Years Later, Maker of a Landmark Film Still Stands Up for Title IX

Sunday, March 12, 2000 - 12:00

This Op-ed ran in the New York Times on Sunday, March 12, 2000.

The contrast couldn't have been more stark. At the very moment 50 women contestants paraded across television screens in the sleazy spectacle "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," 15 year-old Allison Bransfield was flexing her muscles.

Allison was not among the hordes of viewers who tuned into the "smile-strut-and-win-a-man" sideshow on Feb. 15. Instead, she was with her classmates at the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York listening to the filmmaker Mary Mazzio talk about "A Hero for Daisy," her new documentarty about the Yale female rowers' protest in 1976 that sparked Title IX compliance action.

"Thank you for making a film about girls and muscles," Allison told Mazzio at a reception that evening. Then they posed for a snapshot--Allison, her school pals, and Mazzio--shoulder to shoulder, arm muscles tensed, grinning proudly for all the world.

Mazzio, a 38 year-old former Olympic rower, who is now a Boston lawyer, and filmmaker, came to the Emma Willard School to screen her film, which is as much about creating healthy images for young girls as it is about gender equity in sports.

The film tells the story of Chris Ernst, a two-time Olympian, who led her rowing team in a protest against Yale's lack of athletic facilities for women.

Ernst and 18 teammates silently marched into Yale's athletic office, read a statement, and stripped to the waist--exposing the words "Title IX," which had been drawn in blue marker on each woman's back and breasts. A New York Times reporter stood behind the women observing the event; the next day the story appeared in the paper of March 4, 1976, and set off an international reaction. A photograph of the history-making event also ran in the Yale Daily News.

Within an hour of the protest, Yale administrators recognized they had a problem. Within two weeks, the female rowers had new locker rooms. Across the country, educators snapped to attention and began viewing Title IX--which had become law four years earlier--as legislation that required compliance.

In Mazzio's film, the Massachusetts senator and Yale alumnus John Kerry talks about the protest's profound social significance. "What Chris Ernst did," Kerry said, "is nothing short of spectacular."

Ernst, who now owns a plumbing company in Brookline, Mass., is not without a sense of humor about what she's doing nearly 25 years after the Yale action. Friends, she observes in the film, have pointed out that she has gone from protesting the lack of showers to fixing them. Her Yale crewmate Jennie Kiesling, now a history professor at West Point and the Army men's varsity rowing coach, believes that Ernst is as unforgettable now as she was in 1976. "I have seen the film twice," Kiesling said. "Seeing myself on film trying to describe Chris brought home how ineffably impressive she is."

For Emma Willard's athletic director, Judy Bridges, the film brought back memories of the days before Title IX. "I remember as a girl waking up every morning just so eager to play softball and how wonderful it was when I found other girls who enjoyed the competition as much as I did," she recalled.

But opportunities for girls to play were slim then. Thinking back on that time fills Bridges not so much with regret as it does, she said, "with what ifs?"

Mazzio said the film touches different generations in different ways. For women like Bridges who remember the days before Title IX, the documentary strikes an emotional chord.

For girls, like the audience at Emma Willard--many of whom did not know exactly what Title IX represented or when it came about--the documentary is about speaking your mind, standing up and the right to be strong, physically and mentally.

"These were women who were not letting their own inhibitions or the barriers others imposed stop them from doing what they wanted to do," said Julia Kinkel, a senior at the school. "A women is not supposed to be strong."

Creating images of strong women was the primary motivation behind Mazzio's decision to make the film. In 1998, pregnant and two weeks overdue with her daughter, Daisy, Mazzio was channel-surfing at home and happened upon a Victoria's Secret commercial. The images of smiling, banal, blond and leggy women striking sexual poses to sell products was more than she could take. "'What is our daughter going to see?," she recalls asking her husband. "'There's nothing out there for Daisy.'"

Writing, producing, and directing the film with a new infant at home was "an act of lunacy," Mazzio said with a laugh. The film played to sold-out audiences in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts; fathers of daughters, Mazzio notes, have been especially vocal in recognizing recognizing the film's importance.

At the moment, "A Hero for Daisy" is without a national theatrical distributor. However, the film, in 16mm format, is being shown at museums, a few independent theatres, as well as independent schools, colleges, and universities that can foot the bill for its screening. Mazzio would like the film to have a wider distribution, including availability for every public high school in the country.

In the meantime, girls like Emma Willard's Naveen Shakir are glad they have seen "Daisy." Naveen waited until most of the students had filed out of a classroom and then told Mazzio how much the documentary meant to her. The film, she said "helped me realize that if you focus on one thing, you can really develop as a person." Lately, Naveen Shakir said, she wakes up thinking about pitching.