(Flickr/Francisco Anzola)

Our naked Ivy League protest: "These are the bodies Yale is exploiting"

Title IX may have been enacted, but change came slowly -- and required us to shed our clothes to make the point


Ginny Gilder
April 12, 2015 7:59PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX"

Second semester began. Although I had been a reliable regular on the team since early September, it took both time and circumstance for me to claim full membership on the women’s crew. To qualify as a team member, I only had to show up and do the work, without sharing stories or secrets about myself. I liked that what I did mattered, not who I was.

As drawn to rowing as I was, past experience taught me to be wary of relationships: trusting people felt riskier than relying on a skinny sliver of wood to hold my weight. But no novice could survive winter training alone. Chris Ernst’s tough-minded, slightly impatient encouragement that buoyed me enough to approach impossible challenges with a shrug, Anne Warner’s not so subtle putdowns that somehow galvanized me to push through excruciating pain, Jennie K’s casual mentions of military history tidbits that lightened my mood, and my fellow freshmen’s various states of disbelief, determination, and exhaustion from the tortuous nature of our daily workouts, which made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself, all combined to keep my head above water.

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We came from such different backgrounds—Sally Fisher from a conservative small town in Connecticut; Elaine Mathies from the puddles of Portland, Oregon; Cathy Pew from a fabled Philadelphia oil family, whose wealth she did her best to ignore; me from urbane and sophisticated New York, where the doorman shoveled the sidewalk when it snowed (Lynn “Bakehead” Baker, hailing from the snowy Midwest and a family on a tight budget, never let me live down my request to shovel the boathouse dock one day after a snowstorm, a novel challenge for me)—yet when it came to practice, we were unite in our sense of purpose and refusal to be bested by the daily posted instructions or by each other. The companionship and competitiveness of fellow rowers are as fundamental to success as oars to boat speed: there is nothing like the edge created by training companions who are slogging through the same workouts and trying their hardest to score the best running times, erg scores, stair-climbing speeds, circuit repetitions, and lifting maximums.

In the bowels of Paine Whitney, I learned my first rudimentary lessons about counting on those who kept showing up when the fun faded and the going got tough. Inevitably, our Olympic wannabes set the bar high for the nearly thirty girls who showed up daily and ticked off the required elements of every workout. As Anne and Chris trained for the spring collegiate racing season and the summer Olympics, I did the same exercises and drills they did—granted, they had better technique, did less huffing and puffing, and showed more speed. I could run with them (well, usually behind them), lift weights with them (okay, substantially fewer pounds than they did), and race up stairs with them (staggering several flights behind them). I watched them with awe, listened to them taunt and goad each other, and admired all of it. I fancied myself in their seats, slipping my feet into their foot-stretchers one day.

There were no secrets at the gym or on the water. The number of seats in a rowing shell was a fact: only eight people would row in the varsity. Competition among teammates was necessary, normal, and openly recognized.

For me, it was also deeply uncomfortable. I hailed from a different world, where jostling for position among my siblings was routine but unspoken, and yet somehow unsavory and wrong. I didn’t understand why I had to fight so hard for a bit of space, why there was never enough room for me to be myself and loved as I was. I had dedicated years to securing a place for myself beyond my older, stronger, funnier, smarter, and more likable sister’s shadow. I had alighted on a goody-goody strategy—good grades and good behavior to please my parents. But aiming to please came at a high price: in the shuffle of figuring out what they wanted, I lost track of what I needed and pleased no one. My mother was impossible to satisfy because she had dropped out of fulltime parenting and spent much of her time abroad; who knew what she expected or wanted? My father proved tough not because he had high standards—although he did—but because he wanted everything to go his way. Even Peggy complicated matters: whenever I beat her, inevitably in the domain of grades, her irritation ruined any satisfaction

I gleaned from gaining my parents’ attention. Win or lose, in my family I often felt as if I lost.

In signing up for the crew, I knew what I was getting into. Making the varsity was the goal. I welcomed the gauntlet that rowing posed: the chance to prove myself, whether a quitter, a wimp, or someone I could be proud of. I told myself I could drop out any time if I couldn’t handle the pressure to perform, the jostling for position, the reality of my rank staring me in the face every time the varsity launched without me. I told myself that if I couldn’t cut it, life would continue and I would move on.

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Without my training companions, I may well have quit that first winter. Luckily, during those dark and dreary afternoons, there was no dearth of compatriots ready and willing to tackle the posted workout. Although I depended on my teammates to help me stay the course, I hesitated to embrace the team as mine, to declare my loyalty. I had learned the hard way that for all the feel-good moments of connection I got from friendship and relationships, in the long run trusting others brought me disappointment and sorrow. My job was to make myself tough and reliable enough so I would never need others or disappoint myself.

Yet, the power of teamwork was impossible to ignore or refute. Within the first several weeks of winter training, I had to concede I was stronger as part of a functional unit than as a loner. I could get myself to practice every day, but the companionship of others, sweating and grunting beside me while they both did their best and tried to best my efforts, got me through. But I was a reluctant learner and needed an abundance of evidence to sway me.

An ordinary practice, a weight-lifting day, offered some. I was lucky. Chris was my workout partner that afternoon, the perfect partner it turned out, who, along with spotting me while I hoisted bars loaded with iron, taught me about sparring and standing my ground.

“Hey, what are you doing? That’s our equipment!” echoed an irritated voice from the far end of Tank A. I looked up from the weight rack, suddenly uneasy. I felt my gut do a back flip. I saw several heavyweight male rowers stretching on the mats staring at me and Chris, scowling.

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Chris didn’t stop her calculations as she loaded the weight bar. “We need a twenty-five and a ten on each end to start. We’ll go up from there,” she continued.

“Hey!”

“Hi, guys. You have a problem with our using the equipment?” Chris’s question hung in the air. She stepped in front of the weight bar, adjusted the protective weight belt that rested above her slim hips, and positioned herself to start her first set of cleans. She knelt in front of the bar, feet hip width apart, grasped it from above with both hands shoulder width apart and took a deep breath, as she prepared herself to lift the weighted bar straight up to her chest in one explosive motion, flick her wrists up, sink down into a squat, absorbing the bar’s weight as it reversed direction and settled into her palms.

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“This is our equipment. Not for girls.” The voice was closer now, as the men’s crew captain stalked toward our lifting station, hands balling into fists.

“Oh,” Chris stared him down, standing taller than him even though she was a foot shorter. “I see, boys. So you must pay more tuition than we do, right?”

No one moved for a long moment. Veins protruded from the captain’s neck. His fists remained by his sides. He glared at Chris . . . then finally shrugged and returned to his teammates, stiffly uncurling his fingers. The men continued to stare as if they could shrink us to nothing. But I was no longer afraid: Chris buoyed me with her aggressive confidence.

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“There aren’t any girls on our team,” she told me between sets.

“We’re women. It’s the Yale Women’s Crew. They don’t call the heavyweights the Yale Boys’ Crew, do they? Don’t let anyone diminish you by calling you a girl.”

We belonged in that weight room. We deserved consideration and respect. I basked in the familiarity of an older sister looking out for me, leading the way. My own inner resolve edged forward, my confidence infused with Chris’s.

We completed our sets, unloaded the weight bars, and put the equipment away.

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“Bye, boys,” Chris said as we walked across the room. As I swung the door open and stepped safely across the threshold, the dam of silence behind us broke.

“See ya, cracks.”

“Good riddance, sweat hogs.”

What? Chris had to tell me what the epithets meant. My sister, Peggy, had called me names, but a stranger never had. It stung.

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These heavyweights were Yalies; they were supposed to be smart. I was shocked by their apparent belief that their gender granted them a valid claim of superiority. It was 1976, but the Dark Ages prevailed in New Haven, Connecticut.

The weight room incident was not the first or last attack: verbal skirmishes with the guys continued all winter. Maybe the men were tired of indoor training too, as the brutality and intensity of daily workouts increased. Maybe their longing to return to open water and rowing in real shells clouded their judgment. Maybe they were big babies who didn’t want to share. Whatever, by winter’s end, their words no longer hurt: I’d moved on to anger and disgust.

Women undergraduates had first matriculated at Yale as transfer students in 1969, not a moment too soon for my purposes. In 1967, I had started fourth grade at my new school, white-gloved Chapin located on East End Avenue, four blocks south of Gracie Mansion, the home of New York’s mayor. The all-girls student body was a change for me, coming from the co-ed P.S. 6 on 81st and Madison, but I had no trouble adjusting to the fact that girls held every position of leadership. I never gave it a second thought, coming from a family where my big sister ruled, and I settled into the protected environment without realizing my good fortune.

I set my sights on attending Yale University that first autumn at Chapin. Miss Proffit, my homeroom teacher, assigned Fritzi Beshar as my desk mate and positioned us smack in the first row, directly in front of her desk so she could keep an eye on us. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but she didn’t know that yet. Nine-year-old Fritzi, however, already had developed a reputation for outspokenness. She and I traded tidbits of our family history the first time we met and became fast friends. Both of us had two sisters and one brother, first-generation immigrant mothers, and fathers who were Yale graduates. Upon discovering this common ground, we confided in each other that we, too, planned to attend that venerable institution when our turn came. We sealed our friendship with an agreement to room together, ten years in the future.

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Luckily, no one told us that Yale wasn’t open to women undergraduates. My father taught Yale fight songs to the entire family and regaled us with stories of his freshman year on the Old Campus, his upper-classman’s life at Branford College, and his tenure with the radio station, but he somehow neglected to mention that the school was only for men. Of course, I knew nothing about the status of girls and women beyond my school’s front door. It was normal for mothers not to work. I didn’t wonder why mine didn’t. Fritzi’s mom was a lawyer, but I knew she was special, especially because she passed the New York State bar exam without ever attending law school.

I didn’t know that in those days, marriage automatically excluded women from employment and educational opportunities; even Luci Baines Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, was refused readmission to Georgetown University’s School of Nursing following her marriage, as the school did not permit married women to matriculate.

I didn’t know that Billie Jean King won her first Wimbledon title in women’s doubles as a seventeen-year-old in 1961, long before she turned pro in 1968, and was never offered a college scholarship. I didn’t know that women were considered too weak to run as far as men and were, in fact, barred from doing so. In 1966, a woman secretly ran in the Boston Marathon for the first time, although she didn’t enter the race. Bobbi Gibb hid in some bushes near the starting line and waited until about half the entrants passed, then jumped out and ran without a number. In 1967, the first woman formally entered the race, but because she used her initials on her entry form, “K. V. Switzer,” her name slipped by the race officials. Around the four-mile mark, one of the race’s cofounders, Jock Semple, recognized Kathrine Switzer for who she was and physically accosted her, yelling, “Get the hell out of my race.” After escaping from his grasp, she managed to complete the full 26.2-mile course without further incident.

I didn’t know that colleges all over the country were closed to women. For example, Virginia state law prohibited women from admission to the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Virginia, the most highly rated public institution of higher education in the state: only under court order in 1970 was the first woman admitted. Yale was not the only Ivy League school that reserved its hallowed halls for half the educable population. Princeton University was for men only, while Brown, Columbia, and Harvard maintained affiliations with women’s colleges (Pembroke, Barnard, and Radcliffe), but remained single-sex institutions. Only Cornell and University of Pennsylvania were well ahead of their Ivy League brethren, accepting women beginning in 1870 and 1880, respectively.

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I was too young to notice the sea changes rippling through American culture at the time. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 expanded access to the Constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and represented a national commitment to end discrimination. The legislation prohibited discrimination in employment based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion, but didn’t address access to education. In 1965, President Johnson extended the antidiscrimination laws when he signed Executive Order 11246, which prohibited federal contractors from discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. He amended the order, effective October 13, 1968, to include discrimination based on sex, thus preparing the legislative soil for the passage of Title IX.

Against this backdrop, all the Ivies began accepting women. Yale accepted its first female undergraduates as transfer students in 1969 but capped the number of admits to satisfy its restless alums, who doubted the wisdom of such a monumental change. That same year, a part-time lecturer at the University of Maryland, Bernice Sandler, became the first complainant to invoke Executive Order 11246 to fight for her job and equal pay. In applying the rationale that higher institutions of learning, as recipients of federal funding, could not legally discriminate against women, she planted the seeds for Title IX.

From there, the first flakes of change coalesced rapidly, and the growing clamor for legislation snowballed over the next three years. Representative Martha Griffiths (a Democrat from Michigan) gave the first speech in Congress focused on discrimination against women in education on March 9, 1970. Only three weeks later, Harvard University gained the dubious distinction as the site of the country’s first contract-compliance investigation of sex discrimination

During the following summer, Representative Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, in her capacity as chair of the subcommittee that dealt with higher education, took the first legislative steps that resulted in the passage of Title IX, overseeing the first congressional hearings on the topic of education and employment for women. She partnered with Representative Patsy Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii, to draft the legislation that would prohibit sex discrimination in education.

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The first woman of color elected to Congress, Mink had extensive and relevant personal experience. Turned down by twenty medical schools, she completed law school instead, only to discover no law firm would hire her. Motivated to fight to remove the barriers she encountered, she entered politics.

In 1972, Mink and Green introduced, and Congress passed, the legislation whose preamble reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” With his signature, President Nixon enacted Title IX of the Educational Amendments, codified as United States Code, Title 20, Chapter 38, Sections 1681–1686.

Title IX applies to all educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance, from kindergarten through graduate school. It addresses ten key areas, including access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing, and technology, and extends to all of an institution’s operations, including admissions, recruitment, educational programs and activities, course offerings and access, counseling, financial aid, employment assistance, facilities and housing, health and insurance benefits and services, and scholarships. And athletics.

The first women who enrolled as freshmen at Yale graduated in 1973, a year before I submitted my application. I started my freshman year with a student body that was still two-thirds male. When I started rowing, I had no idea I was entering a cultural battleground, where the fight to define femininity commingled with the fight for equality. Only four years earlier, a Connecticut judge had rejected a high school girl’s petition to join the boys’ indoor track and cross-country team because there were no girls’ teams, declaring, “Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls.”

The women’s rowing program at Yale started as a club sport in the fall of 1972 and retroactively earned varsity status in 1974, after only two years, thanks to a strong showing that spring racing season. That year also marked the establishment of the Eastern Association of Women’s Rowing Colleges and the first EAWRC Sprints Regatta in which the Yale women’s eight took second behind their instant nemesis, Radcliffe. Nineteen schools participated in that spring competition, held in Middletown, Connecticut: the first championship competition for women in any sport, in any Division I conference, although back then women’s rowing was not exactly on the roster of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) sports.

Title IX may have been enacted, but change came slowly, as did the dawning of my own awareness. Growing up, I didn’t experience many sexist putdowns, other than my father’s teasing that I threw “like a girl” when we played running bases and he taught me the correct arm motion. But, for the first time, I discerned new undertones in my family’s comments.

During Thanksgiving break freshman year, my stepmother, BG, grabbed one of my hands and turned it over to see my palm, dotted with its unique array of healing blisters and rough-edged calluses. She recoiled in horror and, dropping it quickly, said, “What boy would want to hold your hand?”

My mom saw pictures of me with my crew and remarked with obvious relief that I wasn’t “as big” as my taller teammates. Did she see the irony, wanting to squeeze my unconventional dream into a narrow definition of femininity, tugging me in the same direction of capitulation she had headed twenty years earlier, assuming the role of wife and mother, and losing her dream to travel the world, her independence, and for at least a while, her sanity?

On the Yale campus, Tony Johnson, the men’s varsity rowing coach, supported the women’s program. Nat, who began coaching the women in the fall of 1973, was a former Yale varsity rower himself. He’d rowed for TJ in the late 1960s and was one of his guys. TJ even contributed $600 from his budget to help launch the women’s club program, but his support seemed to extend only so far, stopping at the doorway of his own crew’s locker room. A handful of dollars couldn’t compensate for his athletes’ vocal dismay regarding the women’s presence. The fact that TJ left their behavior unaddressed communicated his own ambivalence: as long as the women didn’t interfere with the men, we could row. But no rocking the boat.

As a club sport, the women’s program was relegated to the stinky and confining lagoon, where the men’s freshmen recruits rowed for a few weeks in the fall before joining the rest of their squads at the Robert Cooke Boathouse, twelve miles off campus in the rumpled town of Derby, on the banks of the mellow Housatonic River. The real boathouse remained off limits to the women until they achieved varsity status; after all, rowing emblematized tradition at Yale, and that meant men’s rowing, which dated back to 1852, the year of the country’s first collegiate sporting event—a rowing race between Harvard and Yale.

Both the heavyweight and lightweight men’s programs operated out of the Robert Cooke Boathouse. Reaching the three-story, three-bay boathouse, painted in Yale’s traditional blue-and-white, required a twenty-five-minute bus ride from campus. Two boat bays were stacked with elegant and pristine Pocock racing shells—singles, pairs, fours, and eights—to provide a full complement of training opportunities for the men. A third bay was reserved for the full-time boat rigger, Jerry Romano, who worked to keep the fleet of shells fighting fit, repairing damaged equipment and rigging boats to suit the coaches’ specifications.

History nestled in the highest boat racks: aging hulls, graying with dust, names painted on their bows that hearkened back to rowing greats from the 1920s and ’30s, their equally ancient oars sporting leather collars and pencil-thin blades, clustered at the rear of the boat bays.

At the top of a rickety wood staircase in the back of the middle bay was a pair of tiny offices for the coaches. A large, airy locker room fully equipped with standard toilet and shower facilities dominated the second floor. An uncovered deck stood on the downstream side of the building and gave an unimpeded view of the finish line.

The Housatonic offered vastly improved rowing conditions compared to the lagoon. The water was clean, the surroundings safe. A dam directly downstream from the Yale boathouse limited the crews in that direction, but four miles of wide, meandering river stretched upstream for their uninterrupted use. Recreational boat traffic was scant and no other rowing programs used the waters, which kept them calm and peaceful. The gentle hills that rose and fell along the river’s shores provided a visual respite from the rigors of practices.

Derby’s scenery and the facilities were oceans away from the urban jungle surrounding the lagoon. When the women’s program earned varsity status, the women finally gained access to Derby and the men had to make room.

To the women, Derby was heaven, but the heavyweight men protested that we made their lives hell. With limited equipment of our own, we begged boats from the men’s program, diminishing the guys’ inventory and storage space. We occasionally damaged boats—hitting the dock on landing, running over submerged debris during practice— just like the guys; fixing our mistakes ate into Jerry Romano’s availability to repair and rig their boats. We shared dock space, imposing on their launch and return times. We rode on the bus with them to and from practice every afternoon, enduring their sly comments and obvious glares.

But we couldn’t share lockers, toilets, and showers. The boathouse had one tiny bathroom on the first floor that the women could use to relieve themselves before and after practice, but there was no place to shower or change. All that had to wait, and often that wait approached two hours.

Rowing is not a dry sport. Besides the obvious source of moisture, sweat produced by aggressive exertion, the backsplash of oars entering the catch guarantees that everyone who doesn’t sit in the stroke seat gets drenched at some point or another. Add to that the late winter, early spring air temperature in Derby, which averages in the mid-thirties in February and creeps up to the mid-forties in March—don’t even consider the possibility of precipitation—and you have prime breeding conditions for sickness.

Fifteen to twenty minutes after the women got on the bus, sweaty, soaked, and, by now, often shivery, the men would straggle on, clean, hair freshly combed, wrapped in warm jackets, and eager to hit the dining hall for dinner. Reaching campus before the last dining hall stopped serving always proved a scramble, as the drive back took nearly half an hour, which meant that our showers had to wait even longer. No matter the weather, we waited for the men in wet clothes, we endured the bus ride back to campus in wet clothes, we ate our meals in wet clothes, and we walked back to our dorm rooms in wet clothes.

“What about taking a shower in Joni Barnett’s office?” Anne joked to Chris one afternoon in late February. (Barnett was the director of women’s intercollegiate sports and reported to the athletic director.) “We could bring in a bucket, sponge, soap, and a towel.” Chris sneezed and wiped her nose. Only a week into rowing outside at Derby following the breakup of the winter’s ice that had sheathed the river, she’d already caught a cold and Anne was struggling with pneumonia. They weren’t alone; several more women rowers quickly came down with respiratory ailments after we began practice at Derby.

The university had unwittingly laid the groundwork for rebellion. Realizing the boathouse needed an upgrade, no doubt helped to this conclusion by Chris’s steady complaining, the powers that be decided to transform the building’s unused third floor into space for the women and shared the blueprints with Chris. However, because the expansion would require modernizing the existing structure to meet new building codes, the university deemed the project too costly and nixed it. Instead, it resorted to the solution devised the previous season: importing a temporary trailer that squeezed a triad of showers and a parking strip’s worth of locker room space into the boathouse’s parking lot. This year, however, the occupancy permit approval was delayed, leaving the women with nothing.

That snag, combined with her sense that the university had pulled a bait and switch regarding a more permanent solution, ignited Chris’s disappointment. With the vision of a permanent locker room dancing in her head, Chris was no longer willing to settle for what had morphed into too little, too late, especially because she captained a team that relied on her and whose power to do great she not only championed, but believed in and relied on herself.

Chris followed Anne’s lead. “We could go into her office and strip down. That would get her attention.”

“Imagine you standing buck naked in front of Joni Barnett!” Anne started laughing. “I dare you!”

“You’re on!” When this pair of Olympics-bound competitors egged each other on, there was no backing down. Chris rubbed her hands together gleefully and launched into planning our foray into Barnett’s office.

I didn’t hesitate to follow Chris’s lead and join the protest. By March 3, I’d been rowing six months. I’d survived my first winter training.

I’d accomplished previously unimaginable challenges with women I’d grown to like and respect. I was one of nineteen young women who gathered in the humid basement locker room at Payne Whitney before practice. Not everyone on the team showed up. Some had late afternoon classes, and at least one, Bakehead, citing apprehension over losing her campus job (she worked in the athletic department) and, worse, her financial aid, demurred. She could easily imagine a worst-case scenario in which the university would lash out at the participants, and she couldn’t afford it: “I wish I could go, but I can’t risk it,” she said.

Our joking and joshing diminished as we printed “Title IX” on each other’s backs in Yale-blue marker. We grew quieter as we dressed in our team-issue sweatpants and sweatshirts. We paired up and proceeded to Barnett’s office in the Ray Tompkins House, home of the athletic administration, trailed by a duo of Yale Daily News staffers—a writer, David Zweig, who doubled as a stringer for the New York Times, and a photographer, Nina Haight. Barnett’s secretary was surprised that Chris Ernst was accompanied by eighteen others to her appointment with the director, but she ushered us in.

We stood silently, somberly, facing Barnett, who retreated behind her broad desk. Instead of sitting down, however, she remained standing, one hand on her desk as if to steady herself. Chris turned sideways and nodded slightly. Perfectly synchronized, we turned our backs to the administrator, pulled off our sweatshirts, dropped our pants, and stood stark naked, absolutely silent. David Zweig turned his back and kept scribbling notes.

Barnett said, “Do you want this man in here?”

Chris waved her hand as if to shush a child. “Yes, it’s fine. Just listen please.” She unfolded a sheet of paper. “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting,” she began, reading from her prepared statement. I stood there, feeling a wintry draft through the aging windows of the Ray Tompkins House. “We are using you and your office because you are the symbol of women’s athletics at Yale; we’re using this method to express our urgency . . .”

I felt the magnificence of the moment: standing up for myself, for all of us, surrounded and strengthened by my compatriots. Forget those rower boys who thought our beloved sport belonged only to them, who thought their disgusting nicknames for us could intimidate and dissuade us. The power of “crack,” “sweat hog,” and “inhuman scum” drained away, along with my sense of loneliness. I had found my place, where I didn’t have to diminish my dreams or sacrifice myself to gain acceptance or affection. I could stand tall and strong without stooping to accommodate the prejudice or preferences of others,buoyed and bolstered by my teammates.

“There has been a lack of concern and competence on your part,” said Chris, winding down. I felt energy coursing through me. Her words buoyed me with a new resolve. They couldn’t stop me.

When Chris and Anne told Nat about the protest immediately afterward on the dock at the boathouse, he yelped, “You did what?” But he seemed proud. By the next day, however, he’d come to his senses, undoubtedly aided by the university’s athletic director, who must have urged him to rein in his unruly team. Hung over and sullen, head sagging, he gathered the team together for a meeting in Jennie Kiesling’s room, where he admonished us in mumbles for going around his back and making him look ineffectual. “Why didn’t you let me handle this?” he said. Perhaps he’d been working behind the scenes to broker some kind of change, but that no longer mattered. This was the first time I heard my coach express his disappointment in us, which should have alerted me to his questionable judgment.

Nat’s displeasure could not dent the crew’s belief in either the justice of our position or the rightness of our action. As far as we were concerned, we had struck a blow for freedom, one backed up by the law of the land, and we were tired of waiting for the bureaucracy to grind out its version of progress at its leisure. The event deepened our sense of unity as a team and our willingness to rely on each other, essential qualities of fast boats.

No one on the women’s crew anticipated that news of the protest would end up on the front page of the second section of the New York Times, picked up by the Associated Press and wired around the world, even showing up in the International Herald Tribune. While not all my team members’ parents were happy with their daughters’ uppity, ungrateful behavior, several sent clippings and congratulations, my father included. He was proud of my defiance; at least this time, I wasn’t defying him. Letters poured in from alumni, some beseeching the administration to rectify the problem, others blaming the administration for creating it by admitting women in the first place. No one predicted that the publicity would shame the university into a commitment to expand the Robert Cooke Boathouse to accommodate women the following year.

Excerpted from "Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX" by Ginny Gilder (Beacon Press, 2015 ). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.


Ginny Gilder

Ginny Gilder is an Olympic silver medalist in rowing, the founder and CEO of an investment business, and co-owner of the Seattle Storm. The mother of three children and stepmother of two, Gilder lives with her wife, Lynn, and their two poodles in Seattle, Washington.

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