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The Truth About Title IX

Even in its 40th year, the legislation remains controversial and misunderstood. Karen Blumenthal unveils the secrets of the tiny law that became a very big deal.

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.

U.S. Women's 4x100 Meter Free Relay Team After Winning at the Atlanta Summer Olympics

In 1996, “Title IX babies" showed America their commitment to athletic competition, winning gold in gymnastics, soccer, synchronized swimming, basketball and softball. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

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.

As the landmark legislation celebrates its 40th birthday, a pair of Wellesley College officials outline the triumphs, travails, and challenges to come on campus.

Forty years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that forbids sex-based discrimination in education, colleges across the country have seen a sea change in campus demographics—more women on the sports field, more women in laboratories, more women graduating from college than men. There is no question that Title IX has enabled women to achieve extraordinary progress in domains previously restricted to men. However, its work is not done.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Opens the U.S. State Department's Women in Public Service Institute at Wellesley College

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened the State Department's Women in Public Service Institute at Wellesley College. (Suzanne Kreiter / Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The statistics sound impressive: more than six times as many women compete in college sports than in 1972, while the number of women getting Ph.Ds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has increased nearly four-fold since 2006. But these numbers tell just part of the story. We must not confuse progress in educational opportunity with parity. Despite improved educational attainment for women, progress has been uneven, and in some cases, has declined in recent years. Men currently occupy 80 to 95 percent of the top decision-making positions in American politics, business, the military, religion, media, and entertainment.

Our most pressing contemporary challenges include overcoming the gender barriers in STEM fields, addressing the lack of women in senior leadership positions in business, media and government, and developing and implementing effective sexual-harassment policies on college campuses.

Although the language of Title IX addresses sex-based discrimination in education on a very broad level, the most widely lauded changes have occurred in the area of athletics. To a certain extent, academic gains have not occurred on par with athletic gains. Yet even within collegiate sports, women still have fewer participation and athletic scholarship opportunities than men, and far fewer immigrant, minority, and women from low-income families play sports than middle-class Caucasian women. Access to competitive women’s sports is not yet equal.

In the classroom, while female students demonstrate greater success than their male counterparts by certain measures, boasting higher GPAs and graduation rates, women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. The academic achievement gap has narrowed in many important ways, but the STEM gender gap remains a particularly recalcitrant problem. In a global economy driven by technology and innovation, men still hold the most prestigious, highest-paying jobs by a large margin. The jarring lack of women in scientific, technical, or other nontraditional professions—defined as an occupation in which less than 25 percent of the workforce are women—was not fully addressed until 2000, 30 years after the passage of Title IX, when the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy performed their first on-site compliance inspections.

In academia, Title IX compliance with regard to STEM education has likewise been slow to take hold—women are 25 percent less likely to attain full professorship than men, and make up only 19 percent of full professors in these fields as of 2006. Marked differences in advancement across diverse fields also prevail. Although female representation in the social and life sciences has climbed steadily since Title IX passed, progress in mathematics, physics, and engineering has remained stagnant over the last decade, and has even declined in computer science in recent years.

The slow progress in STEM fields has been attributed to a number of factors, including pervasive cultural biases and gender stereotypes, and hiring, promotion, and tenure-track practices that penalize pregnant women and female caregivers. There are deeply entrenched cultural beliefs about gender differences in intelligence, ability, and interests. These beliefs impact female identity and academic performance at every stage of one’s education, from preschool to postgraduate work. Biology, for instance, is seen as a largely gender-neutral subject requiring no special “innate” talents in math and science, whereas computer science and engineering are considered “male” fields. Such assumptions are both the result of and result in unequal representation in critical fields and leadership positions, creating a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop. Women, even when they have attained high levels of success, may present their achievements in social situations very differently from men potentially to their own detriment. Princeton’s 2011 report on undergraduate women’s leadership found that “women consistently undersell themselves, and sometimes make self-deprecating remarks in situations where men might stress their own accomplishments.”

Breaking Barriers

The Mother of Title IX

Back in the early 1900s, Eleonora Sears ice-skated, shot rifles, rode horses, and raced yachts. She excelled in 19 sports, making her America’s most versatile female athlete. And—horrors—she wore pants.

Imagine a world in which every action is governed by fossilized customs. If you break the rules, you risk scandal and disgrace. For those at the top, it is an attractive world, leisurely paced and sumptuously tailored, with starched collars, sunbonnets, and white gloves. Men run things. They command the resources and enjoy the benefits of education and competitive sports that train them to become businessmen and statesmen. Women are sheltered by these men and counseled by educators and doctors to live modestly and cautiously, lest they tax their fragile emotional and physical well-being. They own fainting couches. They cannot vote. Then imagine a girl, Eleonora Sears, bursting with vigor and athletic skill and with the determination to never be a bit player in her own life—and you have all the elements for a monumental struggle that reached its zenith 40 years ago this month, with the arrival of Title IX, the law that opened up academic and athletic opportunities for women that are comparable to those that have always been available to men.

Eleonora Sears

Eleonora Sears in an undated photo. She became the first woman to play polo on a men’s team. (Library of Congress)

Eleonora Sears died in 1968 at age 86, four years before Title IX was enacted, but she firmly planted its flag, and no one better demonstrated and promoted the rightness of this empowering legislation than the sports star who earned the nickname “The Universal Female Athlete.”

Her name is now enshrined in many Halls of Fame, including those for tennis, squash, and horse-show jumping, but such honors were beyond imagining when Eleonora “Eleo” Sears began her very American quest to choose and control her own destiny. Born to privilege as the daughter of one of Boston’s founding families and a great-great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, she recognized at an early age the unjustness of the limits she faced solely because of her gender, and she felt the pain of being automatically discounted and excluded. Her sexual identity as a lesbian also placed her at odds with the social mainstream and added fuel to her determination to succeed on her own terms. She marshaled the awesome forces of her resolve and her physical skill in a lifelong quest to topple a destructive double standard.

Eleo Sears was condemned from pulpits and town squares for wearing trousers that gave her the ease of movement to compete effectively in the sports she loved—and, she concluded, if such attire infuriated the moral arbiters of her day, then so much the better. She honed her innate talent and, with refreshing humor and a firm refusal to take “no” for an answer, she became the first woman to play polo on a men’s team. She became a five-time national doubles tennis champion and the first female national squash champion. She convinced Harvard officials to open their squash courts to other women players; she founded the Women’s Squash Racquets Association, and she coached the U.S. Women’s International Squash Team. She was also a long-distance swimmer; she boxed and played golf; she ice-skated; was a crack shot with a rifle, and raced yachts. She excelled in 19 different sports, making her America’s most versatile female athlete.

If you ever wanted to see Eleo spring into action, you just needed to bet against her. Such a bet in 1912 set her off on a 110-mile hike down the California coast. Other bets in later years sparked a series of record-setting hikes between Boston, Newport, and Providence, which gained her national attention and inspired walking contests among men and women across the country. The New York Times, in a 1925 editorial, praised Eleo as America’s valiant pedestrienne who was perfecting “the one universal art to save the world from physical degeneracy.”

Eleonora Sears

Eleonora Sears in 1929. She convinced Harvard officials to open their squash courts to women. She also founded the Women’s Squash Racquets Association and coached the U.S. Women’s International Squash Team. (Leslie Jones / Boston Public Library)

Eleo’s tradition-shattering exploits were not confined to sports arenas. She was one of the first women to fly an airplane and drive an automobile, and in 1909, she became the first woman on record to fight a speeding ticket. She explored the ocean’s depths in a submarine. Clearly not a woman to shy away from controversy, she got herself arrested in 1910 for smoking in the lobby of Boston’s Copley Square Hotel, not because she had any fondness for cigarettes, but because women were prohibited from smoking there, while men could do so undisturbed.

Sweating It

Hillary Clinton Gets Sporty

Unveils a Sports-Mentoring Initiative for Girls.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ESPN president John Skipper announced today a global sports-mentoring partnership, which will identify female leaders in sports—from athletes to coaches to managers—and pair them with young athletes around the world. To kick-start the effort, the State Department and ESPN are enlisting a council of former and current competitors such as Billy Jean King, Mia Hamm, and WNBA star Tamika Catchings. Secretary Clinton, speaking from the White House, said, “I was never a great athlete, but I loved sports. Sports helped me to learn how to be part of a team. It also helped me learn how to lose. You can’t win every time you go out, and you have to figure out what you’re made of after you do lose and whether you’re ready to get up and keep going.” Clinton said she played soccer, softball, and the even the good old half-court basketball. The announcement precedes the 40-year anniversary on June 23 of the landmark Title IX legislation, which prohibits sex discrimination in education-related activities.

Read it at U.S. Department of State

Eleonora Sears

The Mother of Title IX

Back in the early 1900s, Eleonora Sears ice-skated, shot rifles, rode horses, and raced yachts. She excelled in 19 sports, making her America’s most versatile female athlete. And—horrors—she wore pants.


Sex, Sports, and Title IX on Campus

As the landmark legislation celebrates its 40th birthday, a pair of Wellesley College officials outline the successes and challenges to come on campus.


The Truth About Title IX

Even in its 40th year, the legislation remains controversial and misunderstood. Karen Blumenthal unveils the secrets of the tiny law that became a very big deal.

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