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Peg Brenden: A True Hero of Tennis
When you walk onto a high school campus today, it’s not uncommon to come across a team of girls intensely practicing their sport. But less than 50 years ago in Minnesota, you would have had to search high and low for just one high school girl playing the sport she loved. You could find her at Tech High School in St. Cloud, fighting for her right to play interscholastic tennis. Her name was Peg Brenden.
Brenden’s love for tennis developed when she was in junior high. She would ride her bike to the nearby courts where she’d hit a ball against a concrete wall or convince the other neighborhood kids to play with her.
“My sister and her boyfriend (now husband) introduced me to the game… I played whenever they came to visit and then took summer lessons through the parks and recreation program in St. Cloud,” she recalled.
Fast forward to 1971, 17-year-old Brenden was entering her senior year of high school and her talent on the court had only gotten better, thanks only to her own drive and motivation. At the time, the Minnesota State High School League had rules in place that dismissed the right for boys and girls to have equal athletic opportunities. In Section 8 of the MSHSL 1971-72 Handbook, it read, “Girls shall be prohibited from participation in the boys’ interscholastic athletic program either as a member of the boys’ team or a member of the girls’ team playing the boys’ team. That girls team shall not accept male members.” It sounded promising, but there was a catch. More than half of the high school athletic programs throughout the state failed to develop girls interscholastic teams at all. Instead, the MSHSL allowed girls to be a part of intramural teams which, for Brenden, wasn’t enough.
“There was no comparison [between girls intramurals and boys interscholastic programs]. Girls’ ‘teams’ were haphazardly organized. There was no real coaching, no referees, and no regular schedule.”
Aside from being unorganized, intramural games were being played between girls from the same school. There was no outside competition or opportunities to face different skill levels. Knowing what she was capable of and what kind of player she hoped to become, Brenden began her fight for change.
“I loved the sport and I wanted to be the best player I could be, and I knew coaching, regular practice and match play would help me reach that goal.”
Craving a chance to play on a tennis team, Brenden began her now historic journey to equality and inclusion. Her first stop was a conversation with Tech High School’s boys’ tennis coach. She was told she could not play with the boys team because of the MSHSL rule that forbade it, so she went to the athletic director.
“He said no as well - for the same reason,” Brenden said. “I wasn’t surprised, but I also wasn’t discouraged.”
As time ticked away for the high school senior while Tech High School administrators continued to give her a less than favorable answer, she took matters into her own hands.
“My sister and brother-in-law planted the idea of contacting the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union (now known as the ACLU-MN).” Brenden explained, “They were following a news story in the Minneapolis Tribune about a junior high student, Kathryn Striebel, who wanted to swim on her school’s swim team and was told she couldn’t. Kathryn’s family had contacted the MCLU and they were hopeful she would be allowed to compete on the team. I wrote a letter to the St. Cloud branch of the MCLU in the fall of my senior year, hoping they could help me as well.”
Brenden’s letter eventually led to a lawsuit picked up by the MCLU and her face was viewed over and over in newspapers across Minnesota. Her case brought hope to high school girls on many levels after they learned of her fight to create change and equality in her home state. Peg Brenden started a revolution for high school girls everywhere.
“It annoyed me that my high school - and many others at the time - were so casual about girls as athletes. Offering an occasional intramural “play day” or an annual powderpuff game perpetuated the impression that girls are meant only to "dabble" in sports. I hoped that playing on the high school team would help change those attitudes and convince those in power that girls’ athletic ambitions are as important as boys’.”
On May 1st, 1972, the US District Court for the District of Minnesota ruled that Brenden could play in the final season of her high school career as a Tech High School Tiger. Her well-deserved time on the court made Brenden the first girl in Minnesota to earn a high school varsity letter.
“I will always be proud of earning my high school letter, not just because of what it represents in terms of athletic accomplishment, but because of what it represents in terms of helping to grow opportunities for females in athletics.”
Her love for the game didn’t end there. Following high school, Brenden attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa where she played on the women’s tennis and field hockey teams. She transitioned to a coaching role at Augsburg University where she co-coached the women’s tennis team for one year before taking on an assistant women’s coaching role at the University of Minnesota for two years, where she was also attending law school.
It’s clear how Brenden’s advocacy for equal opportunities in high school shaped her adult life. The strong-willed tennis player practiced law for seven years and became a Workers Compensation Judge for the State of Minnesota until she retired.
“I developed a much deeper appreciation for our justice system, having been a litigant, than I ever had before. I learned that it is important to question authority and that what’s popular is not always principled,” she noted.
Today, she still enjoys playing tennis, biking, going on hikes, and playing her mandolin. There are moments when she recalls all that she endured as a young girl just wanting to play tennis and the impact she’s had on those behind her, with one moment in particular.
“It really hit home for me over a decade later when I was invited back to my high school to speak at a winter sports pep rally. There were several hundred students in the gym. The athletic director stepped up to the podium to introduce me and began his introduction by asking all the girls present who participated in a sport at Tech to stand up. All but a handful of girls in that packed gym stood up. After they all sat down, he said, ‘Now, if I’d asked that question when Peg was a student here, she would have been the only girl standing.’ At that point, the entire gym stood up and gave me a standing ovation. That is one of the most memorable moments of my life.”
When you walk into a high school and come across a team of girls in the middle of their intense practice, you’re walking on the path paved by Peg Brenden. The 17-year-old tennis star who just wanted to compete in the game she loved.
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