Greg Denieffe: “Women in Rowing – Rocking the Boat”

Guin Batten shortly after receiving her silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The medal is on display at the River & Rowing Museum in their “Rocking the Boat – The Story of Women’s Rowing” exhibition which runs until June 2012.

HTBS’s Greg Denieffe writes from England:

Guin Batten was back at the River & Rowing Museum on Saturday, 4 February 2012, to talk about the changing experience of women in rowing over the last 30 years. It was essentially a reprise of her presentation “The Glass Ceiling” at the Rowing History Forum at the same venue last October which was reported by Tim Koch on HTBS on 1 November 2011.

The weather for the two events could not have been more different. In October, the ‘Thames Room’ was bathed in sunshine but last Saturday the temperature did not get above zero and that was indoors! The lecture was held in ‘The Launch’ where about forty people were in attendance. For the Rowing History Forum, the great majority of attendees were men, but for this event the women outnumbered the men by as much as 4:1. Perhaps the title of the lecture had a great bearing on who it appealed to?

What was clear from listening to Guin, like many great athletes, she had made up her mind when she was quite young that she was going to be an Olympian. At thirteen years of age, she showed some promise as a cross country runner and represented her school at the English School’s Cross Country Championships. As she stood on the start line she thought the next step would be the Olympics (overlooking the fact that cross country running was not on the Olympic programme). A disappointing result soon put paid to that dream, but the Olympic ambition was still very much alive. After taking up rowing at Southampton University, where her sister Miriam was already a student, Guin began the journey that would lead to 5th place in the women’s single sculls at Atlanta in 1996 and a silver medal in the women’s quad four years later in Sydney. Tim’s report covered her presentation in detail so there is no need to repeat it here.

Guin’s lecture was followed by a screening of A Hero for Daisy, the inspirational story of U.S. Olympian Chris Ernst who, in response to substandard conditions for women in the 1970s, fired up her rowing squad to storm the Yale athletic director’s office in dramatic fashion. I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the film before, but I’m sure that everyone who has seen it will never forget it.

“Featuring two-time Olympian and Yale rower, Chris Ernst, who galvanized her rowing team to protest the substandard conditions facing female athletes in the 1970s. On a cold rainy day in 1976, Ernst led her teammates to the athletic director’s office, where they stripped, baring bodies emblazoned with the phrase TITLE IX in blue marker. This event rocketed around the globe, leaving an indelible imprint on the nation in terms of what gender equity really meant.” The film was directed by Mary Mazzio.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a United States law but is most commonly known simply as Title IX. It will be known to everyone in the USA but may not be so well known to people on the other side of the pond. The law states 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…”

The full statement read by Chris Ernst to Jodie Barnett, Director of Physical Education in Barnett’s office in Ray Tompkins House, 3 March 1976:

Mrs. Barnett:
 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. These are normal human bodies. 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. We sit for half an hour chilled … half a dozen of us are sick now, and in two days we will begin training twice a day, subjecting ourselves to this twice everyday. No effective action has been taken and now matter what we hear, it doesn’t make these bodies warmer, or dryer or less prone to sickness. We can’t accept any excuses, nor can we trust to normal channels of complaint, since the need for lockers for the Women’s Crew has existed since last spring. We are using you and your office because you are the symbol of Women’s Athletics at Yale; we’re using this method to express our urgency. We have taken this action absolutely without our coach’s knowledge. He has done all he can to get us some relief, and none has come. He ordered the trailer when the plans for real facilities fell through, and he informed you four times of the need to get a variance to make it useable, but none was obtained. We fear retribution against him, but we are, as you can see, desperate. 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. There has been a lack of concern and competence on your part. Your only answer to us is the immediate provision of use of the trailer, however inadequate that may be. – Yale Women’s Crew 3/3/76

A short video clip from the movie:

I did a quick search on the internet and found Oli Rosenbladt’s review of the movie on the row2k website from 5 May 1999, which you will find here.

Chris Ernst went on to win a gold medal in the lightweight women’s double scull at the 1986 World Rowing Championships held in Nottingham. Having been at those Championships, I searched out the programme, but could not find anything within about the LW2X or Chris. I may be wrong but the photo on the cover just may be her. Confirmation one way or the other would be most welcome.

I think it is appropriate that the Yale crew is known as the ‘Bulldogs’ and Chris would be proud to be called one. After finishing her international rowing career Chris Ernst* became a plumber and in doing so went from fighting for showers to fixing them!

Thanks to Guin Batten and the River & Rowing Museum for putting on the event.

*For those who would like to have more information about Chris Ernst’s rowing career read Dan Boyne’s The Red Rose Crew (2000).

4 comments

  1. From the BBC website today.

    “The Women's Boat Race is to be staged on the same course and day as the men's competition from 2015.
    Since 1927, the women's event has been held on the River Thames at Henley.
    But from 2015 it will take place on the men's 4¼-mile course between Putney and Mortlake on the Thames.
    It is understood that a new sponsorship deal, which will be announced at a press conference on Wednesday, will allow the universities to run first class crews in both the men's and women's races.”

    Good timing!

  2. It was the pride of the women for taking silver award from the past sydney olympics. It isn't that usual as others take it because women are differently and highly gap from men in terms of strength and agility.

  3. Good article, glad someone forwarded it to me. If you send me a better image of the program cover, I can tell you if its Chris, but I don't think it is. I think the black and white image of 'title nine' written on women's back was recreated for the movie. The color image of two rowers was taken at Worlds in 1986 by Janet Beroza, I'm on the left, Chris is on the right. If you want to know anything else, would be happy to comment. cb sands-bohrer (number2cbs@yahoo.com)

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