During media interviews in 1987, when Kelcey Ervick’s Cincinnati-based girls’ soccer team made it to the national finals, players were asked, Who will be the first to get pregnant? Who will be the first to get married? Who will have the most kids? Reflecting on the moment in her new graphic memoir The Keeper, Ervick writes, “It makes me wonder: Can different questions conjure different futures?” She imagines empowering alternatives: Who will be the first to play on the Women’s U.S. National Soccer Team? How many gold medals do you want to win? Who will be the first woman president?
The Keeper is an opportunity for Ervick, now an English professor at Indiana University South Bend, to do some investigating of her own. The book, published last fall by Penguin Random House to help mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX legislation, explores her memories of playing soccer, first with the Cardinals club team, then at Anderson High School, and finally during college at Xavier University. “From grade school to grad school, Cincinnati has been central to who I am and to my artistic sensibilities,” she says. “I love its rolling hills and roiling river and old brick buildings and flooded soccer fields. I value the communities and friends and teams I had and still have there.”
Her words and full-color illustrations follow each other in quick succession throughout The Keeper, offering a kaleidoscopic richness that draws in the reader. The format allows her to play with pacing, point of view, and emphasis in ways that feel more vibrant and immersive than paragraphed prose. I read the book in a single evening, absorbed by the visuals, many of which recreate primary documents and images from her past.
To create the book, Ervick went deep into her personal archive. She spent hours watching videos of the Cardinals that were meticulously filmed by a devoted father. She was struck by the parents’ commitment. “I’d forgotten how central they were to all of our trips and games and experiences,” she says. “As a parent myself now, I could appreciate them in a new way.”
After watching the videos, she turned to her adolescent diary, a process she refers to as “painful, cringe-y, and unpleasant.” “I’d wanted to find a smarter, cooler, better self,” says Ervick. “It wasn’t until I was working on the end of the book that I could see how I was using writing to process my experiences.”
That trip through her old diary reminded her of the songs and routines of her teenage years, from driving to school blasting her The Best of the Doors cassette to yanking the curly cord of the home phone down hallways and into the bathroom in order to get some privacy. Friendships and funny hairstyles, nights playing Pictionary, and long bus rides with her teammates—her reminiscences will resonate with anyone who came of age in the 1990s, especially if they were part of a sports team.
The finished book is more than nostalgia, though. Ervick investigates and reports on the messages she received about girlhood itself—and what she reveals is telling. According to a set of surveys she kept in another childhood journal, in grade 1 she wanted to be a professional athlete, policeman, and mother, but by grade 6? A model. “Everyone knows how birds are created,” her book begins. “Less is known about how birds become girls. Our flock came from the banks of the Ohio River. As with all girls, our wings were removed.”
Looking at these lines now, Ervick says, “I wanted there to be a sense of the dark mystery of fairy tales, which themselves are often cautionary gender tales. Often in fairy tales a character gets tools to help them on their quest, and I thought of the soccer equipment in that way.” Goalie gloves, cleated shoes, endless drills, and deep camaraderie became powerful talismans for her, and only because of the women who came before her.
In memorable chapters that widen the lens from the late 20th century in Ohio, Ervick recreates the history of women in the sport, depicting British players like Helen Matthews, Emma Clark, and Nettie Honeyball who were “lady footballers,” and met much resistance, in the land where soccer was invented. “There is nothing farcical about the British Ladies’ Football Club,” Honeyball is quoted as saying in 1896. “I founded the association last year with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ‘ornamental and useless’ creatures men have pictured.”
Matthews, who went by the pseudonym Mrs. Graham, was also a suffragette. “It was always about so much more than football,” Ervick writes. She recounts the story of one of the first women’s teams, the Dick, Kerr Ladies, composed of women who worked in the Dick, Kerr & Co. munitions factory in Preston in 1917. They started playing football matches against men at lunch and quickly formed a league to play during wartime and beyond, holding 67 matches in front of 900,000 spectators in 1921, and toured Canada and the United States late the following year. “I’ve gotten acquainted with the grandson of one of the Dick, Kerr Ladies,” notes Ervick, who connected with him on Twitter. He discovered his grandmother’s memorabilia in a family attic years later—boots, balls, souvenirs—in a scene Ervick alludes to at the end of a chapter.
She also brings to life the women who legislated Title IX, including Bernice Sandler, who experienced discrimination at work when she was told that her application would not be considered for any of the seven open teaching positions in her department because she “came on too strong” for a woman. She went home and cried. Ervick comments in parentheses: “I am a crier, and it gives me great satisfaction to know that Title IX started with a woman’s tears.”
Sandler eventually combined forces with U.S. Reps. Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink, among others, to draft the 37-word Title IX bill prohibiting gender discrimination in education and related activities and to move it stealthily through the legislative process in 1972. None of them expected Title IX to have such a powerful impact with regard to athletics. But, of course, it changed everything.
These women should matter to all women, and they matter to Ervick specifically, for whom they’re invisible but present—like geologic layers beneath the soccer pitch where she stood in her youth. She realized, for instance, that Anderson High School did not have a varsity girls’ soccer team until after Title IX was passed. “My experience learning the history was super personal, because all of it affected my life so profoundly,” she says. “In school we learn about history as a series of events and legislations and not about the grassroots organizing that goes into it. The lady footballers and Title IXers experienced discrimination, and they were like, This isn’t right!”
By retelling that history for a new audience of readers, Ervick situates her own experiences in the long-standing tradition of women who want to challenge limiting gender roles. She opens up the conversation, inviting readers to share their own Title IX stories on her website.
In a counterpoint, Ervick also features famous literary men who happened to be soccer players—including Vladmir Nabokov and Albert Camus, both of whom, like her, were goalkeepers. Even Oscar Wilde had something to say about football. “It’s definitely fun to quote these writers about the game,” she says.
Ervick soon realized, however, that women characters usually played secondary roles in their great works of literature. A lack of women’s points of view eventually led her to find other “mostly women” writers who became meaningful to her. So while they’re part of the story, ultimately these male writers aren’t included in the dream team cover illustration that adorns The Keeper, which features Ervick in the foreground with women footballers and Title IX proponents standing behind her, framed by a goalpost. “I see all those women across time and place as members of the same team,” she says.
A flock of cardinals is called a radiance, and, as Ervick reflects back to her youth club team, she concludes, “We were radiant. Every tournament we touched turned to gold.” Ultimately, though, team victories included not just wins but also “supporting one another, working together, cheering each other on.” Her vision of the women of Title IX and soccer fits perfectly into such a picture.
For Ervick, it turns out that the kind of questions she’s endured as an adult are just as limiting as the ones she faced as a girl. When will you have another baby? Will you quit your job? “I really want young girls and women to take away how subtle and common sexist messages are and how easy it is to internalize them,” she says. “That’s why I keep coming back to the idea of the questions we ask and don’t ask, and the expectations implied. We need to ask different questions.”