Ginny Gilder is a former competitive rower and Olympic silver medalist who competed with the United States quad sculls team in the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984. She is the co-owner of the Seattle Storm, a professional WNBA team, and is the author of Course Correction, a memoir which documents her journey as a pioneering female athlete. Recently, she joined Grace Luczak, a champion rower who represented the United States at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, for a conversation on the challenges women’s sports have overcome.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Grace: Title IX [the landmark federal legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in education] was enacted before ’76, when women’s rowing was first in the Olympics. How long did it take for that to really have an effect on women’s athletics?
Ginny: In 1972, when the legislation was passed, one in 27 girls in high school played sports. By 2012, forty years after the legislation was passed, there was one athlete for every 2.5 students in high school.
It really started taking hold in the late 80’s. When I started rowing in ’75, I went to Yale, which had only gone co-ed in the late 60’s. There was still a lot of obvious bias against women athletes, and that was certainly the case at the boathouse.
Grace: What was that environment like?
Ginny: At Yale, the boathouse is in Derby, Connecticut, a 12 mile drive. It’s a beautiful place to row—one of the most beautiful and lesser known places to row in the country. It’s really empty compared to the Charles river, where there are so many crews.
Every day all the crews went together: there were two men’s teams, a lightweight and a heavyweight team, and the women’s team. We would all ride on the bus together. Although the men could change into their clothes in their locker room, there was no locker room for the women, so we would go out in our sweats and we would row, and we would come back in our sweats. There was a tiny little bathroom at the end of one of the boat bays, and that’s what you could use if you needed to use the toilet, but there was no place to change.
You come off the water, you’re sweaty, and maybe wet from backsplash. It might have rained or even snowed. We would go and sit on the bus while the guys went and took showers, and then we would go back to campus and go directly to dinner because all of the dining halls except for one were closed by then. We had to eat dinner before we got to go back and shower. We were in wet clothes for one and a half to two hours. That inspired what’s known as the Yale Strip-In of 1976.
In early March, two women who were training for the ’76 Olympics, Chris Ernst and Anne Warner, staged a protest that 19 Yale women ended up participating in. We stripped for showers. We wrote “Title IX” in Yale blue ink on our backs, and we went to a prearranged meeting that Chris had set up with the head of women’s athletics. We brought a stringer from the Yale Daily News and a photographer who sent the story out. It was picked up by the New York Times. By the end of the week, the President of Yale had gotten letters and phone calls that ranged from, “Why did we ever let women into Yale?” to “Get those girls a shower.” By the next year they were building an addition to the boathouse that included a boat bay for the women and, obviously, showers.
Grace: Clearly it had ramifications beyond just Yale getting a locker room. Did you see that at the time?
Ginny: I was a freshman—I wasn’t thinking about the ramifications for this act beyond our boathouse. I think that’s true of young people in general. That could be good. You get angry and frustrated enough that you’ll do things that, when you’re in your 30’s or 40’s, you might not be so willing to do. Because it is a little risky. You’re standing up for something, and there could be a backlash. It was one of the political acts of that generation that were happening in colleges across the country, where women were invoking Title IX to demand equal access. The interesting thing about Title IX is it was passed to support and protect women in 10 areas of education, including graduate school, where schools routinely discriminated against women. If you were a woman, there were quotas for you to get into law school or medical school. Title IX was not just written for sports, but that’s where it’s most known.
Grace: When I was representing the U.S., I didn’t have to think about, “Are we going to have the right equipment? Are we going to be on an equal playing field with everyone that we’re competing against?” Title IX has continued to build on itself, really.
When I was in the 2016 games, Ernst and Young was an Olympic sponsor. They created an internship where they selected eight female Olympians from across the globe, including myself and Nzingha Prescod, a USA fencer. It’s been incredible, and the start of my career—because of what I was able to do with the Olympics—and it wouldn’t have happened without everything that you laid as a foundation.
Ginny: This day and age, because of what social media provides, you have a platform that I didn’t have. I didn’t even realize that I was part of the social justice movement until way after college. I’m interested to hear about how you use social media. You’re a bit of a celebrity, you have a following: what are the kinds of issues that you’re interested in, and how do you think about your role?
Grace: I think my mom is the main person who looks at my Twitter and Instagram.
Ginny: That is so not true.
Grace: Doing sports, and pursuing the Olympics, I have struggled with it kind of being a selfish endeavor, because it’s all focused on you. You’re measured by your numbers, and even though we’re in a team sport, you’re competing individually in order to make a boat. So it’s amazing having outreach with social media. With a couple of my teammates, we were trying to get a program off the ground doing Skype calls with kids from across the country. Being able to do face-to-face video calls—I think there’s something to having a role model. I hope that going into 2020, people continue to do that because it gives kids a way to connect, and to get a behind-the-scenes look at how great it is to participate in sports.
Ginny: It’s really important. I don’t think that people realize that you aren’t necessarily born knowing how to translate your dreams into reality. Human beings are born with a capacity to dream, but they need windows opened for them to let them see how to pursue their dreams. The reason I decided to become an Olympian—which still to this day makes me laugh—is we had these two women at Yale who were training for the Olympics. They were a junior and a senior. There I was, a 17 year-old freshman, who had just started rowing in September. I looked at them and thought, “If they can do it, I can do it.” That is one of the best parts about human beings: we invent these ridiculous ideas for ourselves, and then we go out and we do it.
“Whether you win a medal or not, even if you make a team or not, the experience of going for it is one of the most profound lessons that you can get in life. I always think that people give up too soon.”
When you talk to young kids and show them the route that you’ve taken, it can ignite them and make them realize that at one point you were a normal person too, and maybe you weren’t very confident. Yet, you got interested in this and decided to go for it. We both know, whether you win a medal or not, even if you make a team or not, the experience of going for it is one of the most profound lessons that you can get in life. I always think that people give up too soon.
Grace: How do you feel that someone like myself, or even high schoolers and kids in the next generation,what can we do to push the envelope further? What needs to be done?
Ginny: Well, first of all, Title IX has by no means finished its work. If you look in women’s programs across the country, there are a lot of disparities. I have heard parents tell me that their girls soccer team doesn’t get field time the way the boys soccer team does. We’re talking middle school. The whole collegiate environment, with its focus on men’s football and men’s basketball, gets a disproportionate amount of investment compared to the women’s programs—or even compared to other men’s programs.
There’s this myth out there that men’s football at the Division 1 level generates net income to support the other teams. That’s in fact not the case. Most men’s football teams lose money. So there’s this huge disparity, because men’s football continues to suck up so much money. Everyone loves college football in this country, but there are costs. So I think it’s up to parents and young people to recognize the disparity and make their own choices as to whether or not they want to get out there and push for change. You see the culture struggling to shift. It’s interesting looking at both the WNBA, which has a huge salary discrepancy between the women and the men, and then looking at USA soccer, where the women are suing USA soccer.
You have two somewhat different situations. In the WNBA, it’s a professional league, and the reason that athletes aren’t paid nearly as much as the men is because not enough people come to the games. That’s culturally built-in: there’s a bias against watching women’s pro sports. It’s very much this idea that men are somehow better, stronger, more interesting, more fun to watch. Men still, for the most part, control the conversation of what’s valuable in sports.
With women’s soccer, the women negotiated a different compensation system than the men, but actually pull in more money than the men do. Yet they’re paid less, and are not rewarded the way the men are. So in that instance, the women actually generate more revenue than the men, but are still discriminated against.
So there’s a lot of work to do in terms of leveling the playing field. You see different expressions of bias, but it’s the same bias. It’s amazing how the conversation gets shifted depending on where women are. I’ve heard it expressed that even though the USA women have won more games, or score more goals, their goals aren’t as interesting. I’m like, “Really?” That’s the rationale now that’s being used to keep putting women down, and keep disparaging women as athletes?
“She was at a small school where soccer was the only Division 1 sport for the women. More fans watched the men’s club sport soccer than her team.”
I have a daughter who played D1 soccer. When she was 5 and 6, there were probably the same number of parents who attended girls games as boys games. By the time she was in middle school, it was starting to edge towards boys teams getting more attention. By the time she was in high school, if you were on a [championship-level] girls team, then you’d get an audience. Otherwise, the boys teams got more attention. Certainly, by the time she got to college, she was at a small school where soccer was the only Division 1 sport for the women. More fans watched the men’s club sport soccer than her team. The rising discrepancy between interest in girls and boys sports start at a very young age. Really, 10 or 11 year-old boys are not that much better than girls, so it’s just this built-in bias. Until that changes, where people who watch sports start to realize that there are great reasons to watch girls and women play, you’re going to have the cultural bias that we’ve got.
Grace: Well, I can tell you that the Olympics are only two weeks long, and rowing was the first week, so the second week my teammates and I went to as many U.S. sports as we could. I went to the women’s basketball game to watch their final with my teammate, and it was incredible. We were on the edge of our seats. There were so many people there cheering.
But then, when I first came here, one of the people coordinating our program took me to a WNBA game, and it was weird to see the stadium be so empty when it was such a good game. So from the athletic arena, how does that translate to the professional world? I’m just at the beginning of my career, and I’ve felt huge support being a women going into business. But do you think that’s the case everywhere?
Grace: Is it all talk, or…?
Ginny: I don’t think it’s all talk. I think there’s the beginnings of interesting research that shows how much bias against women is very subtle, and people don’t recognize it. I used to think that picking on women athletes—before our culture shifted this election season—that was the last bastion where you could be a jerk about women. But I think we’re entering a new stage where overt discrimination is actually going to be a little more accepted.
I think that each person is going to have to be aware of what their own experience is, and each person has to make a decision—are they going to open their mouths and say something, and take some risks in pointing out where bias exists, or are they going to shy away from that? That’s true everywhere in America today. What are [people] going to speak up about to express their values?