The Pink Picture Palace

20th Century Hippo presents…

11 January 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch prefers film rose to film noir.

For those HTBS Types within travelling distance of Leader Club in Henley-on-Thames and who are looking for some entertainment at the end of the working week on Friday, 18 January, the ‘Pink Palace’ is holding one of its occasional film and supper evenings. Two documentaries will be screened, A Hero for Daisy and Kiss the Joy, both concerned with advances made by women in American rowing over the last fifty years. Priority in booking is given to Leander members, but the organisers welcome others if space permits.

A Hero for Daisy is the story of Title IX pioneer, two-time Olympian and World Champs Gold Medalist, Chris Ernst. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a US federal law that states:

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.

Although the law made no explicit mention of sport, Title IX is best known for its (eventual) effect on women’s athletics at the high school and collegiate level. Today, it is interpreted as requiring both sexes to have an equal opportunity to take part in athletic activities. It does not make institutions receiving government money offer identical sports for males and females, but it has meant that the huge sums particularly spent on men’s American football have had to be matched in sports that women wanted to take part in. Women’s rowing and women’s soccer have been particular beneficiaries. However, four years after Title IX came into force, there was little evidence of this interpretation of the law. It was the female rowers of Yale that helped to define Title IX.

Yale Women, 1976. Chris Ernst is at bow.

Yale University had first admitted women in 1969 but women’s athletics were not taken seriously by the authorities who refused requests for better facilities for this ‘new’ intake. The women’s rowing programme had a coach who was paid $500 a year, poor boats and inferior land training facilities. The scene was right for rebellion. All that was needed were some leaders – and a ‘final straw’.

Leadership came from two Yale women, Chris(tine) Ernst and Anne Warner. They had already made a name for themselves as members of the ‘Red Rose Crew’, the surprising silver-medal eight from the 1975 World Championships. The ‘final straw’ was the lack of women’s showers at the Yale boathouse, a 30-minute drive from the campus. The indignity of waiting on the bus in winter while the men had hot showers led to the planning of a protest that was to have consequences that none of the shivering, sweat-stained women could have foreseen.

Chris Ernst reads the women rowers’ statement to Joni Barnett.

On 3 March 1976, nineteen women, led by Ernst and accompanied by a New York Times reporter, went into the office of Joni Barnett, Yale’s Director of Physical Education. At a given signal, they removed their sweatshirts. Across the bare chest and back of each was written ‘Title IX’. Ernst read out a 300-word statement that began: 

These are the bodies Yale is exploiting. It ended 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.

This could easily have been dismissed as a soon forgotten, over-earnest and possibly puerile undergraduate stunt – but that was not to be the legacy of the nineteen’s actions. The ensuing nationwide publicity directed national attention to financial and physical realities of women’s athletics. In the words of Steve Wulf  ‘The cause of Title IX suddenly had a rallying cry that resonated with other women on other campuses.’

Joan Lind Van Blom won Silver both in the single sculls at the 1976 Olympics and in the quad sculls at the 1984 Games.

Writing on row2k last April,  Ed Moran’s review of Kiss the Joy was subtitled, “More Than a Story of a Woman Pioneer in Rowing”He wrote:

Just telling the story of the life of Joan Lind Van Blom from the perspective of her impact on the development of women’s rowing in the United States could easily fill an hour-long documentary that spans the decades from when Van Blom found rowing to when she died of cancer in August of 2015.

During that time, women like Van Blom had become pioneers who carved through the landscape of a sport once thought to be the exclusive domain of men in the US, and fought to prove they could compete successfully in international competition, particularly against women from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries…

But the story of Van Blom, is not just the story of breaking barriers or setting examples. Those were the by-products of the athlete and woman – the person – who Van Blom was. To weave those two stories together would take a masterful effort, like the one author and documentary filmmaker Jean Strauss has accomplished in the documentary, ‘Kiss the Joy: The Story of Joan Lind Van Blom’.

Joan in the early days.

Publicity material for the film gives an interesting quote from Van Blom:

I started rowing in 1970 with these outstanding male scullers (at the Long Beach Rowing Association) who were so open to teaching women how to row well, and that’s where I feel fortunate… I hear these nightmare stories of women battling the men’s programmes at their clubs and universities, and I did not experience that, and neither did the other women here.

It is good to know that not all the women who pioneered equality of opportunity in rowing had entirely negative experiences.

To book: Contact the Leander Club office on 01491 575782 or email events@leander.co.uk. Two course set supper at 6.45 pm for 7.15 pm followed by a viewing of “Kiss the Joy” (running time about 1 hour) and “A Hero for Daisy” (running time about 40 minutes). Cost: £20 per person, (£10 for current athletes) payable in advance.

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