Written by: Gloria DiFulvio


If you haven’t seen “Boys in the Boat” yet, I recommend stopping everything else you are doing and watch it now. Kudos to George Clooney for directing a movie that focuses on the sport of rowing. Our community rowing club held an event at our local theater bringing youth and masters rowers together to watch the film we had been anticipating for years. Of course, the 1936 men’s Olympic team is a story worth telling. But where are the women?

It is dark when we arrive at our boathouse each morning. This large oval Quonset hut is our second home. I began rowing some 12 years ago as a masters rower. It wasn’t a sport I ever imagined I’d do. I have a healthy fear of water. I spent my early years on a basketball court—indoors with my feet on the ground. I had never watched rowing as a child or even knew it was a sport.

It was my wife who lured me in; first to an erg and then into a boat.

Three days a week we wake at 4:15 a.m. and make our way to the Connecticut River. Our team is co-ed, but I row predominantly with other women. This is where we gather with bleary eyes and determined hearts. Once here, we begin our routine in relative silence, carrying oars to the water, making sure our coach has what she needs to start the motorboat that will ride alongside us. We say good morning to the heron who greets us at the dock.

In 1936, when the men from University of Washington were battling for their Olympic win, women could only sit on the sidelines. It would be another 40 years before women would compete in these games.

In 1972, the Educational Amendment Act recognized education as an equal right for all. The act included a clause that no longer allowed gender-based discrimination in sport; a game changer for women who had been largely excluded from high school and collegiate sports (before Title IX legislation, only 7% of high school athletes were female). I was six years old then; too young to understand the impact it would have for women in sport.

Wellesley College was the first college to establish a women’s crew team in the late 1800s. Certainly some other schools had women’s teams, but prior to the legislation, this was a man’s sport. While it seems like a direct line from policy to play, it wasn’t that simple. Women still needed to assert themselves for their right to row.

There is a lesser-known movie to watch to understand this journey.

The documentary short, NINE, shares the story of a group of determined women who came together to form the first Boston University (BU) women’s rowing team in 1974. Told they weren’t strong enough or physically tough enough; the equipment was too heavy for them; there was no time for them, these women did not back down. They sought opportunity. When told “No!” they responded by winning the women’s National Championship. And then the Canadian Henley. Jeanne Friedman, long time women’s rowing coach from Mount Holyoke College and one of the BU nine, opens the short by saying, “I don’t think we consciously set out to create a legacy. We set out to be serious athletes.”

“Hands on!” This call by our coxswain starts our morning practice. With synchronized movements, eight women lift the 200-pound boat overhead and place it gently on our shoulders. We begin our march to the water (our boathouse is a tenth of a mile to the water, so this is not a simple task). We reach the dock and on the coxswain’s command, we gently place the boat in the water. 

With oar in hand, I settle into my seat, the narrow shell of the boat cradling me as we push away from the dock. The sun peaks from the mountain, the water calm except for the swirl made by our oars. The world is still asleep, but we are alive; propelled by the rhythm of the stroke and the water flowing beneath us.

As we row, our movements are seamless, a dance of grace and strength, grit, and style. We work hard, sweat down our backs, muscles aching. It is grueling, but we do it again and again. Each stroke, each practice. We do it for ourselves and we do it for each other. I know this is where I belong—among fierce women united in purpose and determination.

When we get off the water, my teammates and I scatter. But we will meet here tomorrow because there is nothing like it. That is the power and solidarity of being a masters rower.

While Title IX did not address access to community rowing programs directly, the increased opportunity to row in high school and college undoubtedly opened opportunity for all of us. There are over 1200 clubs in communities across the country. Consequently, women from all age groups have found pathways to pursue their passion for rowing.

Each year, at least once, I watch NINE. The story doesn’t get old. The women who stood tall in the face of exclusion; those brave and powerful women paved the way for the rest of us. While they may not have set out to leave a legacy, they have done so. For that, I am forever grateful.


Torin Moore said:

Great article and Kudos, to you Gloria! Nine is now on my must-watch list!

Cathy Barbash said:

I have not seen this yet—I hope it also includes the history of Radcliffe rowing. We had a serious competitive team as early as the spring of 1971. We won the Easterns on Lake Quinsigamond the spring of 1972, then won the Nationals on the Schuykill in 1973 and with it the right to represent the U.S. in the Europeans in Moscow, USSR that August. So lots of history there, BEFORE Title IX. Of course it took Title IX and lots of lobbying til, in the wake of the final merger of Radcliffe and Harvard and their athletic departments for us to get our Varsity Hs and sweaters. That finally happened last spring. Happy to send clippings and photos. I rowed on the squad 71-72 and 72-73.

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