4 Reflections After 50 Years of Title IX
The landmark legislation has had a profound impact on gender equality. But it hasn’t fixed everything—and future equal opportunity isn’t promised.
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It’s been a year of celebration for women in sports, but particularly for women in running. We honored the first women to officially enter the Boston Marathon 50 years ago. We marked the 50th anniversary of the Mini 10K in Central Park this summer— “the world’s original all-women’s road race.” It’s also been 50 years since the “six who sat” protested at the starting line of the New York City Marathon, fighting for the right to compete in the same race as the men.
But perhaps the biggest anniversary of all is 50 years of Title IX, the bill that in 37 succinct words changed everything:
“No person in the United State shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to other discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
A half century ago, on June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the civil rights legislation into law, and the effects have rippled ever since. It altered education significantly across the country, barring sex discrimination in schools, creating opportunities in sports, and, ultimately, allowing women to enter careers that were once completely dominated by men.
It seems unfathomable to today’s youth that, not long ago, these were not guaranteed rights. At the same time, Title IX has been far from perfect in its execution and its results. It continues to leave people of color and those of lower socio-economic status behind. The inclusion of transgender rights under the law is still under review as a dozen states seek to ban transgender women and girls from participating in women and girls’ sports. Today, 75 percent of high school boys participate in sports compared to 60 percent of girls. Women make up 44 percent of all NCAA athletes (compared to 13 percent before 1972), but still have 60,000 fewer athletic opportunities than men, according to the NCAA.
“The biggest lasting legacy of Title IX has been the understanding that it’s a civil right to be able to participate in school sports, because there’s education in getting to use your body to achieve various goals, working as a team, pushing yourself, testing your limits,” says Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and assistant professor at Arizona State University and the 2006 NCAA 10,000-meter champion. “That is pretty radical and has resulted in all sorts of consequences beyond the world of school sports, for individuals and for society. That’s really important.”
Title IX is a story of many chapters—continually revised politically, judicially, and culturally. In order to strengthen and sustain it, the law will always need guardians and defenders. In the middle of this year-long commemoration, for example, the Supreme Court is poised to overturn another 50-year-old ruling, Roe v. Wade, a decision that will strip women of their reproductive rights and ban abortions in several states—a devastating blow to the progress women have made in attaining education and achieving career advancement as a result of the ability to choose when and if they become pregnant.
“We want to celebrate the wins, as we are doing with Title IX, but we also want to be aware that the fight is not over,” said Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, during the espnW Power Summit in May. “A lot of gains have been made. And there’s a lot of work still left to do.”
It’s impossible to adequately capture the scope and reach of 50 years of Title IX in a single swoop (we’ve got a comprehensive timeline here), but the milestone deserves reflection. Female runners and track and field athletes have always been on the forefront of pushing change. Whether they realized it or not, during the decades leading to the law, the simple act of showing up and running when their presence wasn’t welcomed or recommended was an act of advocacy that pushed the movement forward. Here are four reflections on Title IX honoring its past, present, and future.
1. Running has always been part of the feminist movement.
Before Title IX, in 1953, there was Ed Temple and the Tennessee State Tigerbelles. Predating any discussion about equality in college sports or education, the legendary coach built a women’s track and field program that produced 34 national titles, 40 female Olympians, and 13 gold medals. By 1967 they started receiving scholarships, excelling in the classroom as well at the track. The Tigerbelles included icons like Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals (1960); Wyomia Tyus, the first woman to defend her Olympic 100-meter title (1964 and 1968); and Chandra Cheeseborough, who won two gold medals in the relays and a silver in the 400 meters at the 1984 Games. Cheeseborough went to break another important barrier as director of men’s and women’s track and field at Tennessee State—a position few women hold today in the NCAA.
Female athletes who dared to run long distances, despite repeated warnings that they would harm their reproductive organs, also forced society to rethink what women are capable of. Arlene Pieper Stine was the first American woman to complete a sanctioned marathon when she ran the 1959 Pikes Peak race in Colorado. Bobbi Gibb ran the Boston Marathon unofficially in 1966, followed by Kathrine Switzer, registered under her initials in 1967.
Jaime Schultz, professor of kinesiology at Penn State University, has researched the history of women’s progress and milestones in U.S. sports, including in distance running. “Pre-1972, these women who crashed men’s marathons didn’t, at the time, recognize that they were part of this broader feminist movement—they kept saying over and over, ‘I just wanted to run,’” she says. “They weren’t actively part of the women’s movement, but that discourse was all around them. If you read the newspapers at the time, they would say, ‘I’m not a feminist. I’m no man hater.’”
But enduring images, like those of Switzer continuing to run the Boston Marathon even after Jock Semple, a race official, tried to physically remove her from the course, had an influence as Title IX was under consideration. “The leaders of the women’s movement didn’t really consider women runners part of their movement, but they were happy to claim their victories as their own,” Schultz says.
As a student at Syracuse University, Switzer, now 75, didn’t bother to advocate for women’s track and field or cross-country. She went straight to the men’s coach and asked to train with the men’s team. At the time she thought that if women were interested in competing, they would have started a program already.
“I feel bad about saying this, but it’s the truth at the time,” Switzer says. “I thought other women just didn’t get it. I wasn’t out there to recruit other women. I was annoyed that it was difficult for women and I thought it was unfair, but I thought I would train with the people who understood. And the guys were wonderful to me.”
Switzer’s mind was changed after she finished the Boston Marathon in 1967, though. She went on to create women’s-only races and helped to collect the proof and data that eventually led to the inclusion of the women’s marathon in the Olympic program in 1984, which was won by American distance running legend Joan Benoit Samuelson.
“It wasn’t the Boston Marathon admitting women or [the Mini 10K] that made Title IX happen, but those didn’t hurt either because they were very visible examples,” Switzer says. “Mainly they proved that it would be foolish to deny women equal opportunities in education and sports. When it was signed into law that June, it seemed like all the barriers were coming down. It was really quite amazing.”
Jackson notes that women “using their bodies in the streets” was a major part of second-wave feminism and the women’s rights movement. In 1977, about 3,000 women lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by running a 2,600-mile relay from Seneca Falls, New York, to Houston, where the National Women’s Convention was taking place—the distance was symbolic of ground women covered in the fight for equal rights since the first Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848.
“Running is very much culturally a part of what people think about when they think about women’s rights in the 1970s,” Jackson says. “Title IX is a result of that moment, too.”
2. The first generation that benefited from Title IX is grateful, hopeful, and successful.
Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, 60, graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in industrial engineering and quickly went on to become the institution’s first Olympic gold medalist after winning the 100-meter hurdles in 1984. In 1981, she was one of 10 women on the Tennessee team who earned the school’s first national women’s title under the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), before the NCAA took over women’s collegiate sports.
Fitzgerald Mosley remembers that her parents always believed in the promise of a great education, but wanted to expose their children to all the opportunities they didn’t have growing up, which led their daughter to explore extracurricular activities like track, softball, gymnastics, majorettes, and music. “We lived in a progressive county in Virginia, and even before Title IX we had options for track, basketball, and softball,” she says. “And so, you know, they say, ‘If you see it, you can be it,’ and I could see someone who looked like me, grew up in the same school system I did, had the same coaches, and made the Olympic team.”
She was old enough by high school to appreciate Title IX and the opportunities it afforded her generation. She took an interest in engineering and technology early, taking advanced math and science classes in high school at the encouragement of her father, who was also a guidance counselor. “I think he knew that careers were opening up to girls that hadn’t been available to us before. I got the benefit of Title IX both from an academic standpoint and from the sport aspect as well,” says Fitzgerald Mosley, who’s now head of community and impact and president of FundPlay for LeagueApps, which provides technology, training, and support to youth sports development programs.
“I came of age under Title IX and there really isn’t an aspect of my life that hasn’t been impacted by it,” Fitzgerald Mosley says. “Having a full athletic scholarship in the early days to attend the University of Tennessee and pursue an engineering degree was unprecedented for a Black woman at the time.”
But competing when the NCAA took over the AIAW also brought challenges. It meant that women’s athletic departments and staff were no longer separate from men’s. Many programs like track and field were folded into the men’s programs to share resources. Women lost their jobs in athletic leadership—and still haven’t regained the ground they lost. According to recent research by the Tucker Center for Girls and Women in Sport, as NCAA coaching and leadership positions in Division 1 get more powerful and lucrative, the number of women who hold those jobs today has sharply declined: only 13.6 percent of D1 athletic directors are female; track and field still receives an “F” for the number of female NCAA head coaches, with 18 percent of teams led by women.
“There were two sides to [the NCAA takeover of women’s athletics] because equity was built into it—the resources were likely going to be the same in terms of uniforms, practice facilities, and coaching…the laundry list of Title IX regulations,” Jackson says. “But women were then put into subordinate staff roles because the assumption was that if you had a combined gender program like track and field, the men got the titles and the money and the women did the supporting work, without titles and often without pay.”
Now Fitzgerald Mosley is preparing to send her daughter to the University of Maryland, where she, too, will compete and learn. As she observed the recruiting process, Fitzgerald Mosley was struck by how much progress has been made since the 1980s.
“I’m just very hopeful for her. I see the light. I see the dreams of people who fought so hard to get Title IX passed,” she says. “It’s still paying dividends.”
3. Title IX racial and socioeconomic disparities persist.
The Women’s Sports Foundation issued a report in May titled “50 Years of Title IX: We’re Not Done Yet,” which examined the future of the law and the challenges it faces. The report acknowledged the need to address the intersectionality of race, gender, and Title IX. Race influences how or if a woman of color benefits from the law. The U.S. Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection found that heavily minority schools have 25 spots available on sports teams for every 100 students, compared to 58 spots per 100 students at heavily white schools.
“The progress that has been made is often tenuous; falls short of what the law requires; has limits in terms of achieving equity for girls and women from non-white racial groups, sexual minorities, those with disability, and those from lower economic groups, and has yet to be consistently enforced around the country,” according to the report.
The report goes on to recommend that because girls and women of color are less likely to receive access to sports, the Education Department should collect race-specific data on sports participation by gender and race/ethnicity. The Women’s Sports Foundation also believes that the U.S. Congress should pass the High School Data Transparency Act, requiring schools to report expenditures on each sports team.
Schultz agrees that the racial disparities have been one of the greatest shortcomings of Title IX. “It’s benefited white middle- to upper-class girls more than girls and women of color and those of working-class backgrounds,” she says.
A 2013 study, “Urban Adolescents’ Perceptions of Their Neighborhood Physical Activity Environments,” published in the journal Leisure Sciences by researchers at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois, found that girls in grades 6-9 liked playing in areas where they knew more people because they felt safe. Other research showed that the gap between white and Black girls participating in sports was due to white girls attending schools with gymnasiums, playing fields, and coaches, while Black girls went to schools with higher poverty rates and fewer resources and facilities.
Another reason that gap exists? “We’ve lost the recreational and community-based sports where kids could get their foot in the door,” Schultz says. “Youth sport is so expensive and the early specialization squeezes kids out.”
At the college level, where athletic departments have added women’s programs in efforts to comply with Title IX, often the sports they choose are inaccessible: beach volleyball, soccer, rowing, and ice hockey. “In the 90s, some of these additions compounded the problem. I’m from Iowa and they added rowing, which was a dubious compliance tactic,” Schultz says. “There are no [youth] rowing programs in the state of Iowa, but there are a hundred bowling programs, which has been recognized as an emerging sport by the NCAA. It’s relatively inexpensive and can be played year-round. It’s great to add opportunities for women, but you have to ask, which women are we adding opportunities for?”
Sarah Lesko, who competed on Yale’s cross-country and track teams from 1987 to 1991 and went on to medical school and a career in family medicine, is now the executive director of Bras for Girls, a nonprofit organization that distributes new sports bras and breast development education to girls in need, ages 8 to 18. The organization already has requests for 20,000 bras this year alone.
“Research shows that girls are concerned with how their breasts felt when they were exercising and 50 percent of those girls in the survey did not use a sports bra,” Lesko says. “You can go into a lot of communities and see the disparities in action. Some of the girls, the first time they participate in exercise class, they’re worried that they’re having a heart attack because they’ve never felt their heart rate go up—they’ve never had that feeling of working hard by sixth grade. It just shows how far we have to go.”
4. The fight for the future includes policies for transgender athlete inclusion.
The question that continues to linger and the source of great debate is whether “on the basis of sex” includes gender identity. And the answer so far seems to depend on who’s president. Under Barack Obama, the administration interpreted Title IX to include gender identity and sexual orientation, which changed under Donald Trump. When Joe Biden took office, he issued an executive order mandating that transgender athletes should be included in sports in a way consistent with their gender identity.
Earlier this year, the NCAA board of governors approved a sport-by-sport approach to transgender participation that mirrors the policies of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee. The World Athletics policy, which governs track and field, requires a transgender woman to have testosterone levels below 5 nmol per liter for 12 months in order to compete (the upper “normal” testosterone level for cis female athletes is 2.7 nmol/L).
In response to the NCAA’s new rule, the Women’s Sports Foundation issued a letter, signed by 25 other organizations, calling into question the decision’s timeline and how the process played out. The NCAA was under pressure at the time because transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, who had followed all existing policies in order to participate, was competing at the championships, yet many other athletes in different sports potentially had their seasons and eligibility suddenly upended.
Most recently, on June 19, FINA, the world governing body for swimming, announced that transgender women who had experienced male puberty could not compete in women’s events
“It is the power of sport that spurs our mission for all girls and women to have equal access and opportunity to play, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, ability, zip code, or family income,” the statement read. “We believe humanity wins when all girls and women, including transgender girls and women, have the opportunity to play.”
Lawmakers in a dozen states have also passed bans on transgender girls participating in girls’ sports, an effort that Schultz believes is merely to rally their conservative political bases. “They’ve never shown an iota of care about women’s sports,” she says. “This is just cultural division and it’s tricky because there’s this big question with Title IX.”
The research on any advantages that transgender female athletes have as a result of going through male puberty is still minimal. In the meantime, many agree that youth should be allowed to participate in sports according to their gender identity. Research suggests that adolescents who participate in sports have better grades, do their homework, have higher educational and occupational aspirations, and improved self esteem—all benefits that transgender kids, especially, need (LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers).
Looking ahead, the issue is likely to remain uncertain as it is debated politically and among sports federations. Eventually, it’ll be up to the courts.
“The easy answer is that it’s going to play out in the courts,” Schultz says. “The harder question is how that is going to actually play out in the end.”
Title IX’s story continues.
The History and Major Milestones of Title IX
Title IX has been heavily argued and heavily legislated since its introduction. Here’s a look at its history.
June 23, 1972
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is enacted by Congress and is signed into law by President Richard Nixon, prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid.
May 20, 1974
Sen. John Tower proposes the “Tower Amendment,” which would exempt revenue-producing sports from determinations of Title IX compliance. The amendment is rejected.
In the spirit of Sen. Tower’s failed amendment, Sen. Jacob Javits submits an amendment directing the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to issue regulations that provide for “reasonable provisions considering the nature of particular sports.” It argues that event and uniform expenditures on sports with larger crowds or more expensive equipment do not have to be matched in sports without similar needs.
May 27, 1975
President Gerald Ford signs the final version of Title IX—which includes Sen. Javits’ proposed athletics regulations from July 20, 1974—and submits it for congressional review.
July 21, 1975
Title IX federal regulations are issued in the area of athletics. High schools and colleges are given three years, and elementary schools one year, to comply.
February 17, 1976
NCAA files a lawsuit challenging the legality of Title IX. The suit would be dismissed in 1978.
December 11, 1979
HEW issues final policy interpretation on “Title IX and Intercollegiate Athletics.” Rather than relying exclusively on a presumption of compliance standard, the final policy focuses on each institution’s obligation to provide equal opportunity and details the factors to be considered in assessing actual compliance: participation, benefits and treatment, and athletic financial assistance. This also marks the creation of the “three-prong test” still used today to gauge participation compliance.
May 4, 1980
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) begins operating after its creation a year earlier and is given oversight of Title IX through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
February 28, 1984
Grove City v. Bell limits the scope of Title IX, effectively taking away coverage of athletics except for athletic scholarships. The Supreme Court concludes that Title IX only applies to specific programs (i.e., a school’s office of student financial aid) that receive federal funds. Under this interpretation, athletic departments are not necessarily covered.
March 22, 1988
The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 is enacted into law over the veto of President Ronald Reagan. This act reverses Grove City v. Bell, restoring Title IX’s institution-wide coverage. If any program or activity in an educational institution receives federal funds, all of the institution’s programs and activities must comply with Title IX.
September 6, 1988
Haffer v. Temple University, a Title IX athletics lawsuit won by plaintiff female athletes, gives new, stronger direction to athletic departments regarding their budgets, scholarships, and participation rates of male and female athletes.
February 26, 1992
In Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the Supreme Court rules that monetary damages are available under Title IX.
Shortly after the Franklin decision, the NCAA completes and publishes a landmark gender equity study of its Division I member institutions, finding significant discrepancies in participation rates and funding between women’s and men’s athletic programs. It also shows that fewer than 50 percent of women’s teams have female head coaches, as do just 1 percent of men’s teams, and that “male/female salary discrepancies are significant in almost all instances.”
October 20, 1994
The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) is officially enacted. It requires that any co-educational institution of higher learning that participates in any federal student financial aid program and that sponsors an intercollegiate athletics program must disclose certain information concerning its athletics program. Under the EADA, annual reports are required, the first for each institution due no later than October 1, 1996.
November 21, 1996
A federal appeals court upholds a lower court’s ruling in Cohen v. Brown University, holding that Brown University illegally discriminated against female athletes. Brown argues that it did not violate Title IX because women are less interested in sports than men. Both the district court and the court of appeals reject Brown’s argument. Many of the arguments offered by Brown are similar to those relied upon by colleges and universities all over the country.
July 23, 1998
OCR issues a Dear Colleague letter clarifying that a college or university’s total athletic scholarship budget must mirror the institution’s percentage of athletes of each gender, within 1 percent. “Thus, for example, if men are 60% of [a school’s] athletes, OCR would expect that the men’s athletic scholarship budget would be within 59%-61%” of the total scholarship budget for all athletes, after controlling for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for any larger disparity.
February 20, 2001
The Supreme Court issues a decision in Brentwood v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, holding that a high school athletic association is a “state actor” and thus subject to the Constitution. This affirms that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies to athletic associations in gender equity suits.
December 17, 2001
Communities for Equity v. Michigan High School Athletic Association is decided, holding the state athletic association liable under Title IX, the Equal Protection Clause, and Michigan state law for discriminating against girls by forcing six girls’ sports teams, but no boys’ teams, to compete in nontraditional and/or disadvantageous seasons.
January 17, 2002
The National Wrestling Coaches Association, Committee to Save Bucknell Wrestling, Marquette Wrestling Club, Yale Wrestling Association, and the College Sports Council (representing national collegiate coaches associations for men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s wrestling and men’s gymnastics), file a suit alleging that Title IX regulations and policies are unconstitutional. It would be dismissed two years later.
March 17, 2005
ED issues “Additional Clarification of Intercollegiate Athletics Policy: Three-Part Test – Part Three,” significantly weakening Title IX. Schools can now simply send out an email survey to their female students, asking them what additional sports they might have the interest and ability in playing. And if the survey responses do not show enough interest or ability, they do not have to add any sports—and are presumed in compliance with Title IX.
April 4, 2011
ED issues a policy guidance which makes clear that Title IX’s protections against sexual harassment and sexual violence apply to all students, including athletes. It addresses athletics departments in particular in its requirement that schools to use the same procedures that apply to all students to resolve sexual violence complaints involving student athletes.
June 25, 2013
OCR issues a Dear Colleague letter and creates literature to improve the graduation rates of young parents at secondary schools and postsecondary institutions. The literature stresses that students must be allowed to return to all former academic and extracurricular activities.
May 13, 2016
ED and DOJ issue guidance on protecting transgender students under Title IX. ED outlines that the prohibition of sex discrimination encompasses discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, including transgender status. In relation to athletics, schools are permitted to operate sex-segregated athletic teams, but they cannot adopt requirements that are based on stereotypes about differences between transgender students and cisgender students. This interpretation allows age-appropriate, tailored requirements that are based on current medical research about the impact of student participation on competitive fairness and physical safety.
February 22, 2017
OCR rescinds Title IX guidance on transgender students issued on May 13, 2016.
August 14, 2020
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos enacts several changes to Title IX regarding sexual harassment and misconduct that threaten to discourage reporting by survivors and stretch schools’ resources.
January 20, 2021
President Joe Biden releases Executive Order 13988, “Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” which states, “All persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.” According to the order, laws that prohibit sex discrimination, including Title IX, “prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, so long as the laws do not contain sufficient indications to the contrary.”
March 8, 2021
President Biden releases Executive Order 14021, “Guaranteeing an Educational Environment Free From Discrimination on the Basis of Sex, Including Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.” It states the Biden Administration’s objective to guarantee to all students “an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex, including discrimination in the form of sexual harassment, which encompasses sexual violence, and including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” citing Title IX as applicable governing law.
June 16, 2021
ED issues an interpretation to clarify the protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and discrimination based on gender identity under Title IX in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County.
Source: Women’s Sports Foundation. Some information in this timeline is adapted from the University of Iowa’s History of Title IX Legislation, Regulation and Policy Interpretation.