Game Changer: Celebrating 50 Years of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972

Lock Haven State College students support Title IX at the U.S. Capitol in April 1979.
. (Women’s Sports Foundation)

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Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was signed into law on June 23, 1972—prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.

From the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ms. magazine:

Charlotte Murphy knows a Title IX violation when she sees one. For this Pittsburgh 11-year-old, the law is simple: Boys and girls should have equal opportunity in every aspect of their public school education. So last year, as a fourth grader, when her school, Linden Elementary, canceled the girls’ basketball season but not the boys’, she earnestly wrote to the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Dear Dr. Lane,                                                                      

… I have been a member of the girls basketball team for a while now. Our season was canceled because of funding; all the other teams dropped out. But only the girls. Boys basketball is going fine. This is a violation of federal law, title nine. I would like to request a meeting to discuss this matter. Please call to set it up.

Lane did meet with her, and eventually young Ms. Murphy’s advocacy, along with help from the Women’s Law Project, based in Pennsylvania, and its senior staff attorney Susan Frietsche, resulted in a new district policy under which elementary schools can only sponsor a boys’ basketball team if they sponsor one for girls. This year, girls showed up to play at elementary schools throughout the district, putting to rest concerns that their supposed lack of interest would require schools to drop basketball for both sexes.

As Title IX celebrates its [50th] anniversary this year, stories like Murphy’s illustrate not only how far the law has come, but also how much more remains before Title IX’s full promise of education equality is realized. That a fourth grader knows a federal law by name and was able to successfully assert her rights is a testament to its strength and staying power. At the same time, the fact that girls’ opportunities were threatened while boys’ were not suggests that Title IX remains relevant and necessary.

“Game Changer” originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ms. magazine.

When Congress approved Title IX as a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, the activists and legislators who worked so hard for its passage were certainly thinking of girls like Murphy.

Rep. Edith Green (D-Ore.), Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and other advocates who helped shepherd Title IX from bill to law were concerned about discrimination all the way from kindergarten up, including the widespread exclusion of women from public colleges and universities, graduate schools, professional schools and vocational programs.

Testimony by feminist advocates at congressional hearings on the law revealed sex discrimination in hiring for faculty and other positions throughout public education. Bernice Sandler, who played a major role in the development and passage of Title IX, famously recounted that she was motivated by being passed over for seven open faculty positions at her university because she was deemed “too strong for a woman.”

In 1974, prompted by efforts to exclude revenue-generating men’s sports from Title IX, Congress affirmed that its prohibition on sex discrimination should apply to scholastic and collegiate athletics along with all other public education programs. And by 1975, as the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title IX created regulations to fill in the details of the broadly worded law, it became clear that Title IX would have a huge effect.

Indeed it has. The numbers of women in higher education, particularly in law, medicine, business, veterinary and dentistry, have increased dramatically. Women now earn the majority of both undergraduate and graduate degrees, although the numbers are smaller in some traditionally male-dominated fields. 

In athletics alone, the number of girls playing interscholastic sports in high school has grown from about 300,000 girls before Title IX to more than 3 million today. That’s 1 in 3 girls, though still less than the 1 in 2 boys who participate.

Similarly, the number of women playing intercollegiate sports pre-Title IX was fewer than 30,000, while today it’s more than 191,000, and the number of scholarships for women athletes has increased dramatically.

Title IX has also helped female athletes fight for more equitable treatment, as evidenced by the thousands of Title IX complaints filed and the landmark decisions that have awarded millions of dollars to plaintiffs. Title IX has also had a ripple effect that spread internationally to the Olympics, which this summer will see women participate for the first time in all the sports that men do, including boxing.

But while the improvement in athletic opportunities for women and girls may be Title IX’s best-known result in the eyes of the general public, the law has effected even more profound changes for millions of women in other areas of public education. Since the statute applies to all educational programs and activities that receive federal funds (including federal student-loan programs), nearly all colleges and universities are covered. Public-school districts are also under its umbrella, as a result of participating in federal programs that support public education. Title IX even applies to prison-operated vocational programs that receive federal assistance.

On the elementary and secondary school level, Title IX no longer allows schools to limit class opportunities to one sex or another based on stereotypes about different interests and abilities. Cooking and sewing classes, for example, once known as “home economics,” must be open to boys as well as girls, while technology, science and “shop” classes must be open to girls as well as boys. 

Title IX also covers career education, employment, sexual harassment, education for pregnant and parenting students, standard testing and technology. In 1989, for example, a plaintiff successfully used Title IX to challenge New York state’s practice of relying solely on SAT scores (rather than grades) to determine students’ eligibility for merit scholarships. The court agreed that the statistical disparity between SAT scores for male and female students revealed bias in the test, so it was deemed discriminatory for the state to rely on those results.

Pregnant and parenting students also receive Title IX protections, such as curtailing the once-accepted practice of forcing them out of mainstream classes and into special programs of questionable academic value. 

Protections against sexual harassment, along with sexual assault and bullying of a sexual nature, have also been increased under Title IX. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized such harassment as sex discrimination back in the 1999 Georgia-based case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education

The Davis decision has since been cited more than 500 times by lower courts, and even applied to cases involving students targeted for harassment or bullying because they didn’t conform to gender stereotypes, including gays and lesbians. 

Title IX doesn’t just protect students: Teachers, professors, administrators, coaches and other school employees can use the law to challenge sex discrimination in such areas as hiring, firing and equal pay or benefits. 

But for all its successes, Title IX has faced consistent attacks throughout its [50] years. In the most serious setback to date, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1984 case Grove City College v. Bell that the conservative Christian college was only required to comply with Title IX in those programs that directly received federal funds (in that case, it was the financial aid/admissions office) but not in the rest of the college. The engineering department, say, could discriminate against female students with impunity so long as it wasn’t receiving federal funds.

The decision effectively gutted Title IX and immediately jeopardized other civil rights laws, including prohibitions against race, age and disability discrimination, which had been worded similarly to Title IX. It took a huge campaign—led by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, plus a host of other women’s, civil rights and anti-discrimination groups—to restore the full authority of these laws. They fought for legislation that would make sure the whole educational institution and its programs would be covered if any part of it received federal funds.

After four years of wrangling, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 was passed by both houses of Congress, only to be vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. But advocates won enough votes in Congress to override Reagan and enact the law.

If the last [50] years are any indication, Title IX’s success is due to the eternal vigilance of the law’s supporters, who continue to defend it through the political process and in the courts. 

But as the struggle to end sex discrimination continues, Title IX’s [50th] anniversary provides an opportunity to cheer how far we have come—to a world in which even an 11-year-old girl knows when something’s wrong and that there’s something called Title IX to help right the injustice.

Up next:

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Erin Buzuvis joined the Western New England University School of Law faculty in 2006 and has served as the associate dean for academic affairs since 2020. Buzuvis researches and writes about gender and discrimination in education and athletics, including such topics as Title IX's application to campus disciplinary proceedings for sexual assault, Title IX and college athletics reform, LGBTQ inclusion in high school and college athletics, and retaliation and related discrimination against female college coaches. She has been quoted in stories about Title IX in such media outlets as the New York Times, NPR, Sports Illustrated, Inside Higher Ed and in many other national and local publications and broadcasts.