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June 17, 2012

Julia Pitney: Brush with bias shapes life of advocacy

By Mike Lowe mlowe@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

To say that Title IX set the course for Julia Pitney's life would not be an overstatement.

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Julia Pitney

click image to enlarge

Julia Pitney (then Julia Greenleaf), fourth from back, rows with the Connecticut College women’s crew team in April 1999. That fall, after their coach stepped down and was replaced by one with little experience, the team staged a sit-in.

Photo by Jon Crispin

TITLE XI VIGNETTES

Julia Pitney
Brush with bias shapes life of advocacy
Read her story

Joyce Wheeler
An early taste of inequities, then a chance to change them
Read her story

Lynn Welch
Once Title IX began, she saw fairness, respect
Read her story

Leigh Saufley
When Saufley was in school, ‘girls’ sports were not big’
Read her story

Dr. Dora Anne Mills
Sports in school became a lifetime passion
Read her story

Gary Fifield
USM was strong advocate of women’s programs, coach says
Read his story

Joanne P. McCallie
“Title IX gave me a sense of belonging”
Read her story

Emily Ellis
“I knew I could play with those guys’’
Read her story

Kristen (Briggs) Carmichael
Star athlete grateful for better scholarship opportunities
Read her story

Janet Judge
Opportunities fuel pride, and a desire to give back
Read her story

Coach William “Tige’’ Curran
As opportunities improved, so did the athletes
Read his story

Sarah (Marshall) Ryan
Reaping the benefits of ‘the people who came before me’
Read her story

Pitney, a lawyer at the firm of Drummond & Drummond in Portland, said she is a lawyer because of what she learned fighting for equal rights as an athlete at Connecticut College in New London.

It was the fall of 1999, and Pitney, then Julia Greenleaf, was a member of the women's crew team at the school. The old coach left to be replaced by a new one with little experience, so the men's and women's teams were combined -- and to make matters worse, a couple of longtime assistant coaches resigned.

The 40-member team went on strike, refusing to row in practice and taping over the team name on their uniforms. They staged a sit-in and demanded a national search for a qualified coach.

"We felt we were being treated unfairly," said Pitney.

When it was all over, the women's team had won its showdown.

And Pitney had found her calling.

"This event made me decide that I wanted to go into law," said Pitney, who grew up on Little John Island and played field hockey at Yarmouth High (playing on the school's only state champion team, Class B in 1995). "Because I wasn't the best rower, I wasn't the best athlete, but I wrote all of the letters (to the trustees) ... I mean, really detailed letters."

Pitney and others met with the college president -- "I bought my first business suit, not for my first job interview, but for that meeting with the college president" -- knowing she and the other seniors would never see the benefits of any changes they would force the school to make.

Pitney and her teammates watched the movie "A Hero for Daisy," a documentary about the 1976 Yale women's crew team, in which the women protested poor practice conditions by stripping naked to expose the phrase "Title IX" written in blue marker on their torsos.

While "not as brave as the Yale women, we wore our crew jerseys," said Pitney, the team staged the sit-in and she crafted their demands.

"We wanted equal treatment," she said. "We wanted a coach that reflected the caliber of the team and the program and these women."

After a 90-minute meeting, the school agreed to all of their demands. The school hired a coach (Eva Kovach) who is still there today, and the program remains strong.

"It made me see that I had some knack for advocacy," said Pitney, who specializes in employment law and discrimination cases. "I don't deal with Title IX per se, but I really believe in fundamentally fair treatment of people, on both sides. And what really got me so fired up about this was that we were so blatantly being treated unfairly."

Of course, that wasn't her first brush with Title IX.

Her family moved to Columbus, Ohio, for two years while she was in high school, where she played field hockey.

"In Columbus, football is God," she said. "And there, I would say, they were a few years behind in terms of equality."

One time when her team had a home game, the field was a mess. The grass hadn't been cut, and it wasn't lined. When they went to the athletic director to complain, the players were told to get their boyfriends and cut and line the field themselves.

So the players went to the football stadium, lined the field and played the game there.

But it wasn't until her college years that her eyes were really opened to Title IX -- and her life was set on its current course.

"That was the event that made me realize people needed an advocate," she said. "And attorneys are advocates."

CORRECTION: This story was updated on Sunday, June 17 to reflect that Julia Pitney grew up on Little John Island, not Little Deer Island.

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