The longest-serving female professional umpire in the United States traces the history of Title IX, the law banning gender discrimination in education. Perry Barber has perspective: She grew up before Title IX was passed. —Ed.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity.” – Title IX
When Title IX of the Education Amendment Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, I was already a year out of high school and completely unaware of its far-reaching implications. I didn’t know then that the new law (later renamed the Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, after the 12-term congresswoman from Hawaii who was largely responsible for its passage) would radically remake the landscape not just of athletics but of education and the job market for millions of girls and young women.
Those two little words, “Title IX,” evoke a wide range of reactions that run the gamut from profound gratitude to outright hostility. The gratitude comes from millions of girls who have benefited immeasurably by the act’s provisions that leveled the playing field of scholastic and collegiate sports. The hostility springs from a lot of misunderstanding about what the law actually means and accomplishes.
Detractors point to the elimination of certain athletic programs such as men’s rowing, swimming, or wrestling as an indication that Title IX is unfair to males. In fact, however, the law in no way decrees that an educational institution must cut men’s sports to be in compliance. “Some schools have chosen to eliminate certain men’s sports, like gymnastics and wrestling, and even some women’s sports, rather than control bloated football and basketball budgets,” notes the Women’s Law Center’s “Debunking Myths About Title IX Fact Sheet.” What Title IX does require is that each institution “fully and effectively accommodate[s] the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex”—and that “the percentages of male and female athletes are substantially proportionate to the percentages of males and females enrolled.”
Title IX creates opportunities for women, both educationally and athletically, that would not otherwise be open to them—and weren’t until the act was passed.
Very simply, the law prohibits gender-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs. Those programs include the athletic departments of academic institutions, but the law was never intended to elevate the importance of sports above learning. Rather, it was written and implemented to give girls a chance to earn scholarships and participate in meaningful ways in programs—including, but not limited to, sports—that had previously been closed to them for any number of reasons and trumped-up rationales. “Girls aren’t interested in sports (or the sciences, or engineering, or physics, etc.)” is a hackneyed claim made by foes of the original legislation to legitimize opposition to it, but this was long ago proven to be a myth; it has basically been blown out of the water by the constantly increasing numbers of girls in high school and college who pursue athletics not only as a means to acquire an education in both the arts and applied sciences, but as a viable career choice after they graduate.
While detractors of Title IX may complain about the law’s inequities because their perception is that it “takes away” from the boys in order to “give” to the girls, the reality is reflected in the numbers. In 1972, according to statistics compiled by the National Women’s Law Center, “only 295,000 girls competed in high school sports, whereas 3.67 million boys did. By 2010-2011, the number of girls playing had risen to 3.2 million and the number of boys to 4.5 million. And that’s just in high school athletics!
So while some men’s sports programs may have been eliminated by various institutions in order to achieve compliance, the numbers refute the claim that men have been harmed by women’s emergence in arenas that were previously reserved almost exclusively for males. If anything, they bolster the inference that Title IX has been as productive and successful a tool for increasing the range of men’s educational opportunities as it has of women’s.
A more troubling aspect of the law is its failure so far to increase those opportunities for females of color in equal proportion to the ones it creates for non-minority girls and women. While gender equity is of paramount importance to the law, racial equity should also continue to be part and parcel of its overall benefits. Much remains to be explored and accomplished in this area, but as long as discussions about subjects that might be regarded as “touchy” (like the lack of resources for minority women) remain civil and focused, there is no reason to believe that opportunities for female athletes of color will not also expand exponentially in the coming years as the law’s reach continues to spread and compliance increases.
The fact is that thousands of educational institutions are still not in compliance with the law—and a 2006 Department of Education regulation making it easier to create sex-segregated public schools is a fractious issue. Until there is even more widespread compliance, the fight for Title IX will continue to inspire and energize new generations of girls and boys of all races, ethnic origins, and backgrounds, who one day will wonder what all the fuss was about.