Title IX Became Law 50 Years Ago. Why It Still Matters In 2022.
Editor’s note: This story is the first in an occasional series about the impact of Title IX.
When Elizabeth Cobbs was a child in the early 1960s, girls generally didn’t play sports. Most of the all-male teams didn’t allow it. The feeling of being second-class, she remembers, was bred into the system – “nobody thought of it as a problem,” she said.
At the time, there were distinctions between girls and boys that had always seemed natural. Cobbs, a Texas A&M University professor and the Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History, said it wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that these ideas were challenged.
“Suddenly, people as a generation led by feminists began to say, ‘What if boys and girls could do a lot of the same things? In fact, most things? What if we just assume that everyone has an equal opportunity with everything?'” said Cobbs. “That was the period called second-wave feminism. People discovered that all these wonderful things we celebrate as a society, like sports, women could participate in, too.”
It was during this period 50 years ago that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was signed into law as an update to the Civil Rights Act that passed eight years earlier. It forbid discrimination based on sex in education. Immediately, the idea that women and men be given equal opportunities was most clearly manifested in sports, Cobbs said.
“There was such a dramatic representation of it in sports, because the disparities were so large and so apparent,” Cobbs said.
Notably, Title IX is commonly misunderstood as an athletics-related law. In actuality, said Meg Penrose, a professor at the Texas A&M School of Law, Title IX was passed by Congress to ensure gender equity in all educational programs and activities in schools that receive federal funding.
The statute itself is just one sentence long, consisting of 37 words: “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 receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Assistant Vice President & Title IX Coordinator Jennifer Smith said the anti-discrimination law is widely considered the most successful civil rights law due to its impact on women’s athletics.
“We went from women being 15% of collegiate athletes in 1972 to more than 44% of collegiate athletes today,” she said. “This change would not have come about without Title IX.”
But the landmark legislation reaches far beyond athletics: It touches admissions, financial aid, disciplinary processes, housing and more. Smith notes the law also protects against all forms of sex-based discrimination and harassment.
“Because of Title IX, today’s students find it difficult to imagine a world where they would be excluded from an opportunity because of their sex, and these expectations for equitable treatment have spilled over into society,” she said. “So in an indirect way, Title IX has fueled important cultural changes, including movement toward equal pay and equitable representation in high-level corporate positions.”
Despite decades of challenges from lawmakers and in courts to nullify its requirements, Smith said, Title IX has “endured and ensured that all students have equal opportunities to get their education.”
The law’s footprint has also expanded since its passage on June 23, 1972, Penrose said.
Because the law is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the robustness of its protections – and the breadth of its interpretation – can change between presidential administrations.
Penrose, an expert in constitutional law, has written about the importance of Title IX’s role in gender equity for women and men, and has performed audits and represented students, educators and coaches as clients in this area. She also has a personal connection to the law.
“I received an athletic scholarship to play Division 1 athletics. So did my younger sister,” Penrose said. “This funding parity, providing athletic scholarships to women, is a direct result of Title IX. I am quite fortunate to have directly benefitted from Title IX.”
So while extracurriculars like sports weren’t at the center of the single-sentence law, they’ve become a significant symbol of the fight for equal opportunities. Cobbs notes that before Title IX, only one in 27 girls in the United States played sports. By 2016, that number had grown to one in five.
This is part of what made Title IX so transformative, Cobbs said.
“Sports teach some of life’s biggest lessons: how to compete fairly, how to lose gracefully, how to win honestly. These are values that sports inculcates,” she said. “You can’t write half of humanity out of the picture and think you’re getting humanity’s full strength.”
Cobbs said it’s also a reminder of the rights women may take for granted, like the right to learn. In this sense, she said, Title IX has roots back to the 1700s, when former First Lady Abigail Adams was one of the first advocates for formal education for women.
Cobbs also notes that women from all backgrounds played a role in shepherding Title IX through Congress. It was championed by former representative Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), the first woman of color elected to Congress. And Carol Mosely Braun, the first Black female senator, further advanced the law by pushing for legislation that required schools to report how they comply with Title IX.
Fifty years later, the advancements made by Title IX remain worth celebrating because of the previous 2,000 years that precede it, Cobbs said. With thousands of years of history weighing against the present, she said, it’s easy for society to slip backward.
“Laws are great because they express a society’s ideal,” she said. “The idea that you give people equal opportunities is important. We have to remember that there’s still that old history that shapes our way of thinking. Having laws that say today, we’re doing things this way, is invaluable.”