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Competing Equally at Last: 50 Years of the Harvard-Radcliffe Athletics Merger

The Radcliffe crew team on the Charles River. The crew team was the only team to vote against changing its name after the 1974 merger between Radcliffe and Harvard Athletics.
The Radcliffe crew team on the Charles River. The crew team was the only team to vote against changing its name after the 1974 merger between Radcliffe and Harvard Athletics. By Christine E Mansour
By Thomas Harris and Isabel C. Smail, Crimson Staff Writers

In 2024, it’s easy to look at the relative equality between men’s and women’s sports and assume that it has been this way forever. But 50 years ago, that was anything but the case. In 1974, Harvard University and Radcliffe College were entirely separate academic institutions, but their athletics departments — in what was a test-drive for the eventual union of the two schools — made the historic decision to formally merge, finalizing the union first proposed in 1971. However, even after the official conjunction of programs and financial budgets, women’s teams were still viewed as secondary to their male counterparts.

For the Harvard Athletics Department, the merger caused financial stress, as it suddenly had to account for Radcliffe’s 11 varsity teams in addition to its existing 19 men’s teams. Meanwhile, for the female athletes and Radcliffe athletics administrators, the union with Harvard provided them with a larger budget for equipment, coaches’ salaries, transportation, and facilities. Tension arose within the newly unified program, as administrators had to suddenly allocate funds that would have once been given to men's teams to instead enhance Radcliffe's sports teams.

Roanne Costin ’74, a dual-sport athlete, was a member of the first Radcliffe crew team and a varsity swimmer. Costin explained in a 1999 interview that the “budget was where the power was,” and “just the idea of leveling the playing field” was a major step forward for female student-athletes.

The merger of the two departments was aided by the passing, in 1972, of Title IX, a federal statute which legally required that Harvard and other universities ensure that male and female athletes have “equal access” to sports and “equal facilities.”

“Without the force of the law behind us, it’s doubtful that the university administrators at Harvard or elsewhere would have seen the importance of equal resources for women athletes,” former Radcliffe tennis team captain Lissa Muscatine ’76 said. “Title IX was the wind at our backs.”

Muscatine attributes much of the progress that has been made for gender equality in athletics to Title IX. Unfortunately, at the time of the merger and the passing of the monumental legislation, Harvard did not have adequate facilities for both sexes’ varsity, JV, freshman, and intramural teams, all of which held consistent practices. The University only had one regulation-size basketball court, swimming pool, and set of squash courts, making these sports particularly challenging to schedule.

Therefore, immediately after the merger in 1974, the Radcliffe sports teams were considered to be the athletic department’s lowest priority. If a court scheduling conflict arose between male intramurals and a women’s varsity team, the men were allowed to continue practicing as the women were escorted off the court.

That being said, the merger affected Radcliffe’s teams very differently. Some teams, such as crew, sailing, and skiing, benefited greatly from the unification. These three female teams did not require limited practice space, and could enjoy the increase in their budgets, which went from $75,000 in the 1972-93 season to $144,350 after the merger. However, other teams, including Radcliffe basketball, tennis, and swim, struggled to earn equal access to Harvard’s facilities.

For instance, the women’s basketball team only had one hour of practice time per week on the regulation-size court. It practiced six times a week for two hours in the Radcliffe gym, which was at least 15 feet narrower than the regulation court. Meanwhile, all of the men's teams, including intramural, practiced on the regulation court daily. The women's swim team also struggled with the practice schedule, as it was only given four-and-a-half hours per week in the regulation-size pool. Additionally, the lanes it was allocated were often located under the diving board, and its practice time would occur simultaneously with the men’s diving practice. In comparison, the men were given four hours of practice time in the pool per day.

Eventually, the men's swim coach decided to give the women at least an hour per day to practice in the pool, but practice scheduling remained the subject of fierce debate during the post-merger period. The bargaining process between the men’s and women’s teams was also made more difficult by the antagonistic stance of Robert Blake Watson, Harvard’s Athletic Director at the time, toward greater integration.

During the merger, Watson intended to replace 11 Radcliffe athletics administrators and only make a single addition to the Harvard staff. Mary Paget, the sole remaining Radcliffe athletics administrator, had been the Director of Radcliffe Sports for 12 years, and was forced into a position ranked lower than the Harvard Athletic Department’s ticket manager.

In the frequent, antagonist chain of memos exchanged between Paget and Watson from the time of the merger, Paget wrote that it was “impossible to add 11 women's varsities to the 19 men’s varsities without adequate supportive services.”

“I anticipate immobilization and attrition of the women’s program unless there is perception of this,” she added.

Paget's demand for more administrative buy-in for the merger fell on deaf ears. Despite being instructed by university administrators to look for a path toward gender equality in athletics, Watson dug in deeper and prepared for battle. In an office memo, Watson made his fierce opposition to the merger abundantly clear.

“Are we justified in dismantling established men's programs that have operated in a competitive atmosphere in order to accord equal treatment to programs which are not really equal in either intensity or dedication?” Watson asked. “[For] at least several Radcliffe teams, being a member of the varsity is more a matter of interest than ability.”

Despite their lack of equal facilities, the women's crew, swim, and tennis teams all had perfect seasons in 1974. Prior to its merger with Harvard, five of the 11 Radcliffe teams already boasted national or regional titles.

Eventually, Watson relented, allowing Radcliffe's varsity teams to take priority over men’s intramurals for the 1974-75 season.

1974 also saw the founding of the Radcliffe tennis team. Muscatine immediately noticed the discrepancy between the way her team was treated and the men’s team.

“Even with Title IX we still had second-tier resources. We often didn’t get equal court times for practices and we didn’t have a professional coaching staff, comparable uniforms and equipment, or adequate funding for travel and competition,” she said. “This only began to change toward the end of my undergraduate career and it took more years to reach anything close to parity.”

The Women's tennis team had to work out an agreement with the men’s Head Coach, Jack Barnaby, to use two courts during the indoor season. Other teams, including swimming, and basketball, followed suit.

In 1975, Muscatine identified this injustice in a Crimson profile, stating “I think the Radcliffe athletic department isn’t really ready for varsity sports.”

In that profile, written when Muscatine was a junior at Radcliffe, she said, “I’m not like Roanne Costin or Connie Cervilla,” referring to the women who started the fight for equal athletic opportunities and access at Harvard earlier in that decade. “Robert Watson, he has to listen to me. It's not like before.”

Cervilla ’74 was the proud captain of the Radcliffe heavyweight crew team. For the Radcliffe crew teams, the inequality they faced made them reject the idea of complete assimilation into Harvard Athletics.

Due to the merger in 1974, all of the women's varsity teams were given the opportunity to vote to change their names from ‘Radcliffe’ to ‘Harvard.’ All voted in favor of the change except for the crew teams. Cervilla and the current Radcliffe crew program stand by that decision today.

“We were more than a little annoyed that we didn’t have a shell, oars, uniforms, travel money, and weren’t allowed into Newell [Boathouse],” Cervilla stated in a 2018 interview with The Crimson, “as the men were.”

“We decided that therefore we’d embrace being Radcliffe athletes,” the former team captain continued.

This year, Harvard women’s tennis celebrated its 50th anniversary, representing half a century of progress, in terms of both competitiveness and gender parity, since the team was formed in the wake of the merger. The team’s current Head Coach Traci Green reflected fondly on the celebration.

“To have such a special year on the 50th anniversary of Harvard Women’s tennis was icing on the cake,” Green recalled. “It was such an amazing feeling to be supported by everyone. To showcase what our team, culture, and fighting spirit is all about is a tribute to those that came before us,” Green added.

Muscatine had a similar takeaway. “Watching the current team play was a joy. They are so good and they were all such great examples of women competing in sports at the highest levels while also pursuing serious academic goals,” she said. “I'm sure there are still areas where progress lags, but there's no doubt that the situation for women athletes today has far improved over fifty years ago. It gave me great pride that Harvard finally has a woman [Director of Athletics] and Coach Green is an icon herself!”

She was disappointed to see the gradual erasure over time of the Radcliffe name from the College’s discourse, a trend that has ruffled feathers outside of the athletic domain as well, but was thrilled to see a unified and equal athletics department nonetheless.

The pioneering women who ignited the passing of Title IX and the merger of Radcliffe and Harvard Athletics showed drive and dedication that has inspired many young student-athletes. Harvard’s female teams now hold an impressive 38 national championships, and will likely see many more to come.

—Staff writer Thomas Harris can be reached at thomas.harris@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Isabel C. Smail can be reached at isabelle.smail@thecrimson.com.

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