As U.S. women’s rugby celebrates its 50-year anniversary, Mary Money reflects on her efforts to establish the sport at Tufts—and beyond
One day in 1978, Mary Money, E80, A17P, and her Tufts water polo teammates were waiting for a van to take them to a tournament and turned on a TV to pass the time. A short segment on women’s rugby came on the set, and the young women were quickly transfixed.
“Many of us were glued to the TV,” she says. “We didn’t even know women played rugby. It sparked our interest.”
Rugby wasn’t a sport Money ever envisioned herself playing, but the inspiration of seeing that match led her to spearhead the founding of women’s rugby at Tufts—that, and the growing national movement for women’s equality. 1978 was also the year more than 100,000 people marched in Washington, D.C., in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
“It was a new world for women. All of a sudden, it seemed like, ‘Yeah, we can do anything,’” says Money. “There was a popular song back then called ‘I Am Woman’—we were all singing that at the top of our lungs when we started the team. We were very inspired by the Equal Rights Amendment, and we were inspired by a lot of the emerging women leaders like Gloria Steinem.”
Since then, Money has made a name for herself in the sport. She represented the U.S. in an international tour in 1985 and played on the first U.S. women’s national rugby team from 1987, as well as for the following three years.
She also played on four national championship teams for Beantown Rugby Football Club (Beantown RFC), and coached and captained the Atlanta Harlequins rugby team and coached at Yale University. She only stopped playing rugby three years ago.
But founding the women’s rugby team at Tufts in 1978, and serving as its captain, is the accomplishment that’s closest to her heart.
Helping the Sport Grow
After graduating from Tufts, Money went on to have a successful corporate career—she now leads research and development at Newman’s Own. At the same time, she’s kept active in women’s rugby—she’s now a board member of the U.S. Women’s Rugby Foundation. Since its 2005 inception, the foundation has made strides at youth, collegiate, and national levels, including the launch of the Women’s Rugby Coaches & Referees Association, which looks to build and nurture leadership in the sport.
This month the foundation will be marking the 50th anniversary of women’s rugby in the U.S. At the same time, the foundation will kick off a year-long campaign to raise awareness and funds for the sport. “The reason I serve on the board is to give back, to make sure that the women’s game continues to grow, and more and more people have the opportunity to be part of that big family,” she says.
Money is proud of the strides U.S. women’s rugby has made over the last five decades, and she’s hopeful for its future. Her biggest priorities are to find and train more women coaches and referees and to provide better resources and pathways for aspiring women rugby athletes.
Those goals were inspired by her own rugby journey. Back in 1978, she and her teammates were mostly self-taught. But early on, they decided to tap Jumbo men’s rugby players for help.
Howard Stevens, A81, at the time a captain on the men’s rugby team, was one of the people who stepped up to help. “It was a labor of love for me,” says Stevens. The women players were “fully invested. They paid attention. They listened. And they fought hard. It was a lot of fun. They were a good team and went from no experience to being very competitive.”
And there was indeed competition. Beantown RFC, founded in Fall 1976, was among the country’s first women’s rugby teams. Money remembers coordinating matches with Beantown—as a new club sport at Tufts, they had to do their own scheduling. After matches, all the players would come together to sing rugby chants that Beantown members taught the Tufts team. Beantown also helped Money and the Tufts women’s rugby team connect with other teams in the area.
“It was clear Mary was a leader on the Tufts team,” says Laurel Lockett, who was secretary of the Beantown RFC at the time. “Getting a young collegiate team to come out and take a drubbing from a well-established women’s club must have been a challenge, but she always came through.”
Lockett cited Money’s skill in overcoming logistical problems—the field has to be lined specifically for rugby and requires special goal posts—as well as her ability to get the Tufts players onto the field, even in inclement weather.
After graduating from Tufts, Money joined Beantown as its A-side hooker, the forward position responsible for winning possession of the ball for the team. “I was lucky to play with her for many years at Beantown, and then to continue our friendship since,” says Lockett. “That is one of the joys of rugby—you make lifelong friends.”
Money also met her future husband, Matthew Leonard, A81, through rugby. He was captain of the men’s team along with Stevens. “Rugby is a family thing,” says Money. “You get involved with rugby, and you have friends and family for life.” (Money and Leonard’s daughter Liza graduated from Tufts in 2017.)
Money is gratified that rugby was also the vehicle through which she has participated in the movement for women’s equality—an ongoing movement that has since evolved to consider and advocate for marginalized groups, including women of color, disabled women, and older women.
“Women’s rugby was very much a part of that spirit of women feeling liberated and saying, ‘Yes, men can play this tackling contact sport, and we’re going to do it, too,’” says Money. “We just felt empowered. We felt like we had to be there.”