Forty years ago, Title IX passed Congress and was signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon. At the time, the measure was an amendment, added to an education bill by then-Sen. Birch Bayh as something of an afterthought. Since then, however, Title IX has become a major force for broad societal change.
Title IX — a mere 37 words — simply states, “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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.’”
Last Friday, a group of women and one lone male, former State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, who passed a significant state enabling law, gathered to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Title IX at Cunningham Hall on the University of Washington campus. It was a very appropriate venue, as Cunningham Hall was originally the women’s hall for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition and now hosts the Women’s Center.
Friday’s celebration brought together women from differing backgrounds to discuss the gender revolution wrought by Title IX and to read proclamations from the Governor and the Seattle City Council and Mayor recognizing the gains our society has made in ensuring equal access to education for all Americans.
It’s difficult to imagine what the world was like when Title IX was signed into law. In those days, as State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles pointed out, young women were thought too delicate to dribble a ball the full length of the court. Six-member women’s teams were played on half courts, three on each side of the center line. Kohl-Welles remembered that, rather than being graded on her athletic skills, she received a grade based on how many times she showered.
I, too, was born into those times when women were cheerleaders, not sports heroes. I played half court basketball in an outfit that featured a skirt over shorts, almost bloomer-like in appearance.
And, when I graduated from the University of Washington School of Communications, I went to work in a newsroom where there were dozens of men, but only two women, one to cover schools, another to cover social issues. Men earned their place in the newsroom by first covering sports — an apprenticeship not allowed to women.
Gender equality in schools has come a long way over the past 40 years. The clear words of Title IX have translated in meaningful ways. Law schools, like the University of Washington, used to have a mere handful of women students. So few, in fact, that when I graduated in journalism in the 70s, I was invited to apply. Medical schools as well admitted only a small percentage of women. Today those ranks have changed dramatically to nearly 50 percent of admissions.
The ability of women to compete in sports has led to many opportunities in society. We think today of the Seattle Storm, winner of two national titles. We think of women’s basketball at the University of Washington, women’s crew, and women’s softball teams. And we think of professional teams like the Rat City Roller Girls. And yet too often the women’s teams still are led by mainly male coaches, however talented.
For all the equality to celebrate, there is a need to continue to work. Equality of opportunity is not a self-enforcing edict. It requires, like liberty itself, constant vigilance. There are still forces that discriminate on the basis of gender, denying equal rights to those so long denied them. One need only look at Congressional opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would reduce pay inequities based on gender. The struggle goes on.
And when it seems that equality will forever remain just out of reach, let us reflect upon — and draw inspiration from — how far we’ve come. Thirty-seven words and 40 years later, Title IX serves as a reminder that we are at our best when all are given an equal opportunity.
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