The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning, and the Water, by author Daniel J. Boyne, is the story of how women rowers fought for their right to race at the collegiate and national levels. It’s the story of how women fought to be treated like their male counterparts, to receive the same funding, facilities, and equipment.Title IX, ground-breaking legislation passed in 1972, equalized the playing field for women in educational settings for all schools that received federal dollars. This included admissions, employment, athletics, and extracurricular activities. However, as Boyne describes, despite what the law stated, after 1972, women continued to fight for their place on the water, in the locker room, and for equal access to equipment.
Boyne outlines how 19 Yale women rowers led by senior Chris Ernst filled the Director of Women’s Athletics office, stripped naked to expose “Title IX” written on their backs in protest of the lack of facilities – namely locker rooms – for the women’s rowing team. In fact, up until that point, Yale’s women’s crew were forced to wait on the bus after practice in all temperatures – still wearing their wet clothes – as the men showered and changed in the only facilities at the Yale boathouse. In response to the protest, the following year a women’s locker room was added to the boathouse to accommodate all of the school’s rowing athletes. In fact, the protest generated international support and attention – some negative – for a school that had only recently admitted female students, which further pressured the administration.
Boyne describes how Gail Pierson, a sculler and faculty member at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was the third woman to compete in the Head of the Charles regatta, which began in 1965. During the inaugural races, two female scullers raced down the course in their own category. The next woman to enter was Pierson four years later.
Pierson was so dedicated to the sport that she lobbied the Olympic rowing committee and the National Rowing Federation (NRF) to support elite women’s rowing. Peirson’s perseverance led to Harry Parker, the legendary Harvard crew coach, being recruited to coach the women’s national team. One of the only coaches who believed women could row competitively, Parker followed George Pocock’s line of thinking: “There weren’t fast boats, just fast crews.” Parker believed that if the rower worked hard and gave it their all, then the gender of the athlete was irrelevant.
Parker took rowers such as Carie Graves from Wisconsin, Chris Ernst, Gail Pierson, and six others, and turned them into elite rowers ready to compete at the World Championships and the Olympics. However, funding remained an issue. Title IX might have (legally) equalized funding hurdles in schools, but it hadn’t for elite athletes. Parker’s crew had to prove themselves to receive funding comparable to the men’s elite team. NRF had offered a mere fraction of the cost to compete in Europe as to the total cost of travel.
In 1975, Parker’s Red Rose Crew raced against the best women’s teams at the World Championships and took home a silver medal, finishing their best time on the water at 3 minutes and 21 seconds. This caught the NRF’s attention, garnered their support, and primed the team for the 1976 Olympics. The crew’s inaugural race had put them on the board.
Boyne effectively builds the suspense for the reader as the shells race down the course, describing the agony or exhilaration over which team is a boat length ahead on the course, what is going through rowers’ minds, and how the coxswain handles the challenges during the race. Boyne makes the reader feel as if they’re seated along the shore cheering for the American women to win. He also goes to great length to describe what it was like to be an Olympic athlete denied practice space by boathouses that restricted their membership to men. Luckily, Parker was able to find his team a stretch of water for training.
The Red Rose Crew is the story of courage and what it took for women to be competitive in an era when athletics were modified to fit a woman’s “delicate frame.” Both on and off the water, these nine women proved that women are equally as competent and athletic as their male counterparts. They set the stage for future generations to compete at all levels.
Today this has manifested itself in girls’ youth sports, varsity grade school programs, and an ever-growing number of collegiate athletic opportunities. Because of better support and funding it’s possible for young girls to dream of one day rowing on the National Team, and even representing the United States at the Olympics.
This is the second in a series of book reviews by Kate Craig – a writer, editor, and photographer who coxes for DC Strokes Rowing Club. She enjoys being active and finding ways to make a difference.