Feminism is a journey, not a destination. We travel some of the same roads as our foremothers. Our descendants retrace a few of our footsteps, rediscover some things we’ve experienced, and continue hacking through the sexist thickets that still block the way. If we’re lucky, they blaze trails that take us to beautiful new vistas.
Title IX remains the most important law for U.S. women other than the 13th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution (which abolished slavery and granted women the right to vote) because feminism’s work is unfinished and Title IX is the strongest tool we have to clear the path ahead. Some of the narrative arcs that I’m enjoying as I research the history of Title IX are stories of different generations in families whose lives intersect with Title IX in significant and sometimes similar ways.
One example: Ann Olivarius came to Yale University in 1973 from a large, lower middle class family in New Jersey just four years after the elite college started admitting women. The people in paintings and photos on the walls of the majestic old stone buildings were white men. The faculty included few women, usually at lower ranks of professorships. Mory’s, the venerable watering hole frequented by generations of Yale students and faculty, refused to let women inside. Olivarius joined the women’s swim team and found that the good practice times at the pool were reserved for the male swimmers, who received swimsuits, steak dinners, and bus transportation to swim meets, none of which Yale supplied to the women.
To protest the lack of support for women’s athletics, she orchestrated a press conference outside the male athletic director’s office. The female swimmers came dressed in nothing but towels wrapped around their bodies. As the news reporters — mostly men — looked on, the women turned to face the wall and lowered their towels to reveal “WE NEED SUITS!” written across their naked backsides. Light bulbs flashed on the news cameras. After that, the team got its suits.
A few years later, Yale’s women’s crew team employed the same tactic in a protest that became one of the iconic images of the struggle for equity in athletics. One team member had developed pneumonia due to a lack of facilities for the women’s crew members after cold, wet rowing sessions. Accompanied by a stringer for the New York Times, 19 members of the crew team descended on the female athletic director’s office on March 3, 1976 and stripped to reveal “Title IX” or just “IX” written on their backs and sternums. “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting,” one protestor read in a statement. Outcries from the publicity and the legal threat of repercussions under Title IX pushed Yale to make major changes in its support for women’s sports.
Yale invited Olivarius in 1977 as co-founder of the Undergraduate Women’s Caucus to compile a report on how the university was doing in its first decade of co-education. Delivered in March, the report highlighted the problem of sexism at Yale, including sexual harassment, coercion, and rape by male students and faculty. Concerned by stories of repeated abuse by certain faculty members, Olivarius approached a friendly administrator, Sam Chauncey. He asked her to gather more information, including names of students, to be kept confidential. But Chauncey shared their names, and one of the faculty members repeatedly named as a rapist — Keith Brion — started stalking Olivarius. Brion’s wife threatened her. Three hours before Olivarius’ parents were due to arrive for her graduation, Chauncey falsely told her that Brion was about to have her arrested for libel, and that Yale was backing him.
Distraught but determined, Olivarius found herself a good lawyer through the New Haven Law Collective and the rest, as they say, is history. She recruited other students and a faculty member to sue Yale in 1977 under Title IX in a case (Yale v. Alexander) that established for the first time that sexual harassment can be considered sexual discrimination in education.
Fast forward 30 years, and two of Olivarius’ daughters Chase Olivarius-McAllister and Kathryn Olivarius had entered Yale as students knowing little about Title IX, having been raised in England. But both were feminists involved in the Yale Women’s Center, where Chase said she was “shocked” to learn how many people had been sexually assaulted on campus. The number of stories they heard through the Women’s Center, though, didn’t match the lower numbers of assaults that Yale reported under requirements of the Clery Act, generating “a sense of outrage” among female students. The sexism tolerated by much of the campus community frequently turned up in intimidating ways. Flyers advertising parties featured demeaning drawings of women. Men from the Zeta Psi fraternity stood outside the Women’s Center with signs saying, “We love Yale sluts.” Men pledging to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity marched through campus chanting, “No means yes. Yes means anal.” The administration did too little, too late about any of it, in the women’s eyes.
Olivarius-McAllister mentored some of the younger students around the issue. Intense strategy discussions at the Center led 16 current and former students — both women and men — to file a Title IX complaint alleging a “hostile environment” at Yale. In 2011, the federal government opened an investigation. Yale agreed to a substantial monetary settlement with the Office for Civil Rights in 2012. Some of the students who filed the complaint played key roles in making Title IX the powerhouse it is today around the issue of sexual assault and harassment. Alexandra Brodsky, for example, co-founded Know Your IX, which helps today’s students continue down the Title IX path cleared by those before them.
Ann Olivarius couldn’t have known that the lawsuit she initiated would set Title IX history. Her daughters couldn’t have known they’d face some of the same problems of sexism in education that their mother met, nor that their actions would help inspire the next generation of feminist activists to connect with Title IX. We don’t always meet our fellow travelers on the Title IX trail, but we’re on the same journey.
Is there a Title IX story in your family that connects generations? If so, I’d love to hear it.