Bigger Than Sports: Why Title IX Matters

Human Rights

Patsy Mink had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but none of the 20 medical schools she applied to accepted women. Edith Green wanted to become an electrical engineer, but her family told her "not to be silly." Bernice Sandler, teaching part-time at a university after earning her doctorate, learned that her department would not consider her for a full-time position because she "[came] on too strong for a woman."

These three women, carrying with them personal experiences of discrimination, came together in the early 1970s to help create the first legislation specifically prohibiting sex discrimination in education: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Sandler, an education specialist with the U.S. House of Representative's special subcommittee on education, spent a couple of years lobbying, filing lawsuits and gathering data -- with the support of many feminist organizations -- until she convinced Rep. Edith Green (D-Ore.) to hold the first congressional hearings on sex discrimination in education. Two years later, Green, with the support of Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) and others, introduced Title IX, which passed through Congress with little attention and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

Though the word "sports" does not appear anywhere in Title IX, the law has become synonymous with increased opportunities for girls in athletics. But this is only a small part of the story: Title IX also played the pivotal role in opening doors to educational opportunities for girls and women in all areas of education, from kindergarten through graduate school.

Every time a girl fixes an engine in auto shop, bubbles in her answers on a less-biased SAT, or successfully files a complaint to stop sexual harassment, she has Title IX to thank. "Before Title IX, if you were discriminated against all you could do is maybe transfer to another school -- if they'd let you," says Sandler, considered the "godmother" of the law. "Title IX [allowed students to] say, 'This is not only wrong; this is illegal.'"

Here are some of the K-12 advances that can be attributed to Title IX:

  • Girls' participation and achievement in math and science has increased substantially.
  • Discrimination against girls and teachers who become pregnant has decreased.
  • All areas of vocational education have been opened to both sexes.
  • Sexual harassment in schools is now clearly illegal.
  • The PSAT and SAT have become less biased against girls.

In colleges and graduate schools, the impact of Title IX has been even more remarkable. Just before Title IX was signed into law, women were underrepresented as undergraduates, at just over 40 percent of all students. By 2005, women students comprised almost three out of five undergraduates and had moved into fields formerly dominated by men, particularly business and the sciences.

In graduate and professional schools, too, young women have enjoyed far greater access: In 1970, women earned only 14 percent of doctoral degrees, but today earn nearly half. In medical schools the numbers jumped from less than 10 percent to nearly 50 percent, and law school numbers from about 7 percent to nearly 49 percent. Armed with their professional degrees in medicine and law, women have entered those professions at steadily increasing rates.

Yet their numbers -- and in law firms, their advancement -- still lag behind. In 2006, women made up 29 percent of lawyers but just 16 percent of partners in law firms. Similarly, in medicine only 27 percent of doctors are women, and they're unevenly spread across specialties.

The news is also mixed about women in academic leadership. By 1986 the number of women college presidents had tripled from 1970 to almost 10 percent, and by 2006 reached 23 percent, with a large proportion serving as presidents of community colleges. But most of the progress occurred between 1986 and 2001 and now has slowed considerably. Furthermore, today's presidents remain much less diverse by race, gender and ethnicity than the students, faculty or administrators who report to them: Only 4 percent of the respondents in a recent survey of college presidents identified as "minority women."

On faculties, women have increased across every rank but continue to move up more slowly than men. In 2006 they accounted for nearly 40 percent of full-time professors and nearly 50 percent of part-timers. But women professors are not employed equally across institutional types -- they're just over half the faculty at institutions offering associate degrees, but only 34 percent at doctoral institutions.

"People change faster and more easily than institutions," explains Yolanda T. Moses, associate vice chancellor for diversity and excellence at the University of California, Riverside.

Despite its extraordinary, liberating impact on the lives of girls and women, Title IX remains threatened. Right-wing forces have led an assault on public institutions through lawsuits or state referendums that oppose affirmative action, and there have been attempts by the Bush Administration to abolish data gathering by race and gender, which would eliminate the ability to monitor progress. They've been unsuccessful -- so far.

Thirty-five years later, much remains to be done. But while staying vigilant about its survival and enforcement, we shouldn't forget to celebrate Title IX. After all, American women and girl students of every age and interest -- kindergartners and doctoral candidates, athletes and bookworms, aspiring auto mechanics and physicists -- can thank the law, and its advocates, for opportunities they might never have received without it.

The full text of this article appears in the Fall issue of Ms., in which the magazine celebrates its 35th anniversary. The issue is now available on newsstands and by subscription from

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