Title IX at 45: Yale women’s crew’s mark on history

The Yale women's crew program of the late 1970s not only dominated annual competition at the Eastern Sprints, but also left an impact on collegiate athletics that is still seen today. (Yale Athletics)

It took 19 female rowers less than an hour to shed a few layers of clothing, swipe a few words on their backs and forever alter the trajectory of collegiate athletics in America.

On March 3, 1976, less than a decade after Yale went co-ed and just four years after women’s crew was established, members of the team marched into Ray Tompkins House. Naked save for the words ‘Title IX’ inked across their backs and sternums, they stood as Chris Ernst ’76 read a statement to the director of women’s athletics that accused Yale of treating its female athletes unfairly.

At the time of the protest, Title IX — a component of the Education Amendments of 1972 — was most notable for its brevity; with its operative phrase clocking in at 37 words, Title IX’s actual wording contains no references to the specific areas to which it’s been applied.

In the 45 years since its passage, Title IX has broadened in scope to cover not only equity in athletics but also sexual climate. And many of the most significant changes have come from New Haven, where Yale and Title IX have clashed — sometimes to the detriment of the school’s reputation, sometimes to its advantage — to indelibly shape higher education in the U.S.

Female athletics

The women’s crew’s protest sent ripples throughout the country, and decades later, their action is often interpreted as the first stand against gender inequality in college athletics. After their protest, the women’s team received resources more comparable to those of the men.

It didn’t stop at better facilities at the boathouse in Derby. The Yale women lit a spark that spread to other universities, as their female athletes picked up the rallying cry. Women’s teams all over the country began to hold their schools accountable to the simple promise of Title IX: that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Sexual harassment

Four years later, Yale again was the genesis for another major expansion of Title IX. In 1980, five current and former students sued the University in the landmark case Alexander v. Yale — the first suit to link sexual harassment to Title IX. The plaintiffs argued that sexual harassment of female students was equivalent to sex discrimination, as it limited the students’ ability to fully partake in their education. Although their case was dismissed on a technicality, it set a precedent that remains today.

In response to the suit, the University set up a grievance procedure in which students could report sexual harassment, and schools around the country again followed suit. The women involved in Alexander v. Yale have since been recognized as among the most influential figures in Title IX history.

Lasting Legacy

The 1980 lawsuit was not the last Title IX-related suit filed against Yale. In 2011, a group of 16 students and recent alumni filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights — the body responsible for enforcing Title IX — alleging that Yale had created a sexually hostile environment.

The Department of Education launched an investigation in April 2011 and resolved it a little more than a year later. In the interim, some of the 16 plaintiffs had begun to assist other students in filing Title IX complaints, and one helped found a sexual assault survivor advocacy group called Know Your IX.

While there were a handful of smaller cases in between, the 1980 and 2011 lawsuits both led to major changes within the University. After the resolution of the 2011 complaint, Yale rolled a new series of protocols for addressing complaints of sexual misconduct — a system still in place today.