Of all the tumultuous events of 1972—Vietnam, Watergate, school busing, the Equal Rights Amendment—the year’s giant education bill seemed like just another piece of legislation.
But buried inside the law that President Richard M. Nixon signed on June 23, 1972, was a little amendment that would revolutionize sports, remake education for girls, and prove to be one of the most significant civil rights laws for women in American history.
Even in its 40th year, it remains controversial and misunderstood.
And it wasn’t even supposed to really matter.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 had a simple goal: to end sex discrimination in schools that receive federal money. Had the ERA passed, however, it wouldn’t have even been needed. But as approval of the constitutional amendment stalled in the states, Title IX became the law that endured—and made a difference.
Edith Green, a congresswoman from Portland, began working on the law in the early 1970s. Nicknamed “Mrs. Education” for her many years of work on higher education, she was appalled to learn that public schools could create special programs for boys that excluded girls. At the time, girls were often discouraged from taking advanced math and science classes, female teachers rarely became principals, and many law schools and medical schools had quotas that kept women to no more than 10 percent of the class.
All she wanted was for girls and women to get a fair deal. But over and over, her male colleagues told her, women just want to stay home and raise families. Men need those opportunities, but women don’t.
Headstrong and persistent, with what one reporter described as “an unladylike aptitude for hard political infighting,” Green refused to back down. When her first effort failed to gain traction, she waited until the big education bill was before the whole House Education and Labor Committee to sneak in an amendment. With supporters like Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink at the table, she proposed what would become Title IX.
One male representative was amused, suggesting that if the amendment passed, some airline stewardesses might be replaced with men. The room erupted in laughter at that ridiculous idea. But the amendment was approved.
The law would ultimately pass the House—but not before The New York Times took a stand against it, saying that ending quotas that limited female college admissions was “educationally unsound.”
The idea that the law could affect sports came up just once, as Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh tried to get a similar amendment into the Senate’s version of the bill. A colleague asked if that meant the boys would have to share athletic fields or locker rooms. No, Bayh replied, the law wouldn’t call for “desegregation of football fields,” but he acknowledged it would call for girls to have equal access to after-school activities.
When the law finally passed, most of Green’s original Title IX was intact, with a couple of exceptions: military schools were exempt. And because of an outcry from elite private schools like Harvard, which worried that accepting more women might “underutilize” its science classes and hurt alumni giving, private undergraduate admissions were exempted, too. (Even today, this exception remains.)
The amendment hardly merited more than a paragraph or two in news coverage.
The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was to write the new rules, but it wasn’t in any hurry. In mid-1973, about the time that tennis great Billie Jean King agreed to play Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” the agency wrestled with what to do about sports. Ultimately, the decision fell to Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who would later lead the Defense Department under Ronald Reagan. Quipped one HEW staffer, “I don’t think Weinberger ever played anything other than library.”
After studying the issue, Weinberger concluded it wasn’t fair that many schools spent thousands of dollars on boys’ sports—sometimes millions—and almost nothing on girls.’ Athletics, he decided, would be covered under the law.
Two years after the law was passed, he held a press conference to announce the proposed rules. From now on, he said, girls could be crossing guards and run movie projectors, too. Male and female teachers should be paid equally. And all students should have an equal opportunity to compete in sports, with similar equipment, facilities and coaches.
Though sexual harassment wasn’t even a concept at the time Title IX was passed, over time, courts would expand the definition of the law to include sexual harassment of students by teachers, and even of one student by another.
With the door cracked open, girls and women rushed to embrace their new options. They stormed into law, medical, and veterinary schools, and female undergraduate enrollment surged. Gradually, female sports teams gained a toehold, though athletes often had to beg for uniforms, equipment and practice space.
Title IX never required that schools have quotas for athletes or spend the same amount on girls as on boys—there were always other ways to meet the law’s intent. But from the very beginning, football was a problem because its teams field dozens of players, meaning boys always had more chances to play than girls.
During the 1970s, coaches and the NCAA pushed back against the new law, trying repeatedly to water it down—or at least take football out of the equation—but Congress held firm. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration interpreted the law to cover only the programs receiving federal money, which excluded athletics—and to the surprise of many, the Supreme Court agreed in 1984. Until 1988, when Congress finally restored the original intent, Title IX had no teeth.
By then, attitudes had changed. A generation of ponytailed girls was flooding soccer and softball fields, basketball and volleyball courts, ready to play. The reality came home during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when the “Title IX babies"—those born in the early 1970s and later—showed America their commitment to athletic competition, winning gold in gymnastics, soccer, synchronized swimming, basketball and softball.
Today, more than 3 million girls play high school sports, up from fewer than 300,000 in 1972. Women make up close to half of law school and medical school classes and receive well over half of all bachelor’s degrees.
But skirmishes continue. Budget realities—and the demands of football—mean that sometimes girls have teams and boys don’t. Men’s gymnastics and wrestling have been particularly hard hit. Still, though women are a clear majority on campus, men have more spots on college teams. Enforcement has never been strict, and despite all the handwringing over four decades, no school has ever lost federal funding because of Title IX violations.
Yet in academic fields and on athletic fields, the power of Title IX continues to be felt every day. For all the legislative fights and legal arguments, the setbacks and successes, the little amendment reminds us of the power of opportunity, of what it means to say to all our kids, yes, you have a chance to play.
3,666,917 Boys in high school varsity sports 4,494,406
294,015 Girls in high school varsity sports 3,173,549
170,384 Men in college sports 252,946
29,977 Women in college sports 191,131
500,590 Bachelor’s degrees awarded to men 685,382*
386,683 Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women 915,986*
10,435 Men entering medical school 10,193
1,653 Women entering medical school 9,037
85,554 Men in law schools 76,737
8,914 Women in law schools 68,502
*2008-09. Sources: National Federation of State High School Associations, NCAA, National Center for Education Statistics, Association of American Medical Colleges, American Bar Association
Connect with global activists at our Women in the World Foundation.