ar the “W” like so many before me. I am proud to be a part of a team that has been braving Lake Mendota since 1972. The legacy of the Wisconsin Women’s program is a part of why I love it so much. I’ve benefited from the work that the pioneers of women’s rowing did, but that work isn’t limited to time in the boat.
The bottom Level of Porter Boathouse is dominated brightly lit, red-lined, trophy cases. They summarize the history of Wisco rowing through pictures, trophies, articles and memorabilia. I walk by the walls that hold “The Legacy of Wisconsin Crew” so often that it has gradually faded into scenery. This is the part of legacy that can be hung on a wall, but history is more than wins and losses. History has to encompass the fight it took to get to the starting line at all.
Wisconsin Women’s has been around since 1972, when Title IX legislation that outlawed discrimination in education and sports based on gender was passed. It created a community for athletic women to thrive and challenge themselves. The legislation meant that women’s rowing programs needed to match their historically elite, hundred-year old male counterparts. The new women’s teams fell painfully short of equality. Women’s crews used banged-up, hand-me-down shells from the men’s teams and lacked locker rooms in the historic boathouses that were created as men’s only faculties.
Yale Women’s Crew team was the first to protest the inequality. In the fall of 1975, the women’s team was allowed to row on the same water as the men: off campus on the Housatonic. The men’s team shared the water, but they refused to share the boathouse. The women’s locker room was a trailer with non-functioning showers. By March, the women were sick and tired of sitting on a freezing bus, soaking wet, waiting for the men’s team to finish showering before returning to campus.
The women made an appointment to meet with the head of women’s athletics. When the day came, they marched into her office in silence and took off their rowing clothes. They exposed themselves and the words Title IX written on their bare bodies while this message was read:
“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 … We are not just healthy young things in blue and white uniforms who perform feats of strength for Yale in the nice spring weather; we are not just statistics on your win column. We’re human and being treated as less than such.”
The story was covered by Yale reporters and got published in the New York Times. Yale alumni were outraged that their students were being treated so poorly and sent letters to the University demanding change, many of which had checks enclosed. The Yale women succeeded in getting their locker room and sparked protests by female rowers across the country.
One of these protests happened at Wisconsin. The Badger’s naked meeting with athletics staff led to the creation of a women’s locker room in the basement of the Short Course dorms adjacent to the boathouse. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was functional. This low glamour, high functioning ideal was recurring a theme for the early days women’s rowing.
Comparing the resources that NCAA Rowing provides for their athletes these days makes the crews of the past seem like a joke. The academic support, issued gear, facilities and extra perks that student athletes get these days totally dwarfs what athletes in the 70s and 80s had to fund-raise and fight for.
The technology of boats and oars, made with carbon fiber and synthetic materials has increased the speed of rowing. The ergometer has revolutionized training (Thank God for that am I right?). Lycra and spandex have replaced cotton shorts and tanks. Cox Boxes and megaphones have made communication on the water easier. Wakeless launches have changed the game. Smart Oars give coaches real-time data about a crew’s power output. Even small things like plastic water-bottles or seat pads have made big contributions to the sport.
I get to row at such a great time. I have so many resources at my fingertips and benefit from so much technology. Rowing has been around since American Universities first opened and it has come so far since then. It’s important to know the legacy of our sport. It’s important to acknowledge the pioneers who stirred the pot. I am proud to be a part of a great tradition. I am proud to be a part of women’s athletics. I am proud to wear the “W.”