Melissa “M’Lis” Ward, a former member of the University of Southern California’s legendary women’s basketball team, reflects on how the landmark legislation, Title IX, has had an impact on her college athletic career and beyond.
The 1986 USC graduate is the first Black woman to serve as both a flight instructor for the U.S. Air Force and as a pilot captain for a commercial airline, as BLACK ENTERPRISE previously reported.
“IN 1998 I BECAME THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO BECOME CAPTAIN AT UNITED AIRLINES,” WARD TOLD DENVER CBS.
Now, she is being featured by her alma mater as a Trojan Title IX trailblazer who played as a reserve forward on the 1983 and 1984 women’s NCAA championship basketball teams, per USC News. The 5-foot-8 Chicago native joined the Trojans as a walk-on in the 80s, but just 10 years before, there were only five women’s sports teams at USC, and financial assistance was few and far between.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance,” according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
In an interview, Ward recounts not hearing much about the landmark law because her championship team was highly celebrated and sought after. But little did she realize at the time that there were women, including USC athletics administrator Barbara Hedges, who fought to increase the number of women’s sports and scholarships, thanks to the opportunities made feasible by Title IX.
For Ward, the decision was “one of the most important milestones in the history of women’s athletics.”
“I’m so grateful to all the women who really fought for Title IX because my life would have been so different,” she told USC. “I hope it’s something that we always celebrate because it really did make such a huge difference for the women of my generation.”
After college, Ward spent a year of pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, where she was the only woman in her class to graduate. Later, she assumed her historic role as a flight instructor and trained male students to operate the two-seater, 5000-pound T-37 jet.
“I was rated to fly fighters, but at the time women weren’t allowed to,” she said. “That came along six years after I graduated from pilot training.”
In 1992, Ward transitioned from active to reserve duty and joined United Airlines.
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