50 Years of Women's Varsity Athletics at Yale: A Historic Retrospective

Curator's Notes


The history of coeducation in Yale College has been a part of my professional life since 2019.  For the past three years, I have delved into every conceivable facet of this incredibly important period in the history of Yale University.

Or so I thought.

When I was approached by the Department of Athletics earlier this year with an invitation to collaborate on a project for the 50th anniversary of women's varsity athletics I asked myself skeptically, "Wasn't this ground we've already covered?"  To my surprise came the answer: "No."  While I've examined women's athletics around the periphery of the history of coeducation, I never took a deep dive into its origins, vast record of achievements, or the women who competed for Yale.

When the project got off the ground in May 2022, I soon realized that women's athletics is a history within a history.  Women who, while living through the full measure of coeducation, managed to be pioneers twice by participating in, and sometimes founding, women's sports at Yale.  Literal examples of creating something out of nothing kept popping up in my research: no equipment, coaches, facilities, or even uniforms, quickly evolved into full-fledged programs.  Programs that won.

If I had another three years to dedicate to this amazing history, I could possibly do it justice.  However, my goal for this exhibit was to highlight the best (and sometimes the worst) of what women's varsity athletics overcame and achieved.  I would like to thank my excellent colleagues who collaborated with me on this project.  Our student assistants: Gracie Anderson and Mahdere Yared, spent weeks this past summer in our reading room pouring through Class Books, the Yale Daily News, and boxes of archvial photographs and university records.  Jeanne Lowrey,  Associate University Archivist, was thrust into the project on her first day of work in July 2022 and has been a resource whose patience and creativity have been invaluable.

Finally, I'd like to thank all the alumnae who provided memories for, and advice on the exhibit, and donations of personal mementos of their time at Yale to the University Archives.  We deeply appreciate their time and commitment to the preservation of this important history.

Michael Lotstein, University Archivist

I’ve been a participant in, a spectator of, and now an archival explorer of women’s sports. I know that they’re every bit as dynamic, passionate, and awe-inspiring as men’s sports–most of the time more so. I also know that they are a playing field for social and political issues–they have been since their inception, and continue to be today.

This knowledge was what called me to this project and what informed my lens as I worked with the archive to cocreate this exhibit. Throughout history, women athletes have compelled society to ask tough questions, even as they grappled with tough questions themselves. What does it mean to be a woman athlete? How do you demand the recognition and support you deserve? How can you devote yourself wholly to your sport and not have your femininity and womanhood questioned? Or, conversely, how can you identify as a woman athlete without feeling pressure to perform femininity on or off the field? As humans, why do we play sports, and how do we ensure that the future of sport is more accessible and inclusive than its past has been?

These are not just hypotheticals. They were lived by these Yale women athletes, and everyone who’s ever been a woman athlete. They are lived by women whose bodies are today politicized, challenged, and often excluded from women’s sports, like trans women and girls (who are being systematically excluded from sports across the country) and Black women (like Caster Semenya, a South African woman who was excluded from the World Athletics Championships due to naturally high testosterone levels). These women have been an integral part of women's sports—in fact, the first woman athlete at Yale was a trans woman named Renee Richards, who competed in tennis in the 1950’s. It’s worth thinking about these questions as we celebrate the 50-year anniversary of women’s inclusion in sports, and rightly acknowledge the huge strides made by these Yale athletes at a time when the world was against them.

I want to give heartfelt thanks to my colleague Mahdere Yared, whose insight, hard work, and vision were crucial to this project’s success (and to my enjoyment of this work). Dere, I’ve loved being a part of your team. Thank you also to Jeanne Lowrey for your thoughts and collaboration on this project. Michael Lotstein was the first Yale staff member I interacted with, as an incoming MA student this fall, and I want to thank him for being such a warm introduction to this university and the world of the Yale archives. 

Gracie Anderson, MA candidate (GSAS)

Work on this exhibit was well underway when I joined University Archives July 2022. As I got my bearings in a new role and with new systems, I also found myself a bit unsure of how to connect to the subject. On an intellectual and academic level, the importance of this topic was clear, particularly as Yale marks this important milestone. Personally, however, it was a little more complex. I am not an athlete—though like many young girls who grew up in Connecticut in the 1990s and 2000s, I thought I was destined to play college basketball—and sports culture has always been a bit of an enigma to me. I also knew very little about the context of women’s athletics at Yale and wasn’t sure where to start. Normally when faced with an unknown topic, I would independently bury myself in the research process, finding all the needles in various haystacks until I could sew the pieces together. 

This time, however, I was—fittingly—part of a team. I drew on the thorough research conducted by Gracie Anderson and Mahdere Yared to orient myself in the narrative. I asked an exceedingly patient Michael Lotstein a gazillion and one questions about the topic and the work already done so that I could figure out how I could most effectively contribute to the project. I thank them all for their collaboration and for helping me hit the ground running. 
As I began scanning images from class books, I was struck by the way the documentation of women’s athletics evolved. In the early 1980s where I began working, the women’s teams were thrown in seemingly at random—and sometimes clearly misidentified. Eventually, the layouts became more thoughtful and eventually fairly equitable between the men’s and women’s teams. It was a fascinating visual representation of the same themes which emerged in the research presented in this exhibit. At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice how little the racial diversity of the teams changed over the nearly four decades I covered. It was a striking reminder that great strides and accomplishments don’t mean that the work is done to achieve true intersectional equity. 

This project also clearly highlighted some of the gaps in the existing documentation of Yale history. While I was aware of this issue abstractly, seeing firsthand how challenging it was to find substantive material on underrepresented athletes clearly demonstrated just how much those gaps can perpetuate harm and erasure. I hope that projects like this can inspire all of us to keep asking questions about who is represented in the archival record, who is not, and why. And, most importantly, what we can do about it. This experience has underscored for me the continuing importance of collecting records which represent Yale’s diverse community, something which will stay with me as I approach my work in the months and years to come. 

Jeanne Lowrey, Associate University Archivist

Growing up as an Ethiopian long distance runner in a predominantly white sport in America, I took for granted what the women in athletics before me accomplished and made possible, especially women of color. Women of color’s and other marginalized womens’ stories in athletics were rarely brought to the spotlight, a concept still very apparent today, and with that came little representation for the younger women in these marginalized communities.

When starting this project, I didn’t realize how surreal the experience would be, such as when I had the opportunity to read through the packets given at the 25 year celebration of women’s athletics or hold a hand-written letter by Joni Barnett from the ‘70s about her support for Title IX to be translated to sports. The countless documents and evidence on issues with funding, publicity, and resources for women’s varsity teams made it clear why these inequities are still present in Yale's women’s varsity teams today.

The information I had learned from the archives (in Sterling library and in the Yale Daily News) was invaluable and very representative of Yale as a predominantly white institution in this country. Even prior to the start of this research, I understood that the athletic history that would come from this archival evidence would represent a history like the textbooks I learned in school: white-washed and focused on cisgendered, heterosexual people.

To no surprise, not one piece of evidence outright mentioned intersectionality or merely the concept of multidimensional identities of the women in athletics in conversation with topics such as the lack of publicity, funding, resources, and more. To no surprise, the tokenistic representation of athletes of color in numerous teams remained the same or just ever-so-slightly changed for all 50 years. To no surprise, of all 45 Nellie P. Elliot awards, which was given to “a senior woman whose excellence in the field of athletics and in her life at Yale best represents the ideals of sportsmanship and Yale tradition” since 1977, 7 were given to women of color. How could women of color even receive this award when they are barely represented in these teams in the first place?

These systemic issues were and still are clearly represented in Yale’s history and the more we refuse to acknowledge their presence and engage in direct action that changes this at the systemic level, the further they will be perpetuated.

It has been a great pleasure to have worked with Gracie, Michael Lotstein, and Jeanne Lowrey on this project. Gracie, your endless support and guidance throughout this project has been more than I could ever ask for. I have no doubt that there are many, many great things to come in your future. Michael and Jeanne, thank you for your immense patience and understanding throughout this process and for tying all this work together so beautifully. I now have a newfound appreciation for the archives section of Sterling Library, and you all are a great part of the reason why.

Mahdere Yared '25, B.S. Cognitive Science candidate, Yale Cross Country and Track & Field Athlete