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

First Quarter: A Rocky Start for the Home Team

Cartoon about women and sports, consisting of a series of ink drawings and handwritten text. Original caption: "The above graphic was created by Abbe Smith, WAA organizer."

Panel 1: Drawing of a girl in a polka dot skirt holding a football. Text: When I was little I wanted to grow up to be Knute Rockne. I passed and ran every afternoon, and I carried my football with me everywhere.

Panel 2: Drawing of a girl in a polka dot skirt wearing a shirt with the number 1. Text: But my mother said, "Aw, honey, why can't you just play hopscotch with Susie next door?"

Panel 3: Drawing of a girl in a baseball uniform and cap holding a large bat. Text: Then I grew a little older and I wanted to be Willie Mays. I hit and fielded every afternoon and I wore my baseball cap everywhere.

Panel 4: Drawing of a girl in a baseball uniform without the cap or bat. Text: But my mother said, "Aw, honey, why can't you just play hopscotch with Susie next door?"

Panel 5: Drawing of a girl in a hockey uniform and skates holding a large hockey stick. Text: Then I grew a little older and I wanted to be Bobby Hull. I skated and slap-shot every afternoon but I didn't wear my skates everywhere because they weren't very comfortable.

Panel 6: Drawing of a girl in a hockey uniform without the skates and stick. Text: But my mother said, "Aw, honey, why can't you just play hopscotch with Susie next door?"

Panel 7: Drawing of a young woman with vertically striped pants. Text: So then I went to college where at last I could be a serious athlete. 

Panel 8: Drawing of the same young woman with vertically striped pants wearing a shirt with a Y. Text: Varsity hopscotch, anyone?

Panel 9: Small drawing of a figure under panel 7 with a speech bubble that reads: This was before we got Chrissie Evert as a role model...

Artist signature at bottom of the page: Abbe Smith, 2/23/77

Women Athletics Association organizer Abbe Smith created this cartoon for the Yale Daily News to run alongside the article that introduced campus to the WAA.

This story begins with the profound commitment by women athletes and their allies to inaugurate the first women's varsity teams at Yale. Their advocacy—for respect, for new offerings, and for improved facilities—led to the creation of an impressive women's athletics program.


‘Varsity Hopscotch’

Abbe Smith, who helped organize the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) in 1977, channeled her frustration with the state of Yale’s women athletics in a cartoon quipping that Yale’s solution to the lack of serious sports offerings for women athletes was to propose “varsity hopscotch.”

The storm that birthed the WAA and inspired Smith’s artistic musings had been brewing for five years—since the passage of Title IX in 1972. In the interim, women’s athletics at Yale had evolved from scant PE class offerings to student-organized intramural and varsity teams. At all points, student demand far outstripped supply, leaving the athletes to coordinate their own teams (to which Yale eventually attached part-time coaches). By 1977, women were competing on nine varsity teams, in addition to club sports and intramurals—but to pretend that the slate was up to par was clearly, in the view of Smith and other WAA organizers, laughable. Women’s avenues for exercising and being recognized for their athletic talent were so limited that getting to play at the Ivy League institution still felt like getting handed a piece of sidewalk chalk and being shooed out the door.

These struggles have persisted and changed as more women, particularly women of color, have enrolled at Yale and other universities over the last 50 years. Throughout these next decades, women athletes achieved more successes and faced the same barriers (i.e. institutional sexism and racism) that characterize all progress throughout history.

In this clip from the 1990 short film "Boola Boola...Yale Goes Coed" by Julie G. Pimsleur, Class of 1990, Joni Barnett, Diane Bishop, and Lawrie Mifflin discuss the early days of Women's athletics.  

Yale Student Papers Collection (RU 331). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. https://archives.yale.edu/repositories/12/archival_objects/917893

'A Lack of Seriousness... of Taking Us Seriously'

Field hockey, squash, and tennis were the first women’s sports to which Yale granted varsity status. Basketball, swimming, and gymnastics followed closely behind. More women were matriculating into Yale every year, and once the athletic programs were established, current athletes took to informally “recruiting” prospective students as well. As the women athlete population grew at the university, the programs became more robust and often more successful, attracting top talent.

A student interest survey sent to the student body in 1972. The results would be used to develop the women's athletics program according to the number of prospective participants.

But the sports’ successes were largely in spite of provided resources, not because of them. The same set of warm-up outfits was rotated between teams throughout the year; the field hockey team had to make do with cut-off jeans and Yale t-shirts as a makeshift uniform, while they practiced on a parking lot strewn with beer cans from the previous weekend’s tailgate. The squash team was relegated to the worst practice courts, and the basketball team to a practice slot from 8:30-10:30 pm. Crew—which got off to a strong start, placing ninth in the region in its second year of existence—was coached part-time by Nat Case, a former Yale oarsman.

A proposed roster of Yale's 1972-1973 intercollegiate sports, reflecting a slate of "planned" women's sports teams.

When the Yale Daily News didn’t assign a reporter to cover women’s sports, a field hockey player, Lawrie Mifflin, took it upon herself to report on every women’s game—minus field hockey, which was taken on by a YDN editor.

Lack of funding translated into a lack of dedicated coaches, lockers, equipment, and even travel accommodations. Members of the field hockey team were placed with Princeton students the night before an away game, and the unlucky five who were lodged in one of the eating clubs there were harassed by club members until four in the morning.

Director of Women's Athletics Joni Barnett advocates for the passage of Title IX protections.

'Their Desire to Protect the Structure They Have Carefully Nurtured...'

The slow progress made by the Yale administration in regard to women’s sports was in response to tension with Title IX, which was signed into law in June 1973. Compliance with and enforcement of Title IX were open questions as the university, which had only opened its doors to women three years previously, was tasked with preventing institutional discrimination against women athletes. 

Even while the law was being deliberated in Congress, the Yale athletics administration didn’t necessarily agree on its merit. Carm Cozza, the head football coach, wrote a private letter to a congressperson expressing his concerns about its implementation. In 1974, Joni Barnett, director of physical education, also weighed in, vehemently endorsing the need for Title IX protections for women’s athletics in a letter to CT Senator Abraham Ribicoff.

'These are the Bodies Yale is Exploiting'

Barnett, who was generally respected by women athletes for her solidarity with them, also faced her fair share of challenges as an administrator during this time of transition. A particularly “dramatic incident” occurred in her office in 1976, when the women’s crew team staged a protest against their lack of adequate changing and shower facilities.

"It is unfortunate that one of our finest, most dedicated teams has been so treated and alienated,” Barnett wrote in a memo to her colleagues. “Their resentment was such that they stripped off their practice uniforms and stood naked, wearing only ‘Title IX’ in ink across their chest.”

Barnett regards the protestors from the women's crew team who stripped naked in her office to protest the lack of adequate changing facilities for their team.

Barnett's memo to the department addressing the crew team's demands.

The protest helped ignite the conversation about current conditions for many women athletes. Anne Warner and Chris Ernst, fellow Olympians and world champion rowers, were amongst the players conducting the protest and presented their demands to Barnett.

"No effective action has been taken and no matter what we hear, it doesn’t make these bodies warmer, or dryer or less prone to sickness,” the crew team wrote in their statement. “...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’re not just statistics on your win column.”

The written statement from the crew team, read by Anne Warner and Chris Ernst in Barnett's office.

The protest attracted national attention—Barnett wrote that the New York Times called her within 20 minutes. Speaking to the newspaper, Warner was a bit drier. 

“For four months Barnett has ignored our request for the zoning variance necessary to get electricity and hot water into the trailer, and we'll probably get it when Peter Pan comes back to life,” she joked.

'... But I'm Also a Woman.'

The crew team’s protest pushed administrators into action: “Peter Pan” was brought back to life within five days. Once the crew team had working hot water and electricity in their trailer, Yale moved on to add a $250,000 extension of the boathouse containing a fully fledged women’s locker room.

These kinds of demands remained necessary for women’s sports throughout the decade. They were the genesis of Abbe Smith’s Women’s Athletic Association (WAA), which lobbied the administration head-on for funding full-time coaches’ salaries and complying with Title IX. Students like Smith, Warner, and Ernst were intent on creating a future for Yale women athletes that met their talent with the full weight of the university’s attention and resources.

Drawing 1 of 2. Ink drawing of a girl on a podium wearing a crown and a t-shirt that reads "Billie Jean is my Hero". 

Text: I may be just a girl...

Abbe Smith drawing, Gift of Barbara Frank, Class of 1977.

Drawing 2 of 2. Ink drawing of a girl on a podium wearing a crown and a shirt with the female sign on it. She has a determined look on her face and a fist raised in the air. 

Text: But I'm also a Woman.

Abbe Smith drawing, Gift of Barbara Frank, Class of 1977.