Thanks to Title IX, my daughter’s generation grew up with a belief system—a mindset that young women deserve the same as men.
For my trip to Hamburg, I knew no German beyond danke. So, when the Polizei officer stomped up to me on the subway, I handed him my pass only because others had done so. After seeing it, he stiffened his back, lasered his eyes and shouted something. I slunk down, wondering what I had done. In English, he ordered, “Passport!” I jammed a trembling hand into my purse and handed it over. Sensing the eyes of every other passenger, my face burned hot and red. Two ladies across the aisle seemed to argue with the officer on my behalf, and I silently thanked them. But what were they saying? What would happen to me?
A few years before this trip, my daughter Gwen swapped her office career for one in professional sports. A former collegiate athlete, she quit her CPA job to forge swimming, biking and running into a triathlon career. On summer breaks from my teaching job, I followed her to as many competitions as I could. I was en route to a World Series Triathlon event when this officer confronted me on the U-Bahn.
The ladies next to me transitioned comfortably to English and explained I had purchased the wrong pass at a ticket vending machine. Exhausted from the trans-Atlantic flight, I had missed the “buy in English” button and, trying to navigate in German, apparently botched the purchase. The fine was €60, and the officer would keep my passport until I paid. I told them I hadn’t converted my dollars to Euros yet. The expression on their faces was not reassuring.
Last year, the U.S. celebrated the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally-funded educational and activity programs. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without it, Gwen would not have been in Germany. And I would not have been on the U-Bahn on my way to see her compete.
From birth, Gwen obsessed over water. She loved baby baths and laughed when we ducked her underwater at swim lessons. By third grade, she enrolled in a swim club and dove every week into competitive races. In 2005, she walked on at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to swim for their Big Ten team.
By contrast, I graduated in 1972, the year Title IX passed. My high school options were limited to physical education class, neighborhood softball games and cheerleading.
In physical education, under the gaze of a hulking matron, we changed into scratchy school-issued uniforms, then played half-court basketball because no one believed we could run a full court. Or we dressed in stretched-out cotton swimsuits for laps in the pool. As often as possible, we claimed we had our period just to avoid wearing them. In neighborhood pickup games, boys made the rules and batted most of the balls. A few girls kept up, but I wasn’t one of them. In cheerleading, the competition was less sport than popularity contest and beauty pageant. With my knobby knees and tiny breasts tucked in a training bra, I never made the squad.
So, I practiced piano while my brother broke in his fielder’s mitt, lobbed felt balls across a net and practiced his golf swing.
Gwen, thanks to Title IX, mastered full-court high school defense and honed her butterfly stroke. In college, she transitioned to running—another high school passion, courtesy of Title IX—while earning an accounting degree. She landed a CPA job, but soon quit to try life as a professional triathlete.
On the train, the ladies continued their conversation with the officer, arguing that I was an ignorant American who made an honest mistake. Could he please forgive? His face relaxed a bit, and I imagined a grandma or auntie once spoke to him like this—with an expectation of decency. I saw his brain weigh options. Should he impress his fellow officer by serving up a fine? Or prove his manliness through compassion? He settled on the latter but lectured me, as translated through the ladies, on the importance of rules. He warned the next time I wouldn’t be so fortunate, then dangled my passport and allowed me to reclaim it.
I graduated in 1972, the year Title IX passed. My high school options were limited to physical education class, neighborhood softball games and cheerleading.
The impact of Title IX presents a stark generational contrast between my daughter and me. Equal opportunity afforded her the chance to pursue sports in elementary school, high school, college and on the world stage. She grew up believing in herself, her talents and her skills.
When Gwen was 7 years old, we took a road trip from Wisconsin to my brother-in-law’s Utah home. Gwen sang songs and played guitar, fed birds in his aviary, and ran through his backyard sprinkler. After she tumbled through the grass, doing an impressive cartwheel, she challenged her uncle: “Can you do whatever a girl can do?”
The benefit of Title IX offered not only a gateway to activities. It allowed Gwen to expect opportunity and equality, to be confident in her abilities. My daughter’s generation grew up with a belief system—a mindset that young women deserve the same as men. It fostered determination and assertiveness.
But Title IX legislation did not yield perfect results. In recent years, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team members battled in court for equal pay. In professional basketball, baseball and golf, women still earn less than men. And since Title IX only regulates federally funded programs, outside that realm women still experience discrimination.
The continuing fight can be dispiriting. But I find the advances inspiring. In today’s high schools, women compete in soccer, field hockey, swimming and diving, golf, lacrosse, volleyball and gymnastics. Their state championships are celebrated alongside those of the men. When Gwen competed in triathlon, the prize purse was equal for men and women. She secured top-dollar sponsorships and was featured on major magazine covers. And Team USA women, unlike the men, dominated international triathlon podiums.
As Gwen rose to the top of the triathlon world, she also volunteered at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and started an annual Gwen Jorgensen Scholarship for young athletes. Motivated by her passion to inspire the next generation, she and I, along with her sister, wrote a young adult biography of her journey. Why? Because, just like men once dominated the sports world, men’s stories now dominate school bookshelves. Young women deserve stories that mirror themselves.
Gwen continues to pursue her athletic career, now as a mother of two. Like mother/athletes Serena Williams and Allyson Felix, she faces barriers men do not. Men build families with little effect on their careers, but women require time for pregnancy, birth and recovery. With recent attention focused on this issue, many sponsors have improved their policies to better accommodate and support female athletes.
This summer, instead of a trip to Germany, I’m traveling to Gwen’s home to enjoy my grandchildren. We will mark family milestones as well as athletic ones. We will discuss the state of sports in America, actively aware of ongoing gender-related struggles. And while women persevere against inequalities and all that is still not fair, we’ll find reasons to celebrate.
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