Why Pat Summitt Should Be Remembered By Every Feminist
With eight NCAA titles and a record 1,098 games won during her time with the University of Tennessee Lady Vols, Pat Summitt, who died on Tuesday morning at 64 years old, was the most winningest Division 1 coach in history. But even with all that, that's not the most important thing she did during her career (which lasted from 1974 until 2012, after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2011). Feminists should remember Summitt most not only breaking the glass ceiling in sports, but also for shattering it over and over again. She made it clear that anything men could do on the basketball court, she could do better. And she would continue to make that point as many times as it was necessary. Summitt was a legendary basketball coach, but she was also a feminist pioneer who should be remembered for how she empowered women on and off the court.
In Summitt's 1999 book Reach for the Summit, she wrote, "Here's how I'm going to beat you. I'm going to outwork you. That's it. That's all there is to it." She makes it sound so easy — and to be fair, she made it look easy, too. Along with all her Division 1 wins and seven NCAA Coach of the Year honors, Summit was also an Olympian who managed to win a silver medal playing for the women's national basketball team in the 1976 Olympics and a gold as the coach of the 1984 Olympic team. This gave her another first to add to her impressive list of honors — Summitt was the first person to be an Olympic winner both as a player and a coach.
This mantra of "work hard no matter what and you'll find success" is especially important to women, because it's not about being better than anyone else. It's about being the best you that you can be. Summitt herself told Charlie Rose in 1998 that she learned this when she was just a little girl growing up with three older brothers, a younger sister, and her parents in Henrietta, TN. They made it clear that you have to work to get what you want.
More important, for Summitt, it was never just about the end results. It was about the journey to get there. That's what made victory so much sweeter: knowing it didn't come easy. "I really think in my mind I don't want anyone to give me anything," Summitt told Rose. "I want to earn it." So that's what she did. She showed that athletic accomplishments should know no gender; it should just be about the end result. And the end result was that she was a record-breaking coach that others coaches will continue to look up to in the years to come.
Summitt's son, Tyler, told Sports Illustrated that, for his mom, it was “not so much going out and changing the minds of men. [It was] empowering women to do whatever they want to do.” She had championships to win and women to mold into professional athletes. She couldn't be worried about what men thought of her coaching style — which, to be fair, was working better than all of theirs. Summitt was a strong female leader whose mantra "I want to earn it" is one any woman can relate to. Little is given to you when you're a woman in a man's world, but it can be earned. And women should never forget that.
Summit was a supporter of all women, and understood that strong female icons were important. It was part of the reason she loved coaching the Lady Vols, as she told Charlie Rose back in 1998:
The thing that I like so much about coaching is that I get to teach on a daily basis. I get to influence. I get to listen. No two days are ever alike, so I love the fact that I'm working with different individuals and personalities and now I'm trying to mold them into a team. And it's a challenge, but what great rewards. When you see little girls become young women, when you see them go from bein' shy, non-aggressive to bein' really strong and aggressive and just really — they gain a lot of self-respect themselves.
It was the message she sent to all the women she encountered: No one can tear you down if you believe in yourself. And it's a piece of wisdom that stayed with both the women who played with her — such as Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker — and the women who didn't. For instance, Sports Illustrated wrote about a female flight attendant who started crying when she saw Summitt on a flight. She told Summitt that when she was a young girl, she went to a Lady Vols game. Back then, she was in a wheelchair, and when the coach saw her at a game, she came right over to her and said, “Don’t let the way you are now define who you will be. You can overcome anything if you work at it.” That girl did just that.
Summitt's legacy is filled with stories like this, and I'm sure there are likely countless others which have yet to be told about how she inspired generations of women. After her passing, this legacy means just as much, if not more, than her championships.
She was a woman who pushed other women to never give up, whether it was on the basketball court or in life. In her 38 years coaching, Summitt had a 100-percent graduation rate. Every one of her players graduated college, because Summitt understood life was more than basketball for these young women. She believed that being a woman should never been considered a hardship, and made sure she gave these women the tools to conquer the world.