Baring It All: How stripping empowered women

In 1976, nineteen women stood up for what they believed in — completely naked.

Women’s acceptance letters may have guaranteed them a spot in class, but did not guarantee them equal treatment. It was less than 50 years ago when Yale began admitting women in 1969. Allowing women in classes was one thing, but the establishment of Title IX three years later mandating gender equality in facilities at federally funded institutions triggered even more resentment towards women at Yale. Despite the fact that few changes were being implemented on campus to adhere to this new law, this bitterness was present still, especially in the boathouse when women intruded on the sacred tradition of rowing at Yale. In her documentary about the event, “A Hero for Daisy,” Mary Mazzio explains that it was as if the words “women” and “athletes” were mutually exclusive, and that the men of Yale rowing continued the policy of exclusion that Title IX was designed to eliminate.

1976 Yale Varsity boat

Not even their impressive results on the water earned the women’s crew team the respect they deserved. Even though the men’s crew team was on a losing streak, the women were still forced to make do with the men’s discarded equipment and outdated wooden shells, which were on the brink of falling apart. The biggest injustice though was the wait. Every practice, the men and women trained on the same river and took the same bus, but when practice was over, the men enjoyed their warm showers while the women were left waiting in the cold. Each day, they sat outside the old Spanish-style Bob Cooke boathouse, drenched in a mixture of their own sweat and dirty creek water. “When you combined the cold weather with being soaking wet, all we wanted was go in, dry off, and get back to campus,” explains former Yale rower Ginny Gilder, “ but the guys were in the locker room, while we were waiting outside, in the bus, wet and cold.” During Connecticut’s frosty winter months, their teeth would chatter as they huddled in the bus. Things only got worse when their male counterparts joined them on the bus post-showers, greeting them by calling them names like “sweat hogs.”

The team’s determined captain, Chris Ernst, made continuous complaints to the university which were met with polite nods, empty promises, and half-hearted follow-throughs. Title IX stated female athletes were entitled to the same rights as their male counterparts, but they were granted with nothing of the sort. Eventually a small portable trailer was installed to act as a locker room for the women. The raggedy trailer added insult to injury with its dirty floors and showers that could only produce cold water. Two weeks after its inauguration, it even caused their top rower to come down with pneumonia.

These women had been ignored for too long; it was time to do something about it. Tossing Mrs. Barnett, the athletic director at Yale, in to the icy cold waters of Housatonic River was one option. The team laughed while brainstorming ways they could finally get the equal treatment they deserved. These ladies were intelligent young women. After all, they had been in enrolled in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. They knew that they were being mistreated and as proud young women, they would not stand for it. The game took on an air of solemnity and once they arrived back to campus there was a plan in place.

Joni Barnett was a bit taken aback when nineteen women silently marched into her office the morning of March 3rd, 1976 and proceeded to strip naked. Minutes before, the team had gathered in the Paine Whitney gym’s locker room and written on each other’s backs and sternums, a now infamous work of blue magic marker. Mary O’Connor, who was part of the demonstration explains that “there really wasn’t anxiety because we didn’t know that what we were doing was going to have any significance. We were just like, we are irritated and we are going to go do this then try to get to practice on time.” The team walked through the Yale campus in their blue and white sweats and headed straight into Barnett’s office. All the girls and the Yale journalist they had brought with them filed into the office, and before Mrs. Barnett had a chance to say anything, they removed their bulky sweats and revealed the letters reading TITLE IX that stained their bare chests and backs.

Captain Chris Ernst, the epitome of confidence, stepped forward and read her statement beginning with:

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.

Chris Ernst reciting her statement to Yale athletic director Joni Barnett.

Mrs. Barnett just stood there, her head lowered and arms folded across her chest, saying nothing. Ernst got through the whole statement, unwavering, and without another word the girls filed back out.

The next day the article on the second page of the New York Times’ headline read “Yale Women Strip to Protest a Lack of Crew’s Showers.” “Well, our coach was mad, but it was definitely effective,” chuckles O’Connor as she thinks back to that fateful day. The initial reactions to the demonstration were varied. Students who were already unhappy with women crowding the campuses were further angered as reporters invaded Yale. Though the team regretted the embarrassment they had caused the university, they promptly received their showers and a new locker room addition to the boathouse. Even more than that, the 1976 women’s crew team had made a statement affecting women athletes everywhere. As other universities got word of what had happened, their administrations acted accordingly making sure that similar inequities were repaired in their own athletic programs.

The importance of Title IX had finally been recognized and implemented. Thus began a whole new era of appreciation for female athletes. In 1971, only 294,015 girls participated in high-school sports, and 31,852 participated on intercollegiate teams. Today, approximately 3.06 million girls participate in high-school sports, and 166,800 on intercollegiate teams. The ripple effect that the 1976 crew’s actions has had is profound. With the change in mindset about women in sports came a shift in cultural norms to support opportunities for women beyond athletics. In their display, these rowers used the same grit, determination, strength, and endurance demanded by their sport to prove that they had the power to change the world.

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