Woman's National Democratic Club

Title IX and Feminist Advocacy—the Critical Element

by Holly Knox, Founding Director of PEER, the Project on Equal Education Rights of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund

It all started in the 1970s, during the height of the women’s movement. By 1970, Congresswoman Edith Green, one of the few women in the US Congress at the time, had enough seniority to chair an education subcommittee. She held an unprecedented set of hearings on the extensive discrimination women faced in higher education.

Green’s hearings highlighted the findings of Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, who had filed over 250 discrimination complaints against colleges and universities for the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL). In fact, sex discrimination was rampant at all levels of education:

  • Some universities gave women PhDs but refused to hire any women—and didn’t mind saying so.
  • In 1964, the state of Virginia rejected college applications from some 21,000 women—and not a single man.
  • In public schools, most teachers were women—but virtually all principals were men.
  • Two whole states had no interscholastic high school sports competitions for girls.
  • The New York City public schools made all girls take home economics—but only boys could take classes preparing them for paid jobs as chefs.

Alas, there was little interest in the government to take any action—despite the fact that federal money went to all of these institutions. Few of Green’s male colleagues bothered to attend the hearings. And while the government’s official testimony outlined many of these problems, the Nixon Administration refused to recommend taking any action “at this time.”

But Green—along with Bunny and the other feminists behind those hearings—didn’t give up. Two years later, Green quietly inserted the language that became Title IX into the annual education bill that was guaranteed to pass. She warned Bunny and other advocates not to lobby for this—drawing attention to it might doom its passage. Senator Birch Bayh added the language in the Senate, and nondiscrimination in education programs became law as Title IX.

So, great victory! But what happened then?

For a long time—pretty much nothing. Without a regulation, education institutions at all levels simply ignored the law. The Nixon Administration, with little or no interest in women’s equality, took 3 whole years to issue a regulation. Even after issuing the regulation, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) avoided enforcing it. From 1972 to 1976, HEW investigated just one fifth of the complaints filed under Title IX.

And that inaction sparked a huge mobilization of feminist activists all over the country to make Title IX a reality. Local chapters of organizations like the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the National Education Association (NEA), and the National Organization for Women (NOW) pressed for changes in their own communities and institutions.

But this advocacy was perhaps most visible—and consequential—in Washington, DC. For example:

  • Bunny Sandler launched a project focused on ending inequities in higher education nationwide.
  • In 1974, I set up a project to do the same for public schools.
  • Marcia Greenberger led the Center for Law and Social Policy in suing the government for failure to enforce Title IX.
  • We joined other Washington-based feminists—in the AAUW, NEA, and many other national organizations—to form the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. That became a powerful voice to defend and advocate for Title IX.

And none too soon. The opposition—representing the male-dominated status quo—began making its voice heard as well, which sparked a series of attempts in Congress to weaken Title IX.

In response, we feminists mobilized, lobbying Congress, publicizing the attacks in the media, spreading the word nationwide. In most cases, we succeeded in beating back the attacks.

Holly Knox was the founder and director of the Project on Equal Education Rights (PEER) of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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