Forty-six years ago, women’s rowers at Yale protested inequality by shucking their sweats and standing naked in front of a female athletic administrator.
Last year, women’s rowers from UConn took their school to court to reinstate the program the university had cut on the 48th anniversary of Title IX.
Title IX, the law enacted in 1972 which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any education program that receives federal funding, had only been around for four years when the Yale protest occurred.
It turns 50 years old this week on June 23.
Progress has been made in women’s sports — almost unimaginable to the girls and women who were playing sports in high school and college in 1972. Little girls can dream of playing professional basketball in the WNBA. The highly successful US women’s soccer team, after years of pushing for the same pay as the men, finally got it. High school sports participation for girls has grown from 300,000 in 1972 to 3.5 million in the 2018-19 school year.
But inequities and injustices still persist, as the UConn women’s rowers found out when their sport was cut in the summer of 2020 as part of budgetary cuts within the athletic department.
UConn added women’s rowing and women’s lacrosse when the school upgraded football to the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. More women athletes were needed in an attempt to balance out participation numbers for Title IX purposes. The UConn rowers’ lawsuit, filed in April 2021 by 12 members of the team, alleged that the program was never funded properly. In the settlement reached last December, the program was not only reinstated but received a number of upgrades such as more scholarships, indoor rowing tanks and a renovation of the boathouse on Coventry Lake.
“You have to understand the entire evolution of the last 50 years. People are like, ‘What are you talking about? Women play now. There’s lots more sports, there’s lots more participation. What can they possibly be complaining about?’ ” said Felice Duffy, a Title IX lawyer who represented the UConn rowers in their lawsuit. “What they’re complaining about is being treated like second-class citizens.”
UConn rower Emily Jones, one of the plaintiffs in the case, remembered that on her official visit to the university, she was given a piece of paper that said UConn was ranked the No. 1 school in the country for women’s sports. She found it ironic that she had to fight for her sport to be reinstated.
“I’m a sociology minor,” Jones said. “You discuss history, and a lot of people say it’s cyclical. Not only does history repeat itself, but it manifests in different ways. You think you solved the problem, but the problem comes around and manifests in a different form.
“The first thing I thought of was this case. You would think in 50 years, we would have this figured out, but we don’t. That’s part of the fight. Things have gotten better and things will continue to get better but it honestly took a group of women that we have here to make those changes.”
Just like at Yale. Jennie Kiesling, a 1978 Yale graduate who is now a history professor and rowing coach at the United States Military Academy, was a sophomore at the time of the 1976 protest.
“In 1976, when we protested, it didn’t occur to me that we had legal rights,” Kiesling said. “I didn’t think that way. Nobody had ever won a lawsuit that I had heard of that got women to do anything. The big surprise to me was that UConn [rowers] actually succeeded, legally. I think that’s a huge step.
“What we wanted was different. We were each in our own place. For me, the protest was a statement about being taken seriously and not being denigrated by men.”
Kiesling wasn’t expecting much when the protest was planned by her teammates Chris Ernst and Anne Warner.
“I just thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to make a statement,'” Kiesling said. “Here we are, we are tired of being treated badly, but I didn’t expect miraculously anything would change.”
Ernst and Warner were top-level rowers. Warner was training for the 1976 Olympics, where she would win a bronze medal with the women’s eight boat.
At the time, Yale, which had gone co-ed in 1969, already had a cramped boathouse with lockers and showers for the men. The women? They had access to a toilet in the back of the boat repair shop. A trailer was brought in with portable showers, but the trailer sat idle after the permit with the town zoning board of appeals was not renewed by the university.
The women to Joni Barnett, the women’s athletic director, but nothing changed. They sat on the bus, shivering, waiting for the men to shower so the bus could bring them from the boathouse in Derby back to campus. Warner caught pneumonia. The year before, she had it and ended up in the hospital.
“Out on the water, you’d get an inch of ice built up on your back,” Warner told the Courant in 1992. “You would get frozen literally. It was an outrageous situation, sitting on the cold bus, waiting for them to come out.”
They hatched a plan. They would write Title IX on the bodies. They would strip in Barnett’s office and read a statement. A Yale Daily News reporter was there to cover it. The New York Times picked up the story the next day.
“These are the bodies Yale is exploiting,” Ernst read. “On a day like today, the ice freezes on this skin. Then we sit for a half an hour as the ice melts and soaks through to meet the sweat that is soaking us from the inside. We sit a half an hour with the chills … half a dozen of us are sick right now.”
She ended with: “We’re human and being treated as less than such.”
“I remember being very, very nervous,” said Kiesling, one of the 19 women who joined the protest. “I used to jump out of airplanes and race bicycles so I know what it’s like to be very afraid. I was also at the time not the sort of person who took off my clothes in public. I remember preparing with our blue felt markers. It was very quiet. I remember walking through the passage, two by two, to Joni Barnett’s office.
“Then afterwards, this great feeling of relief that we’d done it, but wondering if something bad would happen.”
Five days later, the permit was renewed. By the next fall, a $250,000 addition to the boathouse, including a women’s locker room, showers and a boat storage bay, had been approved. In 1977, it was completed.
“I arrived at Yale and was promptly given a locker in a boathouse with showers,” said Christine Wilson, a 1983 Yale graduate who went on to coach the Olympic team and at Oxford University. “I was aware of the fact that the locker room had become a reality because of the outspoken women who had staged the protest.”
The UConn rowers knew vaguely about Title IX. They had grown up playing a variety of sports, and nobody was getting thrown out of high school gym class like Kiesling said she was back in the 1970s for being “too aggressive.”
Then, on June 23, 2020, Huskies rowing coach Jen Sanford got a call from UConn director of athletics David Benedict, saying that her program would be cut, along with men’s swimming, tennis and cross country, due to budgetary issues.
Sanford protested. She thought the team was safe because of Title IX. Turns out that was true, but not before the program lost top rowers and potential recruits due to the uncertainty of the future of the team. The rowers and coach experienced anxiety and angst, trying to keep the team going while a dozen rowers took the school to court.
“Before we got cut, I didn’t know anything about [Title IX],” Sanford said. “I think just everything I learned going through the process this year, then having the financial support because of the settlement, it’s a relief, a weight off our shoulders.
“All the things that came along, that we were able to get through the settlement, are things we would have liked to have had for the last 24 years.”
In 1997, in an attempt to balance participation numbers, UConn added women’s lacrosse and rowing as the school was upgrading its football team, adding more football players, coaches and scholarships. One tenet of Title IX states that the number of male and female athletes must be proportional to the number of male and female undergraduate students.
“There is no NCAA men’s rowing,” Duffy said. “They only needed it for women because they needed large numbers for women.
“They only needed 40-45 [women’s rowers]but the schools didn’t want that so they made the rowing teams keep more rowers.”
In the lawsuit filed in April 2021, it was alleged that UConn had told Sanford to keep more rowers (60) than she needed or had resources for so the numbers would appear to stay balanced for Title IX purposes.
That wasn’t even that bad. At the University of Wisconsin, there were 176 women’s rowers listed and Michigan had 132 in 2018.
“The rowing — they’ve been [screwed] over from the very beginning and the whole point of adding rowing was to appear to be in compliance with Title IX,” Duffy said. ,[Colleges and universities] made them keep too many women with too few resources and they did it so that football can survive. Then they get to this day and age when all of the sudden, they have enough sports and they know how to manipulate it better, they get rid of rowing after using it for 25 years.”
Wilson, who has coached at all levels of the sport, added: “The elephant in the room will always be football and the excesses that have been devoted to sustaining that sport at the top level. Women’s rowing was initially identified as a problem-solving sport. Instantly there would be a roster of 50 participants and that offset the massive numbers of football players at an institution.”
This spring, a group of UConn rowers sat a picnic table next to their boathouse on Coventry Lake and talked about their experiences.
They had a new dock, new launches, and more scholarships. They have an understanding of Title IX and experience fighting for equality.
What sophomore Emma Pinkney of West Hartford learned was that it was OK to speak up for what you believe in.
“It’s OK, even if other people who are more powerful people are saying the opposite,” Pinkney said. “Because it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong at all.”
Pinkney understands now. The fight isn’t over.
“I just think of the US women’s national soccer team and how they’ve had a long fight for equal pay and are just now moving towards ending that,” she said. “The word to describe it is just frustrating. How many years have we had Title IX and all these equality laws in place and we’re still [fighting for] it in 2022? It’s frustrating that we have to do it.”
Lori Riley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.