Fifty Years of Excellence and Determination in Women’s Athletics

April 24, 2018

Next year Yale will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of undergraduate coeducation—half a century of achievement in the classroom and in the life of Yale College. When we think of the “pioneers” of coeducation, we often think of women joining men in Yale’s classrooms, laboratories, dining halls, and residential colleges. But in fact, women were sports pioneers as well.

From the earliest days, female Yalies looked for ways to participate in athletics. Many had played sports in high school and wanted to experience the joys of competition and camaraderie in college. Women began playing tennis in their first spring at Yale, and during the following fall, a group of women created a field hockey club team. By the end of 1974, eight teams—field hockey, tennis, squash, basketball, crew, fencing, gymnastics, and swimming—had achieved varsity status. 

Women were determined to compete at a high level at Yale, but they faced several challenges. One problem plaguing women’s sports was the small number of women available to play in the early years. Another was that women’s sports received less attention and support in the early years of coeducation. Field hockey played on a potholed field where football fans parked, sometimes arriving to find cars in their fields before a game. Other women’s teams, from squash to basketball to crew, were assigned undesirable practice times and part-time coaches. In 1976, a daring protest by members of the women’s crew team demanding better locker and shower facilities attracted national attention—and led to more resources for women’s sports.

In fact, times were changing around the nation and at Yale. Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and the following year Yale appointed Joni Barnett as director of physical education—a major advance for women in sports leadership at the university. And female athletes continued to work together to advocate for greater support for their teams. By the end of the decade, Yale offered thirteen varsity sports to female athletes.

Yale’s trailblazing female athletes achieved landmark victories despite the challenges they faced. In 1980, field hockey won the Ivy League championship, only four years after Yale hired its first full-time coach for the sport. Women’s varsity swimming began competing in 1974, and four years later they won their first Ivy championship; they now hold seven Ivy titles. Female swimmers from Yale have earned medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Even as a student, Lawrie Mifflin ’73 recognized the importance of sports to many of the pioneers of coeducation at Yale. “Unquestionably the most valuable element [of women’s sports] has been the camaraderie with other women fostered on every team. With few women in the colleges and classes, every opportunity to meet and share an interest with others becomes important to most Yale females,” Mifflin wrote in her senior class book, the Yale Banner. “Who can tell—in another hundred years perhaps [someone] will write a nostalgic history of the first century of Yale field hockey for the Yale Alumni Magazine. And hopefully before then, there will be enough women at Yale to fill every team’s roster, and enough interest in those teams to bring fans singing ‘Bulldog’ to every Princeton and Radcliffe contest.” 

Today Yale women compete in eighteen varsity sports as well as on intramural and club teams. In their nearly fifty-year history at Yale, women have won thirty-two team national championships and captured seventy-two Ivy League team titles, in addition to eighteen titles in the Ivy Classics (for gymnastics) and Ivy Regattas (for sailing). Yet significant challenges remain, including the underrepresentation of women and people of color in college coaching positions nationwide. The work begun by the pioneers of college sports continues. 

As we remember the rich history of women’s athletics at Yale, please join me in cheering on all the remarkable student-athletes on our campus. Boola, boola!