Title IX pushed progress, but not equally
by Sherry Boschert, journalist and author of “37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting Sex Discrimination”
In 1972 Congress carved a set of tools for girls and women who already had been demanding fairness when it passed Title IX of the Education Amendments, prohibiting sex discrimination in education. Barely more than sturdy poles at first, these rough instruments helped activists steer on the flowing waters of the women’s movement. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) 1979 Policy Interpretation on Intercollegiate Athletics honed one pole of Title IX’s regulations into a more effective shape, and women paddled furiously toward equity in school sports. Then OCR’s Dear Colleague letter of 2011 gave survivors of sexual harassment a set of oars. They rowed hard into a churning confluence of rivers that accelerated flow in a number of social justice movements—against sexism, racism, and sexual violence, and for LGBT rights and more.
Title IX didn’t start any of these movements. It is a product of them, and a tool for progress. This law profoundly changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people for the better. But the gains have not been shared equally. Addressing that reality is the only way to fully realize Title IX’s promise. We’re still navigating movements for change.
Thanks to Title IX, women in higher education consistently increased their numbers, becoming a majority of college and university students in 1979, a majority of law students in 2016, and a majority of new medial students in 2017. Title IX gave countless women access to more diverse skills and better jobs. Decades of graduates infused faculties, law offices, and every sector of society with women’s talents and perspectives. But people of color filled only a fifth of faculties in 2021 (counting both women and men), though they were nearly half of undergraduates.
More than 10 times as many girls played high school sports in 2017 than in 1972. These still were fewer than the number of boys playing in 1972, though, more boys play now than back then. Women’s 15% share of NCAA athletics positions in 1972 improved greatly to 44%, but considering that women were 57% of higher education students in 2018, we’ve got farther to go toward sports equity. And most of those NCAA women’s team positions went to white women—69%—despite their constituting 53% of female undergraduates. Among coaches of women’s teams, 85% are white.
Students’ use of Title IX forced schools and OCR to reckon with the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault, starting with the first Title IX lawsuit for sexual harassment and violence in 1977, Alexander v. Yale. Student activism especially in the past decade infused the #metoo movement. The tectonic shifts from all that haven’t yet settled. Still, rates of reported sexual misconduct on campus hadn’t dropped by 2019. An estimated 5.5 million students were affected in 2018 alone. Though some data are limited due to privacy concerns, studies suggest that sexual assaults target marginalized, more vulnerable groups. One 2014 OCR report, for example, suggests that sexual assaults are twice as likely against students of color or LGBT students than white or non-queer students. Sexual harassment was 5 to 32 times more likely against multiracial women than against any other cisgender racial group.
Title IX’s profound successes deserve celebration. Our education systems are light-years better for girls and women than they were in 1972. But history suggests that unless we address the intersectional discrimination faced by women of color, LGBT students, and other marginalized groups as inseparable from the sex discrimination they also face, Title IX will remain a partial success.
Social justice movements are still flowing. If we keep rowing, maybe we can reach the promised land.
Sherry Boschert is an award-winning journalist and the author of 37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting Sex Discrimination (The New Press, April 12, 2022). She lives in New Hampshire.