Title IX pioneer Chris Ernst set to be honored in Boston

A hero will be honored in Boston on June 27 alongside Boston sports legends such as Pedro Martinez, Rodney Harrison and Alexi Lalas. Her name may not be as familiar as these men but her actions probably had a greater and more direct effect on anyone who played sports. Chris Ernst was the captain of the Yale women’s rowing team when it staged one of the most spectacular, and shocking, protests in the early days of Title IX.

In 1976, Title IX was only four years old, Yale had been co-ed for less than seven years, and its women’s sports program was given little respect. An ESPN: The Magazine article details the incident for its celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Title IX. Despite a coach who worked at a foam rubber factory to supplement his 500 dollar per year stipend, crappy boats, and no facilities, Yale women’s crew was good. They had two members of the silver medal winning “Red Rose Crew” from the 1975 World Championships and several other members who would go on to race in the Olympics. The men’s teams, which were lacking the same sort of star power, used to taunt the women as they worked out in their shared weight room, degrading the women as they worked hard to get better. But the worst part was the wait on the bus each day.


Photo from The Boston Globe

The crew teams practiced on the Housatonic River about 30 minutes from campus. Each day after they would work out they would have to sit, on the cold bus, while the men took hot showers and changed out of their practice garb. The women had a trailer with showers but due to a pissing match disagreement between the town and Yale the showers were not hooked up. Anne Warner, one of the silver medal winners from the World Championships, caught pneumonia in February of 1976.

The women sat and stewed and dared each other to stage protests with more and more outrageous ideas of how to get the administration to pay attention. In the words of Colonel Nathan Jessup, the Yale administration “f–ked with the wrong marine.”

As Ernst now says, “Never leave the prisoners alone.” Keep in mind these “prisoners” had been admitted to one of the most prestigious universities in the world because of their intelligence, talents and strength of character. Now imagine that these bus passengers included not only future Olympians, but also women who would become doctors, attorneys, professors, the owner of a WNBA team, a taekwondo world champion, the head of an all-female plumbing company … no one at Yale knew with whom they were dealing. “We didn’t know who we were at the time, either,” said Mia Brandt, a junior then and now the director of communications for UNICEF.


Photo from ESPN: The magazine

The women, came up with a plan while they sat on the bus and it was a doozy. Chris Ernst, the captain of the team, was a great leader. She and Anne Warner decided to show the administration just who they were exploiting. Ernst wrote a statement and made an appointment with Joni Barnett, the director of women’s athletics and physical education. On March 3, 1976 the team filed into the Paine Whitney gym and prepared in the locker room before walking solemnly to Barnett’s office. Ernst had the presence of mind to call a Yale Daily News reporter (who, as it happened, doubled as a stringer for The New York Times). The reporter sat outside as the women filed into Barnett’s office and a photographer prepared herself, Ernst had told what to expect.

The 19 women entered the office and promptly took off their warm up outfits, exposing their naked bodies, on which they had written “Title IX.” Ernst read a prepared statement:

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 … On a day like today, the rain freezes on our skin. Then we sit on a bus for half an hour as the ice melts into our sweats to meet the sweat that has soaked our clothes underneath … No effective action has been taken and no matter what we hear, it doesn’t make these bodies warmer, or dryer, or less prone to sickness … 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 team filed out of the office and the reporter filed the story with The New York Times. It wasn’t long before things started happening, alumni contacted the school, sent money, and reporters arrived on the campus. Suddenly, the issues between Yale and the town didn’t seem so hard to resolve and the showers were hooked up.


Photo from ESPN: The magazine

Ernst went on to row in the Olympics. In 1999, Mary Mazzio an Olympic rower herself, made a documentary about Ernst called A Hero for Daisy. In the documentary, Senator John Kerry refers to Ernst the “Rosa Parks of Title IX” (a characterization which draws a laugh from Ernst when ESPN asked her about it). However, Ernst remains proud of the stand she and her teammates made.

There is no doubt that these women, led by Ernst, made a powerful statement that compelled Yale and other institutions to take seriously women athletes. Title IX changed the game for female athletes. Nat Case, Yale’s coach at the time of the protest, stated “I can see how important the protest was. I may not have liked it at the time, but sometimes, history needs to be pushed by youthful, exuberant revolutionaries. They were an extraordinary crew.”

They were a crew of extraordinary women, who, in the words of one member “would have followed Chris anywhere.” Thanks to Chris Ernst and these women, many of us have had an easier path as collegiate athletes. The first time I heard this story in college I felt inspired and grateful to these women for doing something I am not sure I would have had the chutzpah to attempt.

It’s gratifying to see an inspirational pioneer honored alongside other legends of Boston sports. I imagine for Ernst the fact that she’s a Yalie in a Harvard town makes it even sweeter.

Were you familiar with the story of Chris Ernst and the Yale crew team’s protest? For what causes would you be willing to strip down to protest?

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