The next four years would prove to be crucial in the club’s advancement and the culmination in their struggle for varsity status. But the situation would not be resolved quickly and quietly; it would take the efforts of numerous Princeton alumni, local politicians, and even the American Civil Liberties Union to earn women’s golf the status it deserved.
The first step was made in 1990 by Princeton golf alumna Lisa Olson ’80. In June 1990, Olson wrote a letter to University president Harold Shapiro *64, urging him to help fight gender inequality in collegiate sports. Olson first argued that, as a self-financing club sport, the elevation to varsity status would come at no cost to the University. Furthermore, Olson noted that the team’s elevation would enhance the team’s reputation and convince more women to join and not the other way around, like the University claimed.
“This subtle form of sexual 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,“ Olson said.
A lackluster response from the University followed — one that argued women’s golf could only be considered varsity if it was already a varsity sport at more than four other Ivy League institutions.
“The threat of an embarrassing lawsuit seemed the only way to get the University’s attention,” Olson explained. Olson recruited the help of Deborah Ellis — Legal Director of the New Jersey ACLU — who immediately went to work advocating for the elevation of women’s golf at the University to the varsity level.
Ellis and the rest of the women’s golf supporters needed the help of Title IX to support their cause. Whelan had laid the groundwork for this angle, corresponding with then-U.S. Senator and Princeton alumnus Bill Bradley ’65 regarding Title IX and its relation to women’s golf at Princeton. Ellis then implemented Title IX into her argument.
In letters to the University general counsel, Ellis wrote that “The club status hampers recruiting, hampers fundraising, deprives the team of access to facilities and perks provided to varsity members, and, most fundamentally, denigrates the athletic endeavors of the team members.” In 1991, Ellis made an official request to schedule an appointment between the University and the ACLU to discuss and solve the matter.
At the same time, the women’s golf team struggled to find leadership with Whelan retired. Relying mostly on the determination of its players, the team desperately needed a new voice to navigate through tough times. This voice turned out to be Paget Berger *90, a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School and a passionate golfer. Captain Jennie Thompson ’90 and player Barbara Armas ’92 encouraged Berger to assume a role with the team. Within weeks, Berger became the team’s newest coach and travel coordinator, as well as — most importantly — the team’s fighter for varsity recognition.
Berger began her new job by speaking out against the words of Peter McDonough, who at the time served as the University General Counsel. McDonough had contacted the women’s golf program through their ACLU representatives in a series of letters, which explained that women’s golf would be “considered” for varsity status if the threat of legal action was neutralized. Berger replied with a letter signed by the team, denouncing the decision to wait and see, and presenting the current unequal state of affairs between the men’s and women’s golf team, especially when it came to fundraising.
“The bottom line is that women cannot be denied the same status as men in a University sponsored activity,” Berger concluded in her letter.
An imminent legal clash seemed inevitable, but the women’s golf team finally prevailed. On June 19, 1991, correspondence from the Office of General Counsel to the team indicated that a program would be adopted over the summer to transition the women's golf team to varsity status. Less than a month later, on July 12, the University officially recognized the women’s golf team as a varsity sport. The long-awaited dream had finally become a reality.
Onward and upward: the emergence and continuation of an elite program
Even before the Tigers became a varsity program, they were on a quick path to elite status. Once they became a varsity team, that growth only intensified. Just four seasons in, the Tigers were recognized by the Ivy League and the Eastern College Athletic Conference as one of the best teams in the Northeast. Multiple players were recognized as all-Ivy or all-ECAC caliber golfers.
The team had one of their proudest seasons in 1997, when they not only hosted the first ever Betty Donovan Alumni Tournament (Whelan married Eddie Donovan in 1989), but also celebrated the senior season of perhaps their best player in school history: golfer Mary Moan ’97. Moan qualified for the NCAA Championship three years in a row and was one of the best golfers in the Ivy League during her four year campaign. She remains one of the best golfers to have ever been a part of the program.
Today, the Princeton women’s golf program remains alive and well, thriving among their competition. The team has won back-to-back Ivy League Tournaments and are set to make an appearance in San Francisco in the NCAA Regionals on Monday. The team is also very young, being led by sophomore teammates Maya Walton and Alison Chang. They are set up well to continue their success for the foreseeable future.
The women’s golf team continues to celebrate their success on the course, made possible by their victorious struggle to attain varsity status. Since their inception as a varsity team, they have positively changed the lives of hundreds of female athletes who are able to compete against the nation’s best.
“Golf was not the only reason why I chose Princeton, but the memories I have of my time on the team will be among the most vivid I have of my four years as a Tiger,“ said Caitlin Sullivan ’07.
Details about the team’s rise to varsity status come from AC 194 Box 1 Folder 1 in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library Archives at the University.