well-made and -taken. There will always be room for books by and about popular, of-the-moment female athletes, with soccer star Abby Wambach’s Forward and gymnast Simone Biles’ Courage To Soar being two recent examples. And lately, thankfully, there’s been a slew of excellent books about fascinating figures from the past: Don Van Natta’s biography of Olympic and golfing great Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias; Glenn Stout’s biography of English Channel swimmer Gertrude Ederle; Olympic swimmer Shirley Babashoff’s memoirs (ghosted by Chris Epting). What remains as rare as a slam dunk at a WNBA game, however, is a gem like In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, journalist Madeleine Blais’s poignant season-in-the-life with a girl’s high-school basketball team from Massachusetts (published in 1995).
An artist and a director of music videos and commercials, Schiot directed “Our Tough Guy,” a 10-minute short about Boston Bruins enforcer John Wensink for the acclaimed “30 for 30” documentary series on ESPN. But she grew frustrated when the network kept rejecting her pitches about female subjects, like the story involving the Wake-Robin Golf Club, founded in the 1930s by Helen Webb Harris and other African-American women, who managed to convert an abandoned trash dump into a nine-hole course after Washington, D.C. officials refused to desegregate the public golf courses in the area.
Noted Schiot: “It baffles me that the real Wake-Robin Club is less known than the fictional Bad News Bears.”
Schiot made it her mission to uncover other stories of under-the-radar sports pioneers. In 2013, she turned to Instagram and began posting photos and vignettes on the topic. She soon gained a devoted following at @TheUnsungHeroines, leading to a book deal with Simon and Schuster.
With a stunning selection of archival and family photographs, Game Changers honors athletes, journalists, coaches, and teams that have been ignored because of their gender—stories so compelling that each would make for a must-see “30 for 30” film. There’s rower-turned-IOC-member Anita DeFrantz, who sued the U.S. Olympic Committee on behalf of American athletes over President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There’s Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett, the African-American sprinters who were summarily replaced by a pair of slower, white runners just before the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and there’s Peggy Oki, the only girl on the legendary Zephyr skateboard team. There’s archer Neroli Fairhall, the first paraplegic to compete in the Olympics (in Los Angeles in 1984), and there’s Isabel Letham, Australia’s first female surfer, who was introduced to wave-riding by none other than Duke Kahanamoku. Interspersed are interviews with the likes of TV broadcaster Pam Oliver, skateboarder Laura Thornhill, and Title IX advocate Margaret Dunkle.
In exhuming the achievements of women who have been deemed insignificant by the male-dominated gatekeepers of sports, Schiot has crafted a deeply personal and profoundly political statement. But Game Changers is no polemic. Rather, by celebrating those who chose to pursue unconventional lives, Schiot reveals the universal traits of personal sacrifice and competitive fervor that drove these exceptional pioneers.
Eephus recently spoke to Molly Schiot about Game Changers.
Eephus: Did you play sports growing up?
Molly Schiot: I grew up in New Hampshire, right across the street from this pond called Eel Pond that would freeze over. My introduction to sports was playing pond hockey with my dad and his friends and all their kids. It became a fun community activity during the wintertime, and then I would play lacrosse and soccer. That carried over up until college. I was one of those kids that was completely ignorant about music and TV and movies and everything else because I was always in the back of a car getting driven around to different soccer fields and rinks and all that stuff.
Eephus: You pitched a documentary about the Wake-Robin Golf Club—this pioneering group of African-American women golfers from the 1930s—and were rejected. Why did you then decide to post photos and stories about these and other women pioneers via Instagram?
MS: When directors pitch stories, whether it’s a film or a commercial or a music video, you put together a treatment. Like, “This is what the story’s going to be, and here’s the visuals, and this is how I’m going to do it.” The first one I put together was about the Wake-Robin Golf Club because it had all of the elements of a really compelling story. The photos were so cool, and the stories were so interesting, that I decided to put them up on my private personal account. And then I was like, you know what? All of these women’s names and all of their stories are stuck in dusty old books and magazines that no one ever looks at anymore because they’re in libraries. They’re not on the Internet. So, I decided to create an Instagram account specifically for these stories and get them pushed onto a popular culture media platform.
Eephus: When did you start thinking, hey, this could be a book?
MS: It kind of happened organically. I started putting the stories together with the photographs and then through a series of introductions I started communicating with a literary agent. She was like, “Let’s try to crack this code,” because when you go on Amazon and type “women sports books”—like I’m going to do while we’re talking—they’re all really, really cheesy. So, we were laughing about it and wondering, “Is there a reason why these books aren’t being made?” And then the World Cup happened [won by the U.S. women’s team in 2015], and we put together a treatment, and then it became a bidding war with three different publishers.
Eephus: How did you cull the women from your Instagram account to those featured in the book?
MS: It was a three-part process. One was just the reaction that people would give me in the comments section on Instagram. I knew that if people responded there, the readers of the book would like it. I also tried to round out the sports part, whether it was skateboarders, surfers, hikers, climbers, or women that worked on Title IX legilsation, because you could do a book on 200 women that played basketball, but that would be a completely different project.
Then came the third part: the way the women looked. It’s really easy to make a book about white women in sports because so much of the research and the information online concerns white women. They were in country clubs, and they had money for photographers and other resources, whereas a lot of the women of color weren’t allowed to play in those tennis clubs or on those golf courses. It was much harder to find those stories, which I thought were equally if not more important.
Eephus: Was there any one athlete who elicited the most response on Instagram?
MS: All of the most popular photos are the skateboarders. But I have posted several stories that were not of heroines—women from history that were controversial—and those get an incredible response. Like, there’s a French woman named Violette Morris, who was a racecar driver who later became a Nazi. She had really large breasts and ended up having her breasts removed in order to fit into her car. The fact that she was a Nazi is a horrific thing, but I felt that you still have to represent this person in some way. I’m always a bit trepidatious about posting those kind of stories because they get a lot of dialogue back and forth. I have to make a big disclaimer at the front, and I try my best to get in there and talk to people who comment and be respectful of everyone’s voice.
Eephus: Researching the lives of certain figures—like Billie Jean King or Pat Summitt—isn’t that difficult. How did you go about researching obscure figures, like tennis pioneer Ora Washington or billiards star Dorothy Wise?
MS: There’s a lot of women in the book where you can’t just Google them. It’s really about reaching out to the families or contacting universities and different institutions. Wayne Wilson helped me so much with research at the LA84 Library in West Adams. A lot of the stories, like the one about the All American Red Heads barnstorming basketball team, I found at LA84. They have the entire run of womenSports magazine from the 1970s, and I would just rifle through the back issues and find really cool articles and pictures. [Author’s Note: Full disclosure: I do occasional writing for the LA84 Foundation.]
With Dorothy Wise, I wanted to find someone who played pool. I was trying to find a photo of her, and I finally found a tiny picture of her online. The woman who posted the picture turned out to be a huge pool player in New York, and Dorothy was her mentor. I reached out to her directly and asked if she had any other photos. She ended up sending me beautiful high-res photos of Dorothy as well as a plethora of newspaper clippings.
Eephus: What are your favorite stories in the book and why do they resonate with you?
MS: There are a handful of stories that I feel especially close to. One is the story about Lisa Olson, the sports reporter who was basically run out of Boston by the fans there. Growing up in New Hampshire, I remember Lisa Olson and her red hair and some sort of controversy surrounding her, but I never knew the full story. Her story was something that I related to so much because being a woman director in Hollywood is not easy. My wife is an actor and she is not white. Seeing her go out for different parts and seeing the way that casting directors look for a certain type of person, I had so much empathy, and so much sadness, thinking about my struggle and my wife’s struggle and how sexist and how racist the entertainment industry is at the end of the day. I can only imagine how much harder it must’ve been in 1990 when Lisa Olson was just trying to do her job as a reporter and met with harassment. I tried to reach out to her, but I think she prefers not to talk about that time, which I completely understand.
Another story that I think is really interesting is about Bernice Gera, the umpire. When I was originally looking up stories about her, I found that they were all written by men. All of the stories were along the lines of, “Bernice Gera can’t handle the heat” or “Bernice Gera doesn’t have the balls,” with these lame puns and super sexist ways of writing about her. She ended up quitting because, when she went out on the baseball field, the two other umps that were working alongside her wouldn’t communicate with her with hand signals, which is the most basic and necessary thing that you must do when you’re on an umpiring crew. She said, “Screw it. If I put in all this time and they’re not going to do the fundamental hand signals with me, then I’m out.”
It wasn’t until I came across a book of collected stories written by Nora Ephron [Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women], where she actually interviewed and wrote about Bernice Gera, that I saw a completely different person. She talked about how much sadness she had and how heartbroken she was because being an umpire was her dream. If she couldn’t play baseball because she was a woman, then maybe she could be an ump.
Eephus: The book includes some famous women—like Billie Jean King, Pat Summitt, Gertrude Ederle—with lesser-known women. Was that a difficult balance to achieve?
MS: I almost didn’t want to put anyone that was famous in the book, but I’d also say that, unless you know a lot about basketball, you probably don’t know Pat Summitt’s name. There are definitely a few women that are well known—like [distance swimmer] Diana Nyad—but the vast majority of people that have gotten the book know maybe three percent of the people in the book. It was more about finding that micro-story and then expanding off of that. I think that statistics—and how many goals so-and-so scored—are insipid and boring. But the fact that Emma Gatewood got into a fight with her husband and then left and walked the entire Appalachian Trail is a really interesting story.
Eephus: This may come across as naïve, but why do you think so many of these stories have been lost to history? Is it sexism? The culture? The men who run sports?
MS: I think that you can expand that question: How come we don’t know about so many women from history? I think that women’s stories have always been there—all of the stories in the book happened—but there is a specific reason why they’re not being told. I think it really does come from the top and the way it plays out from there. There’s a precedent that’s been established. With ESPN and their “30 for 30” series, there’ve been about 160 films that have been made, whether they’re features or shorts, and less than ten have been about women.
I really believe that when you’re an executive at the top you have a responsibility to tell all different types of stories. But they’re not doing that. They’re saying, “Oh, so-and-so wants to do one about the Chicago Bears.” Or, “My friend that just directed this one about the New York Knicks has a buddy that wants to make one, can he send in a treatment?” It’s this insular community, and women are not represented fairly. I feel like once people start calling that out, things will begin to change. But I also think it’s men’s responsibility to call that out just as much as it is women’s at this point, and there’s been some rad guys that I feel have started to do that.
Eephus: I watched a bunch of excellent women’s sports documentaries from ESPN, with the “Nine for IX” series, but the only place I could locate the DVDs was at the L.A. County Library. That was sort of weird.
MS: Yeah, people are always saying to me, “What about ‘Nine for IX’?” And I’ll say, “Have you watched them?” And everyone says, “No,” because it’s impossible to find them. Do a Google search: good luck.
There’ve been so many great “30 for 30” docs. Like, I loved “The Two Escobars.” But I find it really offensive that they separated the women’s stories into “Nine for IX” and didn’t keep them underneath the “30 for 30” umbrella, because there’s obviously a shitload of stories about the incredible adversity that women have faced and overcome. It’s like, “Let’s do this totally separate documentary series about Chinese athletes.” [Author’s Note: The incident involving reporter Lisa Olson was covered in “Let Them Wear Towels,” which was one of the “Nine for IX” docs.]
Eephus: What about all the photos in the book: How did that work? Were there women that you had to leave out because you couldn’t get the rights to the photo?
MS: It was really hard. Simon and Schuster gave me eight months to finish the book because they really wanted it to come out before the holidays. So, it was this crash pub date. I am definitely a snob when it comes to art and photography. I care a lot about the way the photos look and the composition and everything. I didn’t want it to be a bunch of athletes in action. I love portraits and the different ways that women are represented.
I was given a budget, which I learned very quickly goes fast when you’re doing a book with a lot of photos. I had to buy the rights to a lot of photos. I’d say that half of the photos in the book come from Getty and Corbis and AP [Associated Press]. With a lot of the photos I reached out to family members and said, “I really want to put your mom’s story in the book. Her story is super important and people need to know her name and recognize her face. But I’m on a limited budget, so can you help me out?” And, everyone was so kind and responsive.
There were a few women that I wasn’t able to put in the book because of the fact that I couldn’t find a photo of them or the photo I was given was far too small. Those were mostly African-American women. Like, Mae Faggs. She was a Tigerbelle [a member of the Tennessee State University track team], and I could not find a photo of her anywhere.
Eephus: What most surprised you about the process of transforming an Instagram project into a book?
MS: One of the things that surprised me after the book came out was seeing how many people have bought it for their kids—and, especially, for their boys. Which was something I didn’t even think about. You know, you have an idea about who your audience is going to be when you’re creating something. I thought it would be mostly people between 20 and 40, but there’ve been so many people that have sent me photos of their kids looking at the pictures in the book. They’ll send me a note saying, “I’ve been reading this to my son every single night. It’s been this great bonding experience where we’re talking about different things.” That’s been the most interesting and surprising part of this process.
Eephus: Do you see more books likes yours coming from Instagram projects?
MS: I think it’s becoming pretty popular. Since I created the book, I’ve had three different women with three very different accounts reach out to me that are now in talks with publishers or in production with publishers. They are asking me the same questions that I was asking when I started out because the learning curve is pretty steep in putting together a book like this. But this is something that is definitely happening and will continue to happen.
Eephus: What’s next for you and Game Changers? Do you think that you will now be able to make a film—a feature or a doc—about any of these women?
MS: I’ve been having meetings all over town trying to create a series based on stories in the book. The cool thing is that people are really interested and are trying to figure out how to do this. I think that the way I’d want to go about it is doing it really well and keeping people on edge with the stories. So, probably doing them a little bit shorter, but doing a lot of them. Sort of like “Chef’s Table,” the Netflix series about the different chefs. And, I’m encouraging people to keep sending me stories and photographs of their grandmother or their mother, and not be discouraged because they weren’t famous or icons. It’s just cool that they were doing something they loved to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.