Title IX: Looking Back, Moving ForwardNovember 24, 2014
This story was written by Beth Pearsall for the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Outlook magazine.
“You come on too strong for a woman.” That’s what Bernice Sandler was told in 1969 after she was passed up for a faculty position at the University of Maryland despite her excellent qualifications. In the months following, she received similar rejections and heard things like “You’re not really a professional, just a housewife who went back to school.”
Sadly, experiences like Sandler’s were all too common for women in the late 1960s, when sex discrimination ran rampant on campuses across the country and when women were newly organizing to resist. Schools at all levels restricted the participation of women and girls. For example, many colleges and professional schools had tougher admissions criteria for female students and quotas that limited the number of women who could attend. Others excluded women outright.
In high schools, girls were routinely denied the opportunity to take shop and manufacturing classes; instead, they were offered classes on how to cook and sew. Female athletic programs generally emphasized cheerleading. Career opportunities in the education field for women like Sandler were concentrated in elementary and secondary school classrooms. The few who did work in higher education were primarily in institutions that served women.
And all of these policies and practices — though discriminatory and unfair — were perfectly legal.
Title IX Changed Everything
Enter Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal statute prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, which includes all public K–12 schools and virtually all colleges and universities. This federal mandate — a mere 37 words long — opened long-closed doors for women and girls in academics and athletics and forever changed the landscape of the American education system.
“Title IX was an enormous victory,” says Sandler, who has been dubbed the “godmother of Title IX” for her integral role in exposing discrimination against women in higher education, leading to the creation and passage of Title IX. At a time when no federal laws prohibited sex discrimination in education, Sandler filed the first charges against more than 250 institutions under an executive order prohibiting contractors from discriminating in employment. Her work documenting campus discrimination convinced Rep. Edith Green (D-OR) to introduce legislation that eventually became Title IX.
“Many of the official policies and practices that overtly treated men and women differently were immediately abolished after the law was passed,” Sandler notes. Title IX meant that colleges and universities could no longer have separate admissions criteria and quotas for women. It meant that boys could register for home economics and girls could take auto mechanics. It meant that female athletic programs had to expand beyond the few sports that were offered.
“Title IX increased awareness of sex discrimination in education and changed the culture in schools,” says Sandler. “Boys and girls could do the same things. Fairness became institutional policy. This was a huge difference.”
“The very opening of doors in medical schools, law schools, and doctoral programs meant the opening of opportunities,” says Gwendolyn Mink, who has been a professor of policy for 30 years and is the daughter of the late Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI), the co-author, namesake (the law’s formal title is the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act), and driving force behind Title IX. “The impact has been pretty dramatic.”
Dramatic, indeed. Women now make up nearly 60 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students. They fill 42 percent of all full-time faculty positions at colleges and universities. And during the 2009–10 academic year, 41 percent of high school athletes — more than 3 million students — were women. This is a far cry from 1971, when only 8 percent of high school athletes were girls. (For more on Title IX’s effect on sports, see the story on page 8.)
“Discrimination takes a terrible toll on a person,” explains Sandler. “Before Title IX, if a woman was being discriminated against, there was nothing she could do. Now with Title IX, she can call it sex discrimination and cite the law. Now there is a way for her to make change happen. Title IX has really increased the confidence, self-esteem, and ambition of women.”
But There Is Still Work to Do
“Title IX remains one of the biggest policy victories of the feminist movement,” says Mink. “Most of the obvious barriers against women in education were struck down when the law was passed. It was gratifying to see the power of the people’s legislation.”
“But at the same time,” she adds, “my mother, who fought many attempts to weaken or kill Title IX’s regulations, anticipated that the road would be slow going and require neverending vigilance to ensure that the regulations were enforced and not changed — and if they were changed, changed in the direction of strengthening them.”
“Life has improved enormously since Title IX,” agrees Sandler. “But there are still pockets that need significant work.”
Take athletics, for example. According to Sandler, major areas of noncompliance continue to exist, particularly in K–12 athletic programs. “Male students have much greater opportunities to participate in high school sports,” she notes. “In fact, most high schools across the country are violating Title IX in some way.”
Another area of concern is sexual harassment in schools, which remains a part of everyday life in middle and high schools across the country. According to AAUW’s study Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, nearly half of students in grades 7–12 experienced some form of sexual harassment in the last school year. U.S. Supreme Court rulings have established that sexual harassment of students by employees — such as teachers and coaches — and by other students qualifies as sex discrimination in violation of Title IX. As a result, schools and colleges that receive federal funding must take steps to prevent and stop sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual misconduct on their campuses.
Mink says that much remains to be done to create truly welcoming environments for women and girls. No doubt colleges and universities have made significant strides since the passage of Title IX. However, according to Mink, there are still plenty of venues where, although the doors are officially “open,” women and girls are forced to adapt to longstanding institutional mores.
“We need to reeducate the academy at all levels” so that women and girls are welcome, she says. “This requires overcoming stereotypes that exist in everything from general institutional thinking to scheduling policies and practices.” Mink explains that women experiencing cultural climates of discrimination — rather than a single, identifiable discriminatory policy — will likely face the most difficult obstacles to equity in our time.
“I hope that in 20 years things have vastly improved and Title IX is not needed in an active, everyday kind of way, that it serves as a ballast for when the odd instance of discrimination occurs,” says Mink. “But that is not going to happen easily. And until we get there, Title IX must be present in everyday campus life. Institutions must make information available so people know Title IX is there and available.”
Sandler recalls thinking — naively, she admits — that it would take one year after Title IX was passed for discrimination in education to end. “I now know that this is going to take a little longer, well beyond my lifetime. That’s because Title IX is not just a law — it’s a social revolution. It changes the fundamental relationship between men and women, and that is not easy to do.”