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Naked Power
MICHAEL BAMBERGER
May 07, 2012
In 1976, 19 Yale rowers bared it all for equality
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May 07, 2012

Naked Power

In 1976, 19 Yale rowers bared it all for equality

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One cold March day in 1976, Chris Ernst, the captain of the Yale women's rowing team, and 18 of her teammates marched into the office of Joni Barnett, the director of women's sports, and made a bold political statement that would resonate around the country.

The rowers were fed up with waiting on a bus every day after practice, sweating and stinking and cold, while their male counterparts took warm showers. And they resented that even after placing second and third in the national championships the last two years, they rowed in dinged boats while the men's were state of the art.

They entered Barnett's office unannounced and accompanied by a stringer for The New York Times and a photographer, who both knew what was coming. When Barnett stood up to see what was going on, all 19 women removed their bulky blue Yale sweatpants and sweatshirts and stood naked in front of her. On their chests and backs, in bold letters written with thick blue felt-tip markers, were a single word and a Roman numeral: TITLE IX. Ernst, a senior and an English major, read a 327-word statement on behalf of the team that began, "These are the bodies Yale is exploiting."

There was no photograph in the Times the next day, but there was a five-inch story that included Ernst's seven-word battle cry. The legal, social and political ramifications were clear: Yale, which first admitted women in 1969, needed to comply with federal law. Showers for the women were constructed later that spring.

That summer in Montreal, Ernst and a Yale teammate, Anne Warner, were on the U.S. team at the first Olympics to include women's rowing. (Ernst also competed in the 1984 Games and won a world championship in the lightweight double sculls in '86 with C.B. Sands.) After the '76 Olympics, Ernst became a Yale assistant women's rowing coach. Four years later she became the first female union plumber in New Haven. Today she is the owner of Pipelines, Inc. in Roslindale, Mass. Yale taught her to appreciate warm running water, and also the pleasures of physical work.

These days when she visits the Elis' rowing center, she says it delights her to see "not a single stick of the old facility." The new complex is called Gilder Boathouse, named for Richard Gilder, the head of a brokerage firm who contributed $4 million for its construction. Gilder's daughter, Ginny, had marched into Barnett's office with Ernst in 1976. Today she is an owner of the WNBA's Seattle Storm. "It's just gorgeous," Ernst says of the boathouse.

And here's the most telling thing of all: Everything the women have in Gilder—the men have too.

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