Roy Exum: The Yale Women’s Famous Stand

Monday, June 18, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

This Wednesday will mark the 40th anniversary of what is commonly called “Title IX,” which is a critical part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and assures females gender equity in any educational and athletic settings that receive federal funding. I remember when Richard Nixon signed it into law and, if you want to know how far women have come since then, consider the fact that of the 9.5 million Americans who ran and finished road races last year, clearly one half were females.

Back then the “Chicken Littles” in college athletics feared the sky would surely fall with the required funding of women’s sports, but it has proven to be a Godsend for deserving female athletes all across the country.

Colleges have learned they can indeed support and fund women’s teams in various sports and there is more acceptance and appreciation for women’s athletics than ever before.

Sadly, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has seen a 78 percent increase in sexual harassment complaints between 2008 and 2011 and, just last week, Yale University agreed to take a wide range of actions to improve compliance and erase complaints with Title IX requirements. Believe it or not, I’ve always figured that Yale, which didn’t even accept women as students until 1969, was a big reason Title IX was finally accepted.

You need to know that every university was unnerved by Title IX at first. Unable to foresee the TV riches yet to come, some thought Title IX would do severe damage to the biggest bread winner, college football, and realized it would take decades before women’s sports would ever become self-sufficient. But when the Yale crew team took a valiant stand on March 3, 1976, the nation realized women’s athletics should most definitely become part of the educational process.

After practice each afternoon the Yale women would be forced to wait while the men’s crew team took showers. The women’s crew would be wet, cold and tired, but – because they were women – the men got priority. Further, the females were subjected to catcalls, loathsome behavior and sexual innuendo by Yale’s male athletes. Finally they craftily devised a plan of “shock and awe.”

What happened that afternoon was that the Yale women, tired of being treated as second-class citizens since they were clearly better than the men’s team, marched into the athletic administration offices and all 19 stripped buck naked. They’d painted “Title IX” on their backs and sternums and stood solemn-faced – and nude -- as team captain Christine Ernst read a statement. “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting. “We have come here today to make clear how unprotected we are, to show graphically what we are being exposed to … On a day like today, the rain freezes on our skin,” she said. “Then we sit on a bus for half an hour as the ice melts into our sweats to meet the sweat that has soaked our clothing underneath.” After the statement was read, the women put back on their clothes and left, sensing a victory. David Zweig, a campus sports writer who sat with his back towards the naked women out of respect, later recalled, “I vividly remember the feelings in that room. There was shock, surprise, hurt, pain, anger. But there isn’t a single word that describes those five minutes…”

Suffice it to say shower facilities for women were quickly made in Gilder Boathouse and, by the next spring, a new addition was made to house the Yale women rowers. Far better, many Yale alumni sent letters – and checks – towards the new awareness for women’s athletics and embarrassment that such conduct had been tolerated.

Last week it was learned Yale would take a pro-active stand towards more recent complaints. Russlyn Ali, a spokeswoman for the Office of Civil Rights, said, “Students cannot learn if they don’t feel safe, and sexual harassment and assault interfere with a student’s right to receive an education free of discrimination.”

The OCR investigation found many “tragic” incidents have occurred at Yale and the university, in a statement, asserted it was “pleased with the terms” of a new voluntary agreement that will comply with Title IX guidelines.

So while Title IX still has its problems after the first 40 years, there is now a willingness to comply and nobody needs to get naked ever again to take a stand for what is good and right in athletics.

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