The gender revolution that forced the University of Minnesota marching band to finally include women picked up steam from individuals like Marilee Johnson, who in the early 1970s thought of herself as a "mild-mannered" farm girl from Pine City.

"I wasn't a joiner. I certainly wasn't an activist," she tells me. "But because I was raised by parents who said I could do anything I wanted, I was probably a feminist in spirit."

In 1971, Johnson was a 30-year-old Minneapolis nurse studying at the U's Walter Library when another young woman barged in, waving a copy of the Minnesota Daily student newspaper. The headline was: "Will the marching band be liberated?"

The women's rights movement was expanding not only into politics, work, family and sports, but marching bands across the Big Ten. The University of Illinois' band had recently capitulated to pressures, allowing women to join its ranks. At the U, however, marching women were still verboten, and its band director was resisting efforts to integrate the all-male institution.

"Do you think this is right?" the female student, clutching the newspaper article, asked Johnson.

That day, the two vowed they would do something about it.

The next fall, following the passage of Title IX, Johnson and more than 30 other women were able to take to the field as full members of the U's marching band. The landmark federal civil rights law forced the integration, but women like Johnson fought to make sure it happened.

'Something's not fair'

Johnson, now 80, was well past her undergraduate days when she and a handful of other female trailblazers started lobbying the band to let them march. Never mind that she hadn't picked up her high school instrument, the baritone, in 12 years, or that she didn't even own a horn anymore. Johnson may have been mild-mannered — but she was also mad.

"I thought it was nonsense," she said. "Ms. magazine had just started publishing. When something's not fair, you want to fight about it."

She and several female students formed a group called the Commission on the Status of Women Students and met three times with the band director, Frank Bencriscutto, and about a dozen marching band members. The women heard a trove of excuses on why the band should remain all-male.

The first reason the men gave was that women would ruin the fraternal spirt of the band. Bencriscutto told the Minneapolis Tribune that "tears were shed by some of the boys. They found the experience in the all-male marching band a precious experience."

Johnson said another excuse involved bone structure.

"Girls' hips are wider than boys' hips are, and we would throw off the appearance of the marching band," she said, pausing to gauge my reaction. "You're laughing, Laura."

As a former high school drum major, it was hard for me to process that student-musicians like me were once barred from participating in halftime shows because of the shape of our pelvises. The arguments sound preposterous today, but they do ring familiar: the need to preserve tradition, the financial burden of inclusivity, the inevitable watering-down of standards if we widened the circle just a little more.

A hurtful chapter

Betsy McCann, 42, wasn't aware that the band was once off-limits to women when she marched as an undergraduate. Now the U's director of marching and athletic bands, she's talked to female alumni who were excluded and were even sent rejection letters stating that the marching band was too strenuous for the average girl.

"These women played in our concert band, alongside the men. They literally sat side by side with them," and yet the men threatened to quit the marching band if women were allowed, McCann said. These women "were playing at the same level — they were highly accomplished musicians."

In preparation for that first season, women were on guard because the early concept involved dance numbers. Bencriscutto assured them they would not be exploited for their sex. A local headline summed up the controversy: "Bandmaster wants no 'cottontail bunnies.'"

McCann said many of the women who paved the way for her generation were guided by a simple notion. "They weren't out to crusade to break barriers, they just wanted to play in band," she added. "Our students now, they love band, they want to do something they love in college. It sounds in many ways it was similar in 1972."

Women had already proved themselves capable. During World War II, they were allowed to fill in for the men — a temporary measure that was reversed after men returned from the fighting. Over the decades female students filled auxiliary roles, including an all-women division that in the '50s sported navy blue skirts, white blouses and saddle shoes.

They also did a lot of the grunt work for the men.

"We polished the tubas, washed the spats, took care of the music and the uniforms," said Caroline Rosdahl, a member of the women's auxiliary band. "Today's kids would never do that."

When Rosdahl enrolled at the U in 1955, she expected to march in football games, only to learn that women could not. After women were allowed to join, she decided to give it the old college try — as a 38-year-old.

"After a couple of practices, I was really stiff and sore and could hardly walk, and thought, 'I shouldn't have done this.' But then I talked to the kids, and they were in just as bad a shape as I was," she said.

She gets emotional when I ask her about what it felt like to march on the field that first time as a full-fledged member in 1975. "It was very exciting," she managed to say. "I still get weepy."

She spent the next 40 years marching with a tenor sax at parades and picnic bands. Her son and granddaughter became members of the U marching band. The band, she says, is a family.

And ever since Marilee Johnson became one of the first women to join the full ranks of the marching band, she hasn't quit playing her horn. That one small step of instigation planted a seed that led her to a lifelong love of music performance that has taken her to places as far away as Germany.

The U is celebrating Johnson, Rosdahl and other trailblazers Friday as part of a 50th anniversary event. On the following day, they'll walk onto the 50-yard line during the Gophers halftime show, in which they'll be honored in a marching band tribute featuring songs from Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin and Lizzo.

Perhaps we might see these trailblazers nodding their heads to the beat, in knowing recognition, during one of the tunes. It's a little ditty called "About Damn Time."

If you go

The U of M marching band will honor the history of women with a public celebration Oct. 28-29 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of women being fully integrated into the band. Events include a panel discussion on Friday and a special halftime performance at Saturday's game. Register for the webinar at Visit for more information.