The College Team That Stripped for Their Rights

The College Team That Stripped for Their Rights

The 1976 Yale University rowing team, from right to left (stern to bow): Gloria Graz, Jackie Zoch, Nancy Storrs, Chris Ernst and Carol Brown.

SourceGetty Images

Why you should care

In a bold demonstration for their legal rights, the women of the 1976 Yale crew team changed forever how female athletes were treated in America.

Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 5, we explore the history-making 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team and all of the unheralded athletes, policymakers and activists that made their journey possible. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.

It’s hard to imagine today when Ivy League schools are not exactly known for their prowess on the football field, but for decades Yale University was a powerhouse on the gridiron. And the school’s sports success didn’t stop at football: Yale’s crew team represented the U.S. at the Olympics in Australia in 1956 and won gold.

1976 women's varsity crew

Yale’s 1976 women’s varsity crew team.

Source Yale Athletics

But its success did stop … at men. Because Yale only had men. The school did not go co-ed until 1968, and the first wave of female athletes to pass through Yale’s doors not only had to compete with their opposing teams but also with the college’s men’s teams for attention, support and resources.

This week’s episode of The Thread, a podcast from OZY that unravels the stories behind some of the most important lives and events in history, starts at a boathouse near the frigid waters of the Housatonic River in Connecticut.

Ernst christ '76 head shot

Captain Chris Ernst led the team in the protest in 1976.

Source Yale Athletics

Thanks to Title IX, a new law outlawing sex discrimination in college sports and other domains, the members of the 1976 Yale women’s crew team enjoyed equal treatment with their male peers … at least in theory, and under law. In reality, the women’s rowers would sit shivering on an unheated bus in their soaked gear while the men’s team showered. There were no showers or locker rooms for the women, and while the men came back to campus clean and changed after their workout on the river, the women came down with the flu and pneumonia.

And so, with their pleas for equal treatment falling on deaf ears with the college administration, 19 members of the Yale women’s crew team marched into the office of one of Yale’s athletic directors on the afternoon of March 3, 1976 — accompanied by a photographer and a New York Times reporter — and staged a daring protest. It was a demonstration that would send shockwaves through college campuses nationwide, one that would not only earn the team its own showers at Yale but also ensure the promise of Title IX’s protections for countless female athletes across the United States.

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