(WOMENSENEWS)–Title IX may have been enacted, but change came slowly, as did the dawning of my own awareness as a rower at Yale.
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, 12 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 25-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.
The Housatonic offered vastly improved rowing conditions compared to the lagoon. 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 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.
One Tiny Bathroom
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-30s in February and creeps up to the mid-40s in March–don’t even consider the possibility of precipitation–and you have prime breeding conditions for sickness.
"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 female 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.
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.
Women Protest Back
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 19 young women who gathered in the humid basement locker room at Payne Whitney before practice. Not everyone on the team showed up.
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 18 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. 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.
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.
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.
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