The Princeton men’s and women’s golf program in 1991-92, the first year of varsity play for the Tiger women.
The Princeton men’s and women’s golf program in 1991-92, the first year of varsity play for the Tiger women.
Courtesy Bric-a-brac

For two decades, the story of how women’s golf earned varsity status at Princeton was known by relatively few – the students, coaches, parents, and alumni who pushed for the change, and the administrators who eventually endorsed it. Earlier this year, two alumnae, Carol Welsh ’92 and Lisa Olson ’80, set out to tell the story, for the benefit of current and future golfers at Princeton, relying on interviews, recollections, and an impressive trove of letters and memos. The excerpt below covers 1990-91, the year leading up to varsity status. As Paget Berger *90, the program’s volunteer coach at the time, told PAW, the process was frustrating at times but gratifying in the end because “the women were so deserving.”

While making plans to attend her 10th reunion in 1990, Lisa Olson ’80, a member of one of the first women’s golf teams, learned from [founding coach] Betty Donovan that the University had still not conferred varsity status on the women’s golf team. Ms. Olson, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, wrote to Princeton President Harold Shapiro in June 1990, urging that he confer varsity status on the team and set an example of gender equality in sports.   She explained that the team had been financially self-sustaining since 1977 and therefore could be elevated to varsity status at no cost to the University.   She further pointed out that the University’s logic – that women had allegedly shown insufficient interest in the team – was circular, because if the team had varsity status, more women would be enthusiastic about joining it.   According to Ms. Olson, “This subtle form of sex discrimination is all too common in college sports, where women’s teams are routinely relegated to secondary roles, with the implication that in this, as well, women are inferior.”

The University’s response to Ms. Olson was disappointing.   Assistant director of athletics Amy Campbell wrote on July 20, 1990, that for Princeton to consider a sport “varsity,” at least five Ivy League institutions must support it at the varsity level.   According to the University, golf did not qualify because only Dartmouth and Yale recognized women’s golf as a varsity sport.

It was clear that even after a decade of good-faith efforts, the recruitment of promising teams, and a steady interest among female students in playing varsity-level golf, the University had failed to budge an inch.   Ms. Olson therefore turned to a last resort: legal action. Ms. Olson said, “The threat of an embarrassing lawsuit seemed the only way to get the University’s attention.”   Ms. Olson wrote for help to Deborah Ellis, Legal Director of the ACLU in New Jersey.   Ms. Ellis agreed that the University’s reason for denying varsity status – because too few Ivy League institutions recognized golf as a varsity sport – was a Catch-22.   She also noted that the University’s purported intention to reduce and upgrade existing programs rather than to add new teams should be directed at the disproportionately large number of men’s varsity teams rather than the smaller number of women’s teams.

Ms. Ellis contacted Thomas Wright ’62 of Princeton’s Office of the General Counsel to ask that the University work with the ACLU to remedy the long-standing problem of sex discrimination with respect to the women’s golf team.   In a December 1990 letter Ms. Ellis wrote, “The club status hampers recruiting, hampers fundraising, deprives the team of access to facilities and perks provided to varsity athletes, and, most fundamentally, denigrates the athletic endeavors of the team members.”   She noted that the women had satisfied each of the conditions set by the University – established funding and a sustained interest – yet action by the University had continued to lag, and as of the beginning of the 1990-91 academic year, the matter was put on hold indefinitely.   Ms. Ellis asked the University to meet with the ACLU to discuss the situation and work towards a prompt resolution.

In a January 4, 1991, response to the ACLU, Mr. Wright indicated that he needed to discuss the matter with the Athletic Department and that he was undertaking a comprehensive study of athletics at Princeton.   The prospect of further delay was unacceptable to Ms. Ellis, who quickly responded that the women and their coaches at Princeton had already waited twelve years.   Ms. Ellis informed Mr. Wright that with golf plans already underway for the 1991-92 academic year, the matter was urgent, and she indicated that the failure to grant varsity status by spring would result in legal action.

The ACLU coordinated with the local law firm of Pellettieri, Rabstein & Altman, which had volunteered its services to help.   The University Counsel, Peter McDonough, wrote to the firm in March 1991 to explain that while Princeton would like to see a women’s golf program equal to the men’s, women’s golf must nevertheless undergo further analysis and meet certain conditions, including the requirements that a sustainable interest in women’s golf continue, that the number of Ivy League schools currently offering women’s golf as a varsity sport not diminish, and that members of the women’s golf team engage in fund-raising activities.   Mr. McDonough concluded: “Upon your confirmation in writing that neither the ACLU-NJ nor the representatives of the women’s golf club will pursue legal action against the University or publicize the threat of such legal action if this proposal is implemented, I will cause the University’s Department of Athletics to send a letter to the women’s golf club advising the club of the resolution of this issue on the terms set forth above.”

The Leadership of Paget Berger *90

Jennie Thompson ’90, the team captain, and Barbara Armas ’92 had a chance meeting at Springdale Golf Club in the winter of 1988 with Paget Berger *90, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School.   Ms. Berger, a golf enthusiast and a woman known for her dedication to helping others, embraced the team.   Between her leadership as coach and travel coordinator and the relentless pressure she placed on the University, Ms. Berger was the catalyst for the eventual awarding of varsity status.

In response to Mr. McDonough’s letter, Ms. Berger accused the University of remaining essentially unchanged in its position with respect to women’s golf since 1980, and of placing a continuing burden on the women to satisfy an arbitrary notion of commitment.   In a letter signed by the team to the University, the women’s team members pointed out that their parents were paying the same tuition as the men’s parents, but that women were not being given an equal opportunity.   They explained that a sustainable interest in women’s golf had been present at Princeton since before 1980; that Princeton should set an example for other Ivy League schools that lacked varsity teams; and that the members of the men’s varsity team did no fundraising whatsoever and reaped all the benefits of the June alumni tournament.   The women asked for an immediate resolution and said, “The bottom line is that women cannot be denied the same status as men in a University-sponsored activity.”

At this point some of the parents of the women’s team members, including Delbert Smith and William W. Welsh Jr., offered Ms. Berger their support.   And as Ms. Berger stated in one letter, “The Friends of Women’s Golf have been, along with the team, strong and enthusiastic supporters of all my efforts.”   Ms. Berger kept the ACLU advised of her dealings with the University and also kept parents informed.   In mid-May 1991, the University met with Ms. Berger and the team members, yet it reiterated many of the same arguments and still made no commitment to establishing a varsity team.   The University subsequently held another meeting with Ms. Berger and the team as well as with concerned parents and alumni.   At long last on June 19, 1991, Mr. Wright of Princeton’s Office of the General Counsel wrote to Ms. Berger that “Bob Myslik is working with his colleagues over the summer to attempt to devise as promptly as possible a course of action that will lead to parity between the women’s and the men’s golf programs.”

Varsity Status and Beyond

On July 12, 1991, the University announced the formation of the “Princeton Men’s and Women’s Varsity Golf Program,” in which the men’s and women’s programs would henceforth be combined.   Princeton also promised to discuss the possible sponsoring of an official Ivy League championship tournament for women, and a possible Ivy League golf championship that would have a combined men’s and women’s format.   The teams would travel together on inter-regional trips, and both varsity teams would be eligible to compete, if invited, in the respective season-ending NCAA championships. …