Title IX’s Unintended Revolution for Women’s Athletics

September 01, 2015


Four women sweep rowing in red, white, and blue uniforms

Image by Matthew Schnall, Flickr Creative Commons

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 Outlook magazine.

The law that has become synonymous with women’s sports was never meant to address inequality on that kind of playing field. How did sports become Title IX’s best-known legacy, and how has the law changed women’s opportunities?

Title IX has been called “the biggest thing to happen to sports since the invention of the whistle,” but that outcome was not on President Richard Nixon’s mind when he signed the Education Amendments Act into law on June 23, 1972. Even though the words Title IX have become synonymous with women’s sports, at the time no one had a clue that its most wide-ranging impact would be on athletics.

How did this happen, and so quickly? The simple answer is that a group of actors inside and outside the government followed the implications of the law to its logical conclusion: that some of the most glaring inequities in higher education were in the field of athletics and that, legally, they must be addressed. The events leading up to Title IX’s passage in 1972 and the struggle ever since to figure out how to implement the law fairly demonstrate how athletics became part of the broader political and cultural struggles of contemporary American life. Athletics, once viewed as a privilege exclusively for boys, is now seen as a part of school life that girls are expected and often encouraged to participate in. Title IX also confirms the difficulties — and the rewards — of putting abstract principles like equal opportunity and gender equity into concrete, everyday practice.

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As bureaucrats in Washington tried to figure out how to implement the law, those with a vested interest in the sports status quo — like many football coaches and some of the male leaders of the NCAA — made it sound like the world would end if women were allowed to share in sports dollars alongside men. Their vocal opposition reinforces a key historical point about the early days of Title IX: The controversy over athletics drew a lot of attention to this law. In some ways, the issue of athletics hijacked Title IX, diverting attention and energy away from the general issues of discrimination in education that were its initial focus. But the controversy about the law’s impact on athletics had a positive effect: It brought attention to legislation that might have otherwise languished or been ignored. It also created constituencies, pro and con, who were deeply invested in the law’s fate. More specifically, without the publicity that athletics brought to Title IX starting around 1974–75, the law would have been far more vulnerable to crippling amendments or possibly to being gutted entirely. And if athletics had been dropped from Title IX coverage, which was a real possibility in its early days, the women’s sports revolution might not have gotten out of the starting block so fast.

Unintended Consequences, Good and Bad

Looking at the history of Title IX, it is hard not to be struck by the string of unintended consequences surrounding the law. For starters, lawmakers framed the legislation as a tool to challenge sex discrimination in educational institutions without fully grasping what a revolutionary — and controversial — effect it would have on athletics. Another surprise is the long-term negative effect it has had on employment opportunities for women coaches and administrators. In pre-Title IX days, women made up the vast majority of coaches in women’s sports, such as it was, but after Title IX they found their separate programs folded into the men’s and their positions merged out of existence, even though the law did not call for this. In a related trend, women’s teams are now increasingly coached by men. There are far more women college presidents than women athletic directors, which just goes to show that while Title IX has had a huge effect on student athletes, it has done much less for women coaches and administrators. Maybe that is the next frontier for women in sports.

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This article originally appeared in AAUW Outlook magazine.

These unintended consequences are part of a change that didn’t happen: In the early days of Title IX, some activists hoped that they could chart a “purer” course, that it would be possible to avoid the abuses and excesses of a dominant male athletic system defined primarily by competition, elitism, and winning at all costs. In fact, women’s sports have not caused any major paradigm shift in athletics. Instead, they have generally just been absorbed into the reigning masculine model, with all its drawbacks and problems. This outcome poses a question familiar to anyone who has ever taken a women’s studies course: Does equality have to mean sameness, especially if it means conforming to a male model?

One of the biggest unintended consequences of Title IX is that women athletes can now expect that they will have access to sports. Girls and many women today have lived their entire lives in a post-Title IX world of opportunities, a huge difference from women just 30 or 40 years their senior. In some ways, Title IX lets everyone off the hook, because it makes it seem like the problem has been solved. Lost in the celebration is the other half of the equation: that Title IX, and by extension, all of women’s sports, are a work in progress and that there is still much, much more to be done before we truly reach gender parity — in sports and in all aspects of American life.

Title IX’s Next Lap

So what does Title IX’s early history tell us about its future? Most likely, the next decade will see slow, contested, but steady progress as schools and institutions, either voluntarily or under threat of law, grapple with what gender equity means on the playing field and in the classroom. Still, there will always be more to do. Listen to the hard-won perspective of Bernice Sandler, one of the earliest proponents of Title IX, recalling how naive she was back in the 1970s: “I believed that if we passed Title IX it would only take a year or two for all the inequities based on sex to be eliminated. After two years, I upped my estimate to five years, then to 10, then to 25, until I realized that we were trying to change very strong patterns of behavior and belief and that changes would take more than my lifetime to accomplish.”

But even if we’re in it for the long haul, there is no way that the women’s sports revolution will disappear and the country will return to pre-Title IX days — at least as long as we are vigilant. The changes since the 1970s have meant too much to individual girls and women (as well as supportive men and boys) and have been absorbed too deeply into the fabric of modern American life to simply go away. The women’s sports revolution is here to stay, and Title IX played a fundamental role in that transformation.

Susan Ware is an independent scholar who specializes in 20th-century U.S. history, women’s history, and biography. Her publications include Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Womens Sports and Title IX: A Brief History with Documents.


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