Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen
First UW Women’s Athletics Director, Associate Athletic Director, 1974-90
“In the beginning, the major obstacle for incorporating women’s athletics was a question of educating people and their attitudes––letting them know and really believe that we were serious, and that we were here to stay. Then later on, the most serious obstacle was competing for scarce resources, and being seen as competing against the men’s sports for those resources. But the most significant thing for women’s athletics to happen ever was Title IX.” Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen
Scholar, teacher, women’s sports advocate and leader were all traits Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen possessed as she became perhaps the single most important person in the advent of women’s intercollegiate sports at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An extraordinary and passionate leader, Kit's contributions to the university and to the athletic department set the course for the equity and success the UW women's athletics program currently enjoys.
Kit Saunders-Nordeen has been an advocate of girls and women’s athletics all of her life. A native of Teaneck, N.J., Kit played for the North Jersey Field Hockey Association and the New Jersey Lacrosse Association while earning her bachelor’s degree in physical education at Trenton State College in Trenton, N.J. After graduating from Trenton State in 1962, she returned to Teaneck High School to serve as a physical education teacher for two years. There she coached girls’ basketball, field hockey and lacrosse.
She came to the University of Wisconsin in 1964, where she worked as a teaching assistant in physical education while earning her master’s degree in the same field. After receiving that degree in 1966, Kit served as a lecturer and instructor in physical education while also coaching the women’s tennis club team.
Her career as an administrator also began in 1966, as the coordinator of the Women’s Recreation Association (WRA), the recreation and competitive sports program for women. There she mentored UW alum, Judy Sweet, who became the national president of the WRA in 1968, and later one of the first women Directors of Athletics for men and women. Sweet later was named the first and only woman president of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).
Armed with Title IX, which was enacted in 1972, and with the growing clamor for equity for women in sports, Kit became the focal point of meetings where advocates for women’s sports and dissenters often clashed. It was not an easy position to be in, but Kit endured, and her quiet yet tenacious leadership in advancing women’s sports opportunities won others to the cause.
When the UW Athletic Board approved varsity sports status for women’s sports in 1974, Kit became the first athletic director for women. Supervising the 12-sport program and its $118,000 budget, she oversaw the transition of Wisconsin women’s sports from the recreation level to the intercollegiate status.
Kit earned her Ph.D. in educational administration from Wisconsin in 1977, and continued in her administrative role watching the women’s sports program grow in resources and status.
Active in women’s sports on the state, regional and national level, Kit was involved with various positions of leadership in numerous athletics groups. In 1971, Kit helped to found the Wisconsin Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and served as the WWIAC president in 1978–79. She received the WWIAC Distinguished Service Award in 1982. Kit was the commissioner of the six-state Midwest Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (MAIAW) from 1974–77, and was the chair of the Wisconsin Division of Girls and Women in Sport from 1974–76. On the national level, she was the first vice-president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletes for Women (AIAW) from 1979–82.
In 1983 she was named an associate athletic director for men and women supervising the 22 non-revenue sports. Kit later resumed her job as the primary women’s administrator in 1989 until her retirement in 1990.
A recipient of a number of awards, Kit was the first inductee into the UW Women’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984. She was named the 1986 YWCA Woman of Distinction and in 1997, received the Women’s Sports Advocates of Wisconsin Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1991 she was named W Club Woman of the Year, and was inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. She was became a member of the University of Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998. The Athletic Department recognized her for meritorious service with its Pat O’Dea Award in 2007.
In 2006 she earned the Lifetime Achievement Award presented by NACWAA (National Association of College Women Athletic Administrators) bestowed annually to athletics administrators who have dedicated their professional careers to advancing women in sport and because of their tireless efforts, girls and women participating in sport can enjoy competitive athletics or athletic career opportunities. This award is given to individuals who have retired or resigned from intercollegiate athletics administration and who have rendered meritorious service.
A lifelong supporter of the University of Wisconsin, Kit served on numerous university committees including University Ridge Golf Course and the Athletics Hall of Fame Committees. She and her husband, Buzz, have also been leaders in philanthropy as long-time active donors to Wisconsin Athletics and members of the Bascom Hill and Badger Leadership Societies. They have also been long-time season ticket holders in six sports including almost 50 years in men’s basketball, hockey and football.
In 1990, they established the Buzz and Kit Nordeen Endowed Scholarship Fund which annually supports the scholarship of a female Badger student-athlete. This fund was established from their strong love of women’s athletics and their passion for the University of Wisconsin. They have also contributed to a number of Wisconsin Athletics facilities projects including the McClain Center, Goodman Diamond, Porter Boathouse, LaBahn Arena, UW Golf Training Center, and the Student-Athlete Performance Center.
Intelligent, upbeat, interested in others, a tireless advocate and compassionate for her causes, and very humble, Dr. Kit Saunders-Nordeen was one of the true pioneers in the growth of women’s athletics. She sought to make a difference for women in sports and helped open the door for countless women to participate in intercollegiate athletics.
- Provided the leadership for a UW women's athletic program through the Women's Recreation Association beginning in 1967
- Appointed the first Director of Women's Athletics at Wisconsin in 1974, and served in that role until 1983
- Named Associate Athletic Director for men's and women's sports at UW-Madison in 1983-1991
- Chairperson of the Wisconsin Division of Girls and Women in Sports from 1974-76
- Commissioner of the six-state Midwest Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (MAIAW) from 1974-77
- Coached the Wisconsin women's tennis club team from 1966-74
- Helped found the Wisconsin Women Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1971, she served as its president from 1978-79
- Served as first vice-president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) from 1979-82
- Received the Distinguished Service Award from the Wisconsin Women's Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1982
- First inductee into the UW Women's Athletic Hall of Fame (1984)
- Named National W Club Woman of the Year in 1991
- Inducted into the Madison Sports Hall of Fame in 1992 and given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Sports Advocates of Wisconsin in 1997
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of College Women Athletic Administrators in 2006
- Earned an M.A. (physical education) and a PhD (educational administration) from the UW in 1966 and 1977, respectively
- Member of the Bascom Hill Society and major contributor to the UW Athletics Development as part of the Badger Leadership Society
Kit Saunders-Nordeen participated in the UW-Madison Oral History regarding the women’s sports history.
Visit the Oral History Project to hear oral histories from key players, including Kit Saunders-Nordeen: http://archives.library.wisc.edu/ORAL/oral.htm
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