Arlene Gorton ’52, namesake of the Arlene Gorton ’52 Cup for sportsmanship and fair play in female varsity athletics, passed away from natural causes January 3 at her home in East Providence. Her memorial service was scheduled for March 14 but was postponed due to COVID-19 coronavirus concerns. The new date for the memorial service is yet to be determined.
Gorton graduated from Pembroke College in 1952, where she was a top-ranked badminton player and captain of the softball team. She returned to campus in 1961 as director of physical education. She was tasked with running all seven women’s club-varsity teams, the highest level of athletic competition available for Pembroke women at the time, on a $2,000 budget. Gorton also taught in the physical education department at Pembroke until the merger with Brown in 1971. She then assumed the role of assistant athletic director at the University, which she held until her retirement in 1998, the same year that she was honored with the Division I Administrator of the Year Award by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators.
Many recalled the tenacity with which Gorton pursued equal rights for women in sports, participating in two landmark cases related to the successful implementation of Title IX. “Arlene was involved in two of the most high-profile lawsuits in Brown’s history,” said Peter Mackie ’59, a Brown Athletic Hall of Fame 2007 inductee and the sports archivist for the Edward North Robinson Collection of Athletics at Brown. “She was a head of a committee that was very involved in the Louise Lamphere case, which was a watershed case regarding the tenure of female faculty members at universities. … She was in the hot seat with (the Title IX suit) as well, because there was a lot of pressure brought to bear on coaches and athletic administrators, but she testified anyway.”
Despite her involvement in multiple suits against the University, Gorton is remembered fondly by Brown’s athletics department. “Arlene Gorton played an instrumental role in the history of Brown Athletics,” said Director of Athletics Jack Hayes. “Through her efforts and leadership, women’s athletics at Brown continued to develop and prosper.”
Carolan Norris, senior associate director of athletics in Student-Athlete Services, recalled her early days in the department with Gorton. “Arlene was a mentor for me in athletics and was ahead of her time in the advancement for equity and inclusion of women. She has touched many areas of the University, even beyond athletics, and her soul will be deeply missed at Brown,” Norris said.
Gorton had a lifelong commitment to expanding opportunities for women in athletics. “When she was in the second grade, her parents were called in to be chastised by the principal because Arlene insisted on playing softball with the boys and refused to stay on the girls’ side of the playground playing hopscotch,” Mackie said. “She wanted to play outfield for the Boston Red Sox. When she got older and realized that, as a woman, she would never play outfield in the major league, it was a real shot across the bow. She became determined to do something about the sexual stereotyping of women in sports.”
For athletes who played under Gorton’s administration, her presence was a literal game-changer. “When I arrived at Brown in 1972, there were four varsity sports available to women. Tennis was one, and we played two matches a season,” said Nancy Neff ’76, a varsity tennis and basketball player and the first ever recipient of the Arlene Gorton ’52 Cup. “Anyone could just come into her office, so in my first year, I expressed disappointment to her about the athletic options at Brown. … Then Arlene went forward with helping to get Title IX passed, and when I returned only a year later as a sophomore, suddenly Arlene had brought in 13 varsity women’s teams with full game schedules and had grown the budget to 10 times its original size.”
“Arlene gave her blood, sweat and tears to Brown,” Mackie said. “She was 24/7. She ran summer camps, she rode the buses with the athletes, she supported her coaches, her door was always open and she was never afraid to start a new sport.” According to Mackie, after being questioned on why Brown did not have a women’s ice hockey team, Gorton began one of the first women’s ice hockey program in the United States.
An outpouring of support was planned for Gorton’s now-postponed memorial service. Despite the postponement, her students and colleagues united as a community to write eulogies, publish op-ed articles and return to visit campus. “We heard from many former coaches and student-athletes following the announcement of Arlene’s passing,” Hayes said. “It was obvious that she impacted many individuals during her tenure at Brown.”
A campaign spearheaded by Mackie aspires to honor her memory by doubling down on an ongoing campaign to have the softball field at Brown named for Gorton. “Not only did she play softball here — she captained the team,” Mackie said. “Then she came back and coached softball here. Then in 1975, she elevated women’s softball to the varsity level.”
When Gorton was asked in a 2010 interview what she hoped her legacy would be, she said, “Stirring the pot and raising the questions … You know, they used to say to me whenever I fought for an issue, ‘there you go again.’ And my answer was, ‘I have to go, or who will? If you go, I won’t need to.’ And it is now time for others to go.”