Ask a random group of young female athletes about Title IX and most likely the question would be met with blank stares.
That is a good thing, said Jean Rappaport, whose 1976 Yale crew team’s quest for equal accommodations with the men’s squad helped propel the issue into the national spotlight.
“When there’s social progress and people are happy for it, it becomes the norm,” Rappaport said.
The “norm” is how is it should have been all along.
But it wasn’t.
Even in the mid-1970s, a time when women’s issues were at the forefront, female athletes were getting short shrift compared to their male counterparts. Colleges and high schools put most of their money into men’s sports, a practice that continued despite a 1972 federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational programs.
In 1975, Congress reviewed the implications of Title IX on athletic programs and decided that schools had three years to comply with Title IX requirements surrounding athletics.
The matter still wasn’t settled. In 1979, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which represents more than 1,200 colleges and universities, challenged the decision. The association lost its appeal.
Coincidentally, 1976 was the same year Rappaport and other members of the women’s crew at Yale decided they were fed up with being denied the advantages afforded the men’s crew and demanded equal status. After the women’s requests were ignored by the administration, some members of the team concocted a plan to draw attention to their plight.
“I can’t remember the plotting,” Rappaport said. But she does remember the media splash that accompanied their protest, an event some claim pushed the issue into the national spotlight.
Today, Rappaport, who lives in Bar Harbor, is the business manager at the Northeast Harbor Library. But in 1975, she was a freshman at Yale University, a member of the school’s first class with a significant number of women. The inclusion of women into a former men’s school wasn’t accepted fully by all, and the administration did little to ease the way for these students.
“They basically threw out the ball and said play with it,” Rappaport recalled.
Rappaport didn’t set out to be an athlete. She was approached by an acquaintance who asked her to join the women’s crew, which had just become a varsity sport.
“They were looking for bodies, and I was in good shape,” she said.
She also knew her way around boats. Her father taught at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and came summers with the family to Mount Desert Island where he worked at the MDI Biological Laboratory. It was during those summers that she learned to row and sail.
“I started rowing as soon as I could put my two little hands on an oar,” Rappaport said.
She said “yes” to the offer and became a member of the team, which had enough women to field two eight-person boats plus “a few extra.”
It wasn’t long before the women noticed a big difference between their program and the men’s program.
“Our resources were paltry compared to the men,” Rappaport said. Other women’s teams were even “worse off” than the Yale women, she added.
At Yale, the women had to use hand-me down boats from the men, some of which were the heavier and slower wooden racing shells. They traveled to meets sitting on the floor in back of a windowless van driven by their part-time coach. But one indignity especially got to the women.
It’s a 45-minute drive each way from the Yale campus to the school’s boathouse on the Housatonic River. Practices are held nearly every day when the river is free from ice, and rowers are subjected to cold rain, snow and other inclement weather. Jumping into a hot shower was a welcome relief after one of these sessions, but that privilege was reserved for the men.
The men had showers and a locker room in the boathouse. The women, often wet and cold, would “sit and stew” on the bus while waiting for the men and the ride back to campus, where they had facilities, Rappaport said.
In the second year of the program, 1976, the women increasingly became frustrated with the situation and approached women’s athletic director Joan Barnett seeking parity. After getting no results, the women decided to change their tactics.
“At some point, the decision was made to get in their face,” Rappaport said, referring to administrators.
Team captain Chris Ernst wrote a statement detailing their concerns and made an appointment with Barnett to discuss them. The statement, in part, read that Yale is “exploiting” the female athletes’ bodies and that team members “are not just healthy young things … who perform feats of strength for Yale in the nice spring weather … we’re human and being treated as less than such.”
While the language in the statement might have summed up the team’s position, it wouldn’t have the impact of what happened next.
The team met in their locker room, painted the Roman numeral IX on their bare backs and chests and put on their sweats before marching en masse to Barnett’s office. The protest wasn’t spontaneous; Ernst had tipped off a reporter and photographer with the campus newspaper, and they followed the team into the office to face a surprised Barnett. What happened next must have been even more astonishing.
“Chris read the statement, and we took off our clothes,” Rappaport said. They briefly stood naked before putting their sweats back on and walking back to the locker room.
Discreet photographs of the protest and the accompanying story caught the attention of the national media, a situation that focused unwanted attention on Yale and its treatment of women, Rappaport said.
The women didn’t divulge their plans to their coach, a man and a recent Yale graduate. Later, they told him what they had done.
“He never would have approved,” Rappaport said. “I don’t think he wanted to confront school authorities. He felt we had misbehaved.”
But, the protest did get results and “in pretty short order,” Rappaport said. The school brought in the large trailer with heat and showers and parked it next to the boathouse for the women to use.
As a student athlete, Rappaport was wrapped up in academics and sports and didn’t fully realize the importance of what they had done. The media attention that came in wake of the protest was followed later by numerous magazine articles about the team and even a documentary film, “A Hero for Daisy.” Looking back, she is perplexed about the continuing interest.
“I find it really interesting, because at the time, we just wanted to be treated equally,” she said.
The crew occasionally gets together for a reunion. Although the conversation might get around to their days at Yale, they don’t relish in trying to relive those days, Rappaport said.
“It’s not the center of anybody’s life,” she said. “It’s part of our past.”
While Rappaport may be modest about the team’s achievement, she certainly realizes that she was part of a movement that changed people’s attitudes about women and sports.
“It’s great to see that has changed 100 percent at this time,” she said.