During college, I worked as a housekeeper one day a week to help cover expenses. One day, after changing out of my cleaning clothes, I drove across town to a meeting of the Miami University Board of Trustees. A group of women athletes had saved me a seat.
Six years after Congress passed Title XI of the Civil Rights Act, the notoriously slow gears of equality needed a push. From coaching to scholarships to facilities and fields, women received a pittance compared to men’s programs. Women athletes feared reprisals if they spoke up for fairer treatment, so they asked a group of women campus leaders for help. They knew the issues. We provided a voice. For six months, we gathered data, interviewed coaches, athletes and even the Athletic Director. I was the spokesperson. It was time.
In the “Other Business” part of the Trustees’ agenda–when they wanted to go to cocktail hour–I moved to the lectern. I remember smelling Eau de Clorox as I began my presentation. Our report was stark. No one had painted the full picture before, to say nothing of making it public. The facts didn’t lie. The university was ripe for a lawsuit.
By the time I sat down, the course of women’s athletics had changed in southwestern Ohio. The Trustees directed their architect to include locker rooms and facilities for women athletes in the new stadium under construction. And within months, Miami increased coaching staff, salaries, scholarships and equipment; provided transportation for women’s teams when they traveled; and improved the fields and facilities used by women athletes. It was a great day.
Over the years, when I’ve watched women’s collegiate games or heard my daughter-in-law talk about her years as a soccer player, I often remembered the smell of Clorox and the group of women who met in 1978/’79 to make such games possible. A group of women small enough to fit in a tiny living room changed a university. We opened doors for girls and women after us. We were more than we seemed.
This came to mind again recently as I read about someone else working as a janitor: Caitriona Lally was recently named recipient of the 2018 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature from Trinity College, Dublin, where she has worked as a janitor for the past 3-1/2 years. The Rooney, one of Ireland’s most prestigious literary honors, is awarded to a writer under 40 who shows “great promise.” Caitriona Lally received it this summer for her novel, “Eggshells.”
According to the “Washington Post,”
The day the call came from the prize committee, Lally was so shocked and the experience felt so out of context, she asked the person who told her she had won the award to please explain it again.
Each morning, she wakes at 4:45 a.m., pulls on her blue janitor’s smock and heads over to the college to clean from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Then she returns home to take care of her 14-month-old daughter, Alice. The day she got the call over the summer telling her she won the prize, Alice was being fussy.
‘I’d been having a rough day — up early for my cleaning job, tearing home to mind the baby, baby wouldn’t nap and was making her feelings known,’ Lally told Trinity College.
I’m sure most students who see Caitriona Lally in janitors’ blues and pushing a mop bucket early in the morning don’t realize they’re looking at the newest member of the Irish literary pantheon. “I know that cleaning is some people’s vision of hell, but it works for me,” says Lally. Even as the university floors get dirty again, her literary legacy lives on.
Like the women who rocked a university and like Caitriona Lally none of us knows what ripples, large and small, our actions will make. We don’t have to be famous to do good.
Just clean a room and go forth.