Want to Talk About Gender Equality? Let’s Talk About Rowing

Being a very short person doesn’t have all that many benefits, and I say this as a very short person myself. I can never see anything at concerts. I can’t reach anything above the fourth shelf at the grocery store. I sit dangerously close to the steering wheel. And, I get swept off my feet or patted on the head frequently without warrant. Needless to say, modern day America is not built for people under 5 foot. So when I found an activity in college that celebrated my smallness (the shorter the better!), I was happy to learn more. 

I am a coxswain for the Duke Men’s Rowing team. If you don’t know anything about rowing (I didn’t either before this year), the coxswain steers the boat, motivates and focuses the team, and keeps track of the boat’s pace on the water. Over the past seven months I have learned so much from rowing about leadership and sportsmanship, and I have also learned more about the broader rowing community.

One aspect that I find particularly interesting is the significance of women’s rowing in collegiate athletics and Title IX on college campuses. I always thought of rowing as a very Northeastern sport and had no idea that women’s rowing was such a big deal nationwide. 

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To understand why women’s rowing is so important, we have to take it back to Title IX. Passed by Congress in 1972, Title IX legislation was a critical step for women’s education advancement and campus safety. It “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance.” This law meant that universities that receive federal funding, grants, etc. could no longer dissuade women from studying traditionally male subjects, like medicine, and that administration would have to create systems for preventing and reporting sexual assault on campus. But Title IX doesn’t end in the classroom; it also applies to college athletic departments. 

This is where women’s rowing comes into play. Because rowing is such an expensive sport, many colleges and universities invested in women’s rowing teams to balance out the budgets for men’s and women’s athletics. This balance was especially important for schools with large football and basketball programs, like many universities in the South. Despite the somewhat superficial financial support, women’s rowing grew into one of the largest women’s sports at the Division 1 level, opening doors to seasoned and novice rowers, alike. In addition, Next College Student Athlete reports that American colleges’ focus on women’s rowing teams likely contributes to the U.S. Women’s Rowing team’s success in international competitions and the Olympics.

Even though so many resources have been poured into women’s rowing, I still had never heard much hype about it before. As the National Women’s Law Center says, “Title IX has partially opened doors for women.” Women’s collegiate athletics are larger than they ever have been, but female athletes receive far less opportunities and recruitment dollars than their male counterparts. Plus, Title IX was supposed to address campus sexual assault, but we know that this is still a critical issue for college-age students. Colleges and universities still have a long way to go in terms of creating true gender equality in both athletics and campuses on the whole.

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