Marian Pesky: Fighting for Women's Equality in Sports

Marian Pesky is known as the founder of women’s sports at Briar Cliff and has become integral in fighting for women’s equality in higher education. Pesky stepped onto the campus of Briar Cliff in the Fall of 1969. When she got to campus, no one imagined her impact on Briar Cliff athletics for the next fifty-four years.

After Pesky graduated from Central Missouri State, where she played a vital part in starting women’s sports, she came to Briar Cliff to be a physical education teacher. Immediately after getting on campus, Pesky took over the intramural program, one of the few competitive sports programs available to women at Briar Cliff at the time.

“When I got here, there was AAU basketball, a very extensive intramural program, and they just had started men’s sports a couple of years earlier,” said Pesky.

Before Title IX, many states did not have competitive high school sports for women. Iowa was one of the few that did, which included volleyball and basketball. Many girls from around the state came to Briar Cliff wanting the chance to continue competing in their respective sports. Pesky wanted to help the women of Briar Cliff continue athletics like she was able to do while at her alma mater.

Marian Pesky began reaching out to schools in areas such as Morningside, Wayne State, University of South Dakota, and Northwestern, asking if they would like to set up times for their women to compete against each other. Eventually, in 1972, the Io-Kota Conference developed and continued until 1992.

As the women at Briar Cliff began competing, they received little to no financial support. Marian Pesky didn’t let that stop her from finding ways for her and her teams to get through the obstacles that could prevent them from competing. Unlike the Briar Cliff men’s teams, the women’s teams wore their PE uniforms as jerseys, traveled in their own cars, slept in the arenas they were competing in and bought their own meals.

In 1972 Title IX was passed. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a Federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding. This meant that male and female athletes needed to be provided with equal access to financial aid and funding.

“We were all happy that Title IX went through because it is much broader than women’s sports. All of us working with women felt it would give us that extra push to get funding.” Although, Pesky shared that not much changed after Title IX passed.

“The highest scholarship one of my best players got was three hundred dollars, while the last person on the basketball bench got the same support,” said Pesky. “We could have filed Title IX lawsuits, but I didn’t think that was the right approach. I wanted to show the success of our women’s sports to get more funding.”

The most change came in the ’80s when Briar Cliff women were given the same meal, travel, and uniform funds as the men.

“The ability to help change some of those things, yeah, it was a struggle, and even being called the most aggressive female they had ever met. It was hard for people to change their beliefs about women in sports. Prior to Title IX, women were not supposed to perspire. It took years and years for people to realize that it is okay for women to sweat and compete.”

Now, Briar Cliff offers seven sports for women to compete in and is committed to the equality of women’s athletics on campus.

Marian Pesky was the head coach of the women’s basketball, softball, tennis, and volleyball teams. She coached Briar Cliff Volleyball for twenty-five years before retiring in 1993. Pesky compiled a staggering 634-283 record and earned numerous awards and accolades, proving the success of Briar Cliff women’s sports along the way. After her coaching run, Pesky became the first Assistant Athletic Director at Briar Cliff and currently holds the Champions of Character Director position. Most recently, Briar Cliff University athletics received two consecutive perfect scores from the NAIA.

Marian Pesky has proven to be a role model for women fighting for equality.

“Find your passion, and don’t let anything stand in your way. One thing I see today is that we have fewer and fewer women who are getting into coaching and staying there. It can be difficult, but it is doable.”

Thank you, Marian, for fighting for equality in Briar Cliff athletics and beyond. We are grateful to have you as a #BCUtrailblazer.