Who are you calling a girl? And why do you think that’s an insult? In the early 1980s, Hayden Fry, the famed coach of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team, thought he had a surefire way to play with opposing teams’ heads: paint the visiting locker rooms pink.

Pink, he reasoned in his autobiography, A High Porch Picnic, is proven to have a “passive effect.” [Editor’s note: No. No, it is not.] And, oh yeah, it’s also the color of “girls’ bedrooms” and “a sissy color.” Nobody wants to be a girl or a sissy.

In 2005, the University of Iowa rebuilt its famed Kinnick Stadium. Some would have recognized an easy opportunity to quietly close the door on an outdated but incredibly efficient insult, one that denigrates your opponent and all women at the same time.

But the university decided to double-down on the pink.

Jill Gaulding, one of the founders of Gender Justice, was a professor at the University of Iowa in 2005. She made it clear to the administration and to the NCAA — which was conducting a routine review of the University’s policies at the time — that pink locker rooms violate Title VII (which requires employers to treat its employees equally) and Title IX (which requires schools to treat its students equally).

Jill’s got a pretty good sense of humor, and she’s got nothing against competitive sports (you do not want to be between her and the boards in a hockey game), but she saw right through Coach Fry’s psychobabble justification. The pink locker room is all about sending boys the message, “Don’t be a girl,” and sending girls the message, “You are less than.”

On message boards, even supporters of the pink locker room agreed with her:

“Don’t be deliberately obtuse.  Of course it is meant to shame and humiliate.
That’s the thing that pisses women off about it.”

“[It’s about being] weak, dainty, shameful, helpless, useless, etc.”

That’s what pink-shaming is all about: using femininity to shame men. And pink locker rooms are just the start of it. It’s coaches calling their players “ladies” and “girl.” It’s prisons where cells are painted pink or prisoners have to wear pink boxers. It’s the pink child’s backpack rookies on the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox are made to carry. It’s the pink helmet forced on the worst player after a Washington Capitals hockey practice. It’s the Hello Kitty armband used to discipline Thai police officers.

We all get the message: Don’t be a girl.

After Jill raised the issue of Iowa’s pink locker room in 2005, she received more than a thousand emails, most of them negative, some with pretty threatening and raunchy language. The university and local community loudly and proudly supported its “tradition,” with pink t-shirts and a call for a “pink out” of the home stands on game day.

The pink locker room remains. And it remains in violation of federal law. At Gender Justice, we plan to have it on our docket soon, as part of our effort to eradicate the root causes of gender injustice.


The Eastern Iowa Gazette’s coverage of 2013 LGBT conference

Sports On Earth’s coverage of pink locker rooms

Inside Higher Ed coverage of Jill’s 2007 protest

Chicago Tribune coverage of Jill’s 2005 protest

LA Times coverage of 2005 protest