A nearly 13-hour sit-in by female students and their supporters at the University of California, Santa Barbara produced promises of change from the administration, providing an example of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go under Title IX.
The sit-in happened just as I was watching the 1999 documentary A Hero for Daisy about a dramatic 1976 protest by female students at Yale University who stripped off their clothes in an administrator’s office to reveal “Title IX” or “IX” written in bold letters on their chests and backs. Their leader, Chris Ernst, then read a statement of grievances that said, in part, “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting. We have come here today to make clear how unprotected we are…”
At UC Santa Barbara, the issue was the university’s policies around sexual assault and its treatment of students who had been raped. At Yale, the issue was a lack of showers and locker rooms for the women’s rowing team that led to pneumonia in some female athletes after winter workouts in icy rain. Both protests happened only after prior unsuccessful efforts by the female students to get the university to address their grievances.
It’s striking that it took physical protests to produce change, even so many years since the passage of Title IX. It still takes uppity women demanding their rights to move our educational systems closer to the promise of Title IX.
The Yale crew invited a stringer for The New York Times to cover their protest. The story and photos went national, embarrassing Yale, moving alumni to send checks to support the women, and inspiring athletes at other colleges. For a more recent recap, check out this 2012 post on ESPN.W.
As far as I can tell, the UC Santa Barbara sit-in received only local coverage such as a story in the student-run newspaper The Bottom Line. That makes the protest’s success all the more remarkable. Students Alejandra Melgoza, Melissa Vasquez, Lexi Weyrick and their supporters demanded a meeting with Chancellor Henry Yang, waiting more than 7 hours for him to arrive. The three women described their personal experiences of being raped or physically assaulted by male students who then were suspended only for one or two quarters or allowed to remain on campus.
Negotiations continued until nearly 3 a.m. and the administration agreed to the protestors’ 13 demands, including suspension of one assailant until the victim graduates, possible suspension of all three assailants, amending the student code of conduct to set minimum sentences for violations, investigating the university’s Office of Judicial Affairs for possible mismanagement of rape complaints, publicly releasing quarterly data on sexual assaults at UC Santa Barbara, compensation for the victims from a Survivor Fund that will be permanently funded, and plane tickets for the three women to meet with UC Regents in Sacramento, Calif.
If those changes actually happen, Melgoza, Vasquez, and Weyrick could be considered heroes. Or heroines, take your pick. Which brings me back to the film about the Yale rowers. An interview with the director that’s included as an “extra” on the DVD explains the title: She was pregnant with a daughter and distraught at the media’s lack of strong role models for her coming child, Daisy. So she made a film about one hero, Chris Ernst. As the UCSB women show us, heroes keep popping up in the ongoing history of Title IX to fight for equality for women.