By Emily Kestel

Fifty years ago this month, Title IX was signed into law as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. It reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

It was initially introduced with the intention of admitting more women into graduate-level programs, but is most commonly associated today with athletics. 

By one count, 75% of secondary school students and 60% of parents polled said they knew “nothing at all” about Title IX. If you too find yourself in that boat, here’s a brief summary of what it’s all about – and what’s left out. 

What was the journey to pass the bill?

Title IX has its roots in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Those protections applied to private and public accommodations, but Title VI of the law, which applied to federally funded entities, lacked protections based on sex, which left women unprotected in areas of education. 

In 1969, the “godmother of Title IX,” Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, had recently earned her doctorate from the University of Maryland and was vying for a teaching job in her department. She was not considered for any of the open positions. When she asked why, she was told that she “comes on too strong for a woman.”

After determining she was being discriminated against for being a woman, she gathered a team of law experts and strategists who dug up an amendment to an executive order written by President Lyndon B. Johnson that said federal employers and contractors could not discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex. After realizing that public schools received federal funding, she then worked with lawmakers to create the language and framework of Title IX. 

Around the time of its passing, Title IX wasn’t widely celebrated, Sherry Boschert wrote in her book, “37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting.” Both the Washington Post and the New York Times published editorials against it, saying “though motivated by the best of intentions, such legislation is unsound,” because of differing needs and aspirations.

What protections does Title IX offer? 

The law protects students from discrimination based on sex, and affects womens’ and girls’ participation in sports, college admissions, access to academic majors and vocational programs, teaching and coaching positions, and the handling of reported sexual assaults on campus. Pregnant students are also protected

Protections against discrimination of transgender students have wavered back and forth – in 2016 the departments of Justice and Education issued guidance saying Title IX bans discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, but a year later, the Trump administration revoked the guidance. In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating that Title IX protects LGBTQ students. 

The Biden administration proposed a series of amendments to Title IX on June 23 to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, strengthening the rights of LGBTQ students. The proposed amendments will also include language to prevent discrimination base on sex stereotypes and pregnancy and restore protections for victims of sex-based harassment.

Rep. Patsy Mink was a leading sponsor of the bill. She said the purpose of it was to “free the human spirit to make it possible for everyone to achieve according to their talents and wishes.”

What was it like for girls and women in the realm of education and sports before Title IX was passed? 

Before 1972, women were routinely discouraged from participating in sports and pursuing professions in academic fields. 

In 1972, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports, while 3.6 million boys did so. At the collegiate level, 170,000 men participated in sports, while only 30,000 women did. 

Girls’ participation in sports in Iowa, however, was seen as an anomaly back then. 

A three-part series in Sports Illustrated in 1973 examined nationwide gender discrimination against women athletes, referring to the “American system of athletics” as “sexist and hypocritical.” The arguments against girls and women participating in sports can be summed up in three buckets, the article said. “1) athletics are physically bad for women, competition may masculinize their appearance and affect their sexual behavior; 2) women do not play sports well enough to deserve athletic equality; and 3) girls are not really interested in sports.” 

Taking aim at those arguments, Sports Illustrated featured the state of Iowa as proof of the “viable rewards of female athletic equality.” 

“Relatively speaking, Iowa is a utopia for girls athletics,” the article said. At that time, 488 schools were members of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, and there were 13 sports available for girls. Girls’ team coaches were paid the same as the boys’ coaches, the girls’ teams were fully equipped and had the same practice facilities, they were given the same rewards, and they were treated equally by the press. 

Sports Illustrated credited Wayne Cooley, CEO of IGHSAU, for creating an equitable playing field. Cooley was quoted saying, “There is no reason why girls’ events can’t draw well if they are intelligently staged,” and turned to the girls’ state basketball tournament – which often drew more fans than the boys’ tournament – as proof. 

“All those dire warnings of the medical, moral and financial disasters that would follow if girls were granted athletic parity are considered hogwash in Iowa. The local girls have not become cripples or Amazons, the boys have not been driven to flower arrangement or knitting. In fact, there may be no place else in the U.S. where sport is so healthy and enjoys such a good reputation,” the article stated

What happened in the years following the passage of Title IX? 

By 1979, female enrollment at colleges and universities surpassed male enrollment. By 2016, women became a majority of law students. By 2017, women were a majority of new medical students. 

Girls’ and womens’ participation in athletics increased dramatically. In 1972, 1 out of 27 girls played sports. Now, 2 out of 5 do so. Today, more than 3.4 million high school girls play sports and 219,000 women participate in NCAA athletics. 

According to IGHSAU, 70,000 girls compete in Iowa high school athletics and the state continues to rank in the top half of the U.S. in terms of girls’ high school athletic participation. 

Beyond participation, women have proved to be successful in sports. At every Olympics since the 2012 Games in London, more American women have medaled than American men, save for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is widely believed to be better than their male counterparts.  

Does Title IX affect corporate America? 

Lisa Kaplowitz, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women in Business, thinks so. “What Title IX does, simply, is create opportunities for girls and women to have equality within the university. Beyond that, it empowers them to create equality outside that ivory tower,” she told Fortune magazine.

What’s next? 

The majority of Americans who have heard about Title IX say it has had a positive effect on gender equality in sports, but 37% say it hasn’t gone far enough. 

An external review of the NCAA determined there are still “significant” gender disparities in college athletics. The NCAA spends more money on male athletes than female athletes, and doesn’t give women’s sports the same opportunity as men’s sports to generate revenue.

Beyond sports, men continue to hold a disproportionate amount of faculty and leadership positions in higher education. 

While blatantly sexist policies, practices and behaviors have dropped, systemic barriers continue to block women’s advancement in professional fields. Access to child care, paid family leave and equal pay are several examples that experts give for lasting gender inequality

Americans have also renewed calls for the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would prohibit sex discrimination in areas beyond education.