“Turn around and bend over.” Nearly 40 years ago, on March 3,1976, one of my teammates, wielding a Yale-blue magic marker, stood poised to inscribe my back as I prepared to join a protest destined to make history. Not that I thought for a moment that would be the outcome. As far as I was concerned, I was joining in solidarity with the rest of my crew to protest a perceived inequity. I had never done anything like that before in my long life of 17 years, but wasn’t questioning authority part of one’s college curriculum?
I was six months into my love affair with the sport of rowing, a freshman at Yale. I loved being a member of the women’s crew. My teammates were strong, determined, not going to take no for an answer. I had been absorbing and internalizing their gutsy approach to life from my first day of practice. Of course I was standing with my team.
The Yale campus is 12 miles from the university’s boathouse on the banks of the Housatonic in Derby, Connecticut. That year, after enduring a winter indoors, lifting weights, running stairs, rowing in the tanks, I was ecstatic the day the ice on the river broke. Every day, rowers from both the men’s and women’s programs gathered outside the gym in New Haven to ride to practice in drafty school buses. We rode together, no segregation. Until we arrived at the boathouse.
Women had no locker-room, or showers: just a tiny one-person bathroom on the first floor. An annoyance before practice, this situation burgeoned into a much bigger problem after. While the male rowers headed for their locker room and hot showers, the female rowers—soaked by sweat, the splash of river water, and the weather—headed for the bus. About twenty minutes later, the men would straggle on, clean and dry. Then the bus would drive us directly to the only dining hall on campus that remained open. Showers and dry clothes for the women followed supper.
The captain of the women’s crew was Chris Ernst, a charismatic and fiery leader. She was tough to deny. She and another team member, Anne Warner, set the bar high for the rest of us. They were training not just for our collegiate season, but for the 1976 Olympic team, which would be the first time women’s rowing would be allowed in the Olympics.
Yale University, well aware of the lack of facilities at the boathouse and reputed to be working on a viable, long-term solution, had imported a postage-sized portable locker room, smaller than an average-sized RV, to accommodate the needs of a team whose numbers approached 30. However, no one had applied for the variance required by the town of Derby to hook up this poor substitute for sufficient facilities. Infuriated, and bolstered by the existence of Congress’s recently enacted legislation requiring equal facilities for men and women in all educational institutions that accepted federal funding, Title IX, Chris and Anne cooked up a scheme to get the university’s attention.
On March 3, I gathered with Chris, Anne, and 16 more of my teammates in the humid basement locker room of Yale’s gym before practice. Not everyone on the team showed up. Some had late afternoon classes, and at least one, worried she might lose her campus job (she worked in the athletic department) and, worse, her financial aid, demurred.
Our joking and joshing diminished as we penned “Title IX” on each other’s backs in that Yale-blue ink. We grew quieter as we dressed in our team-issue sweatsuits. Pairing up, we proceeded to the athletic administration offices, to join Chris for the appointment she had scheduled with Joni Barnett, head of Women’s Athletics. 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, accompanied us. Barnett’s secretary was surprised to see the size of the group accompanying Chris, but she ushered us in.
Silently, somberly, we organized ourselves before Barnett. When Chris nodded slightly, perfectly synchronized, we turned our backs to the administrator, pulled off our sweatshirts, dropped our pants, and stood stark naked, absolutely silent. The reporter turned his back and kept scribbling notes.
Chris read a prepared statement. “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting. 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. When Chris finished, we silently dressed and trooped out of the office. While we were relieved and jubilant, the athletic director was anything but, and reprimanded our coach for not controlling his athletes.
The outside world’s response followed swiftly with a different, one-sided reaction: picked up by the Associated Press, the story traveled around the pre-Internet world in relatively short order, showing up on the first page of the second section of The New York Times the next day and in the International Herald Tribune a few days later. Alumni from all over the world, nearly all of them male, admonished their alma mater to “give those girls a locker room.”
The following year, we got just that. All we had intended that day was to solve a problem that needed a little soap and water. We ended up changing the world.
Who knew that the clarion call of a simple protest would resound across the ensuing decades, infusing subsequent generations of women with continued hope and passion to pursue the justice that Title IX’s sponsors envisioned in 1972? Athletic administrators today still drag their feet, and worse, in providing women with equal access to sports opportunities. Unfortunately, the need for protest and insistence on following the law continues, as the current outrageously inequitable situation at University of Minnesota Duluth painfully demonstrates.
No guts, no glory. Nothing good comes easy. 39 years ago today, I left my apprehension in the gym basement and allowed my belief in a cause to guide me. Just as I was one of a committed group of athletes back then, today, countless individuals, teams, and organizations partner not only to speak out against discrimination, but work tirelessly to create transformational opportunities for girls and young women to discover their power through sports. Now that’s progress.
Ginny Gilder is an Olympic silver medalist in rowing, an owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, and the author of Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX (Beacon Press) publishing this April. Learn more at ginnygilder.com or find Ginny on Facebook and Twitter.