A Collegian alumna’s journey of unfolding the relationship between sports and female empowerment

Soon-to-be published author Kathleen Ralls details the process of writing her first book

Courtesy+of+Kathleen+Ralls

Courtesy of Kathleen Ralls

By Lulu Kesin, Sports Editor

At one point in her life, Kathleen Ralls feared her true passion would delay her progress.

“I sometimes wondered, ‘Would my interest in slant towards female sports be a negative for me as I tried to advance in the [Massachusetts Daily] Collegian?’”

But since the start of her journalism career, her appreciation for women’s athletics has been a driving force in her work. Now editing her first book for publication, Ralls has epitomized her passion for writing about women in sports as she prepares to publish a book which centers on female athletes and their stories, and the relationship between sports and female empowerment.

In 1998, Ralls sat in the office of the Collegian, editing articles, covering beats and completing daily tasks that other sports editors past and present have done. After starting as an English major when she arrived on campus at the University of Massachusetts, Ralls quickly switched to journalism her sophomore year. As her dedication to the paper grew, so did her progress within the section.

Upon arriving at UMass in 1997, Ralls, a Chelmsford native, prided herself in being a multi-sport athlete her entire life. After hearing about the Collegian, she immediately wanted to begin writing about sports. Unlike the teams she had played on most of her life, her “teammates” at the Collegian were predominately male; thus Ralls found herself not only gravitating more toward the few women involved with the sports section, but also providing coverage for the less popular women’s teams.

“It was fun for me to make friends and find other women who are as passionate about sports, and writing,” Ralls said of her time at the paper.

The summer before her senior year she interned at the Lowell Sun, mainly covering golf along with other various sports in the area. The paper continued to use Ralls as what she described as a “Western Mass sports resource,” and allowed her to write stories and cover sports for the Sun throughout her senior year.

With a light schedule her senior year, Ralls began carefully selecting activities and beat coverage that catered to her interests. A retired field hockey player herself, she stepped back onto the field in a coaching role at Amherst High School.

“In fact, that was one of the things that the other sports editor said was, ‘Don’t you want to cover UMass football?’ and I was like, ‘No, I would rather coach high school field hockey than cover football,’” Ralls said with laughter.

That theme continued following her graduation when the Sun offered her a three-day-a-week gig writing for them, working the phones but still having the freedom to focus on coaching. Eventually, upon realizing that she had a lot of time on her hands, she began substitute teaching which turned into a new chapter of her life.

At the age of 22, Ralls recognized that her experience at the Collegian could help get her a free master’s degree which is when her journey at American University began.

Again her love for sports drew her to a second job, working in the sports information department while getting her master’s degree in teaching. The university recognized her strength in writing and requested her help on writing website features and media guides. The common thread of writing as a profession that came to fruition at UMass, continued.

And the theme of women in sports continued as well.

Flash forward to 2015, after a spending 15 years as a high school history teacher and coach of various sports, Ralls was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. She moved to Oslo, Norway and served as a roving scholar of American Studies while her husband remained in Lowell, Massachusetts.

“I came back home and thought if I can do this Fulbright – which was just an amazing experience, I traveled to 50 different schools across Norway that year and taught about American culture – that maybe teaching wasn’t the end-all-be-all for me. And that’s when I pursued the PhD.”

Ralls’ career path continued to change as she began to build a life centered around work that involved her true passions and interests.

“Initially, I was going to pursue research on civics education, because I was a high school history teacher for 15 years,” Ralls said. “But two-and-a-half years into my program, I have one course left before I started the real like dissertation research.”

“I realized that what I was really passionate about wasn’t civics education, compared to my love of female sports and empowerment.”

Then it was off to Ethiopia to play catch-up on nearly two and a half years of research time she had lost when studying civics education.

Ralls’ research question was one she could have asked herself a decade prior sitting in the basement of the Student Union wondering if her interest would stunt her professional development and ultimate career goals.

“Do girls who participate in sport perceive greater voice empowerment as a result?”

For Ralls, the answer is yes. Ralls believes her participation in sports as both an athlete and as a sportswriter helped her become more confident in using her voice.

“My dissertation successfully passed, and I published some academic articles. But the academic articles are pretty dry because that’s what they are,” Ralls said. “I realized I wanted to pursue it on a more personal level, this idea of female empowerment and leadership and sports.”

Ralls came across a program called the Creator Institute, which is run by a Georgetown professor and walks participants through the steps of writing a book. In May of 2021, she began the program and is now in the second stage of editing her book.

For some journalists, writing a book is a short- or long-term goal. For Ralls, it was neither. As a lover and appreciator of feature stories during her time at the Collegian, things began to feel similar when she stepped into an authorial role from a book perspective versus a journalistic lens.

“Each time I’ve done different kinds of writing, whether it’s journalism with UMass or the Lowell Sun, or work as an SID, or the dissertation academic writing, every time I’ve learned how to stretch my writing” Ralls said. “There is a lot to learn about writing, which is actually really exciting for me.”

The book features 12 different women who hail from various professions, backgrounds, ages, etc. Ranging from lawyers, nurses, teachers, coaches, prison workers and professors, Ralls felt like every conversation she had for the book was reminiscent of writing a lengthy feature story.

“Being able to think about the stories that they shared with me, their personalities, their voices, what I’ve learned about them on social media for some, and trying to pull that all together, and be fair, […] accurate, […] knowledgeable, and […] interesting is a really big challenge I’m finding with this book – but it’s really exciting as well.”

It wasn’t about how much money each of the women made or how well-established they were in their respective professions – it was just experience. Whether with women from the Middle East, the United States or Africa, the conversations were all created around her central idea: sports and its influence on female empowerment.

The central idea of Ralls’ life became the central idea for her book, and after years of exploring, she now has a clearer path than ever before: getting her book published by May 2022 and turning her love for feature writing and women’s sports into an inspiring read for lovers of sports across the world.

Lulu Kesin can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @Lulukesin.