Two courageous high school students who changed history

This column originally appeared during January, 2023. It was published by a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers.

Two courageous high school students who changed history

To the list of heroic Minnesotans, please add Peggy Brenden and Toni St. Pierre. To the list of superb Minnesota authors, please add Sheri Brenden. They’re found in a new book, “Break Point: Two Minnesota Athletes and the Road to Title IX” (University of Minnesota Press).

I wish every high school student, parent, grandparent, educator and journalist would read this book. Everyone. This is the first time I’ve said that, in more than 30 years of writing newspaper columns.

“Break Point” explains how in 1971 two Minnesota high school students, Peggy and Toni, successfully challenged the Minnesota State High School League (the high school athletic establishment), University of Minnesota “experts,” the Hopkins and St. Cloud school districts, and the Minnesota Department of Education. The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union and Ruth Bader Ginsburg provided free legal assistance. This case helped dramatically expand athletic opportunities for young women in Minnesota and throughout the U.S.


Because their school districts didn’t offer a girls team in their sports (tennis for Brenden, track and cross-country skiing for St. Pierre), they asked to participate on boys teams. As they hoped, their case led to a dramatic expansion in high school girls sports teams, beginning in the 1972-1973 school year.

The 8th Circuit Court (which covers Midwestern states) affirmed the original decision by Minnesota Judge Miles Lord in favor of the women. The unanimous decision of the 8th Circuit: “Discrimination in high school sports constitutes discrimination in education.”

The book’s author is former newspaper reporter Sheri Brenden, a Minnetonka resident who’s Peggy Brenden’s younger sister. Sheri has superb research and writing skills. The mixture of personal anecdotes and policy information is compelling. Many communities, including Anoka, Coon Rapids, Elk River and Richfield, have roles in their story.

Sheri, Peggy and I talked on Jan. 18. Peggy told me, “I’ve learned in a very personal way to be wary of what is popular, because popular and principled, especially in matters of civil rights, do not always go hand in hand.” She’s pleased that her sister wrote the story. She explained: “It was exhausting enough to live it. I don’t have the energy to write it. Living it was enough.”

Peggy learned that: “We don’t appreciate how small things can make a big difference. A regular high school kid can make positive changes in the world.”


Peg & Sheri speaking in St Paul, 2023

(photo by JN)

Sheri, who benefited from her sister’s battle, offered this advice for parents: “Parents need to check their own gender bias. Don’t lock your children into a pink or blue lane. Urge your daughters to explore science, brass instruments and woodworking. Encourage your sons to dance, bake cookies and babysit. Participating in sports is good for both boys and girls. It will develop physical skills, build fitness, create community and make school fun. Tell your kids that they are capable and that their gender should not restrict their educational opportunities. Then take note: Do your schools deliver equal opportunities? Oftentimes the barriers are the unspoken cues and discomfort we project onto our kids’ choices.”

It’s impossible in this column to “do justice” to all of the book’s lessons for journalists, the Minnesota State High School League, MDE, educators and students. I’ll write a future column about what still needs attention. For example, Peggy and Sheri cite statistics about the low percentage of female coaches.

It’s fitting that the University of Minnesota Press is publishing this book. That’s because 50 years ago, two University of Minnesota faculty testified in this case. Even though the high schools didn’t offer girls teams in their sports, the faculty opposed allowing these superb athletes to compete with boys.

“Break Point” is stunning, shocking, nuanced, infuriating and inspirational. People who want to contact Peggy, Toni or Sheri can write to

The book includes one of Peggy’s favorite stories. In 1995, she was invited to St. Cloud Tech, which she had attended in the early 1970s. Peggy recalled: “I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when I graduated. The new athletic director was very kind. There were roughly 400 students in the room. The athletic director started by asking girls who played on athletic teams to stand up. Virtually all did.”

Peggy continued: “Then the athletic director explained: ‘If I asked that question when Peg was (a student), she would have been the only girl standing.’”

Peggy recalls, “Then the students stood and gave me a standing ovation.”

That’s what she and Toni St. Pierre deserved. That’s what this book deserves.- Joe Nathan, PhD, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, Director, Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,