On March 3, 1976, 19 members of the Yale women’s crew team marched into the Athletic Department and, completely naked, read a list of grievances stemming from the University’s unfair treatment of male and female athletes. The protest marked the first high-profile stance and sparked a debate about compliance with the recently enacted Title IX legislation.
One of the participants was Virginia ‘Ginny’ Gilder ’79. There are a host of potential possible descriptors that can precede Gilder’s name: silver medalist, co-owner of WNBA team Seattle Storm and author. The News talked to the former Yale rower about her college crew career, her experiences at the University and her recent memoir, “Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX.”
Q: What did you see change throughout your four years as a Yale rower?
A: Probably the biggest thing that changed was the attitude of the heavyweight men towards the women. It was really pretty uncomfortable my freshman year to work out in the same space as the heavyweight men. Back then, they weren’t a very strong crew. They were in the middle of a cycle, how long I don’t know, of losing to Harvard. I don’t know if they just hated losing so they just wanted to pick on other people or if they really were sexist, but they were so nasty to us. Obviously, the boathouse and the whole issue with the protest was a part of it, but that wasn’t the heavyweights, that was the University being unprepared for women to want to be engaged in athletics. But by the end of our four years, the guys who had come in in my class were first of all, a little younger and a little more comfortable with the idea of women at Yale … So the other thing is, the men’s crew got stronger, so they didn’t have to pick on anybody. Obviously the women’s crew at Yale became a powerhouse by the time I graduated. We had never beat Radcliffe, and we beat Radcliffe for the first time my sophomore year. We were national champions in ’79, the first national championship for women’s crew … Two of us [would have attended the Olympics in 1980]. We were named. It was me and Mary O’Connor.
Q: How did the protest color your following three years at Yale?
A: Actually, it’s interesting. I think it gets a lot more attention today than it did back then. It was a day in our lives … I wasn’t thinking about the implications of our behavior on the greater world … It took some work, certainly on our captain’s part and on [teammate] Anne Warner’s part to plan the protest and get us all engaged, and there were repercussions in the weeks that followed in terms of our coach getting in trouble by the athletics department. He got lectured by the [department], you know, ‘why aren’t you controlling your women,’ things like that. Can you imagine a coach being told that now? But beyond that, there was some brouhaha for a while, but once the University committed to expanding the boathouse, we were focused on rowing and training and winning. I think we got a boathouse by my junior year, or at least an addition to the boathouse, I can’t remember, and that was great. It made us feel better, or at least like we’d been heard.
Q: Have you seen “A Hero for Daisy,” the 1999 film on the protest? And what did you think?
A: Oh my gosh, of course I’ve seen it. It’s a fabulous documentary. It’s all about Chris Ernst. She deserves 100 percent of the credit for that protest. They were the ones who birthed the idea, and they were the ones who made it happen. I was a freshman. I did what my captain told me to. I really believed in her, I thought she was an amazing woman and I admired her. If she believed it was important, I believed it was important. I was ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her.
Q: Your memoir, “Course Correction,” came out last Tuesday. What prompted you to write it?
A: High school and college and my twenties were actually a tough time for me, even though I was on crew, I was on rowing. Anyway, I was really lonely. Just given stuff that had happened in my family, and I ended up writing the book because I felt if anyone who was in a similar situation picked it up and read it and it helped them, maybe how they looked at life or how they looked at themselves, it would be worth it.
Q: What’s the significance of this boathouse?
A: The boathouse now, which was … finished I think in 2000, one of the poetic justices, if you will, is that it was a woman’s family who made that boathouse possible. It was really kind of completing the circle. If you think about what happened with the protest and how the University had to be dragged into compliance with Title IX, and then the entire program got to take such amazing steps forward because of my father’s generosity. Obviously he was generous and interested in supporting the crew because of my engagement in the program. The boathouse would not have been built without the entire community of rowing alums stepping forward. But I love the justice of it, that for so long the women were kind of picked on and made fun of, and the guys felt we didn’t have a right to be there, and then look what the women turned around and helped lead, to make happen … It’s not about me personally. It’s about what women can provide when women can step in and make a difference.
Q: How did the rest of the money get raised?
A: There’s this talk tomorrow, and I’m going to tell the story of how we raised the money for the boathouse. It’s an interesting story and not many people know it because at the beginning, [former University President] Rick Levin told us we’d never be able to raise the money needed and told us forget it — it wasn’t going to happen. You just don’t say that to rowers. You don’t tell us it’s not possible. I’m sure he’s very happy, but he galvanized the whole program.