Title IX at 50
Approaches to Women’s Sports History
On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 into federal law, including Title IX. This amendment specifically banned discrimination on the basis of sex in programs and activities at all federally funded educational institutions. Its passage was a sweeping effort to address existing limits and biases against female students, particularly in law school and medical school admissions, graduate degree programs, STEM majors, and athletic departments. Although few schools rushed to be fully compliant with the new law, by the end of the 1970s Title IX represented a pathway to equal academic and athletic participation for women and girls.
Today, 50 years later, women outnumber men in undergraduate and medical school enrollment across the United States, yet support and funding for collegiate women’s sports remain ongoing struggles, whether played at the club, varsity, or National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) level. In this year of Title IX’s golden anniversary, the long battle for women’s sports equity is a civil rights lesson that certainly belongs in the US history classroom.
Title IX was never intended as a sports law—it prohibited discrimination in any educational activity—but the impact on women and girls in athletics was phenomenal. Many of the extraordinary achievements in US women’s sports since 1972 derive from increases in athletic scholarships, coaching salaries, facilities, broadcast time, and recruitment budgets, all mandated for Title IX compliance. These improvements came grudgingly, with much opposition and delay from some male athletic directors who had to find and then allocate resources to women’s athletic programs. At the time of Title IX’s passage, approximately 99 percent of school athletic budgets in the United States went to boys’ and men’s sports; the concept of parity was immediately contested by male coaches and administrators, as well as politicians like Senator John Tower (R-Tex.), who early on introduced a proposal to exempt football from any equitable division of athletic budgets between men’s and women’s teams. The Tower amendment failed but generated much humor about football being a “third sex.”
The NCAA’s merging of once-separate women’s programs with more powerful men’s collegiate athletic structures meant that many female coaches and athletic administrators lost their jobs.
Though incomplete, contentious, and reluctant, Title IX’s reforms netted results in women’s sports that Americans now cheer and celebrate: Olympic champions, four US Women’s National Soccer Team World Cup victories, and the explosion of women’s basketball at college and professional levels. At the same time, however, the NCAA’s merging of once-separate women’s programs with more powerful men’s collegiate athletic structures meant that, by 1982, many female coaches and athletic administrators from the earlier and separate women’s division of college sports lost their jobs. Today, more men than women coach women athletes and serve as athletic directors, a reversal of women’s former control over their own programs. These results contrast starkly with the increased opportunities for women faculty and students, academic benefits seeded by Title IX. While the benefits of coming under NCAA’s umbrella were considerable, the loss of women’s autonomous athletic stewardship cost them jobs and leadership. The end of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) may be compared to the dissolution of the Negro Leagues, when Black players were gradually accepted into Major League baseball, only to see their former coaches and managers replaced with white team owners.
How do history students learn about or interpret this timeline? What are some best practices in bringing research on Title IX to the college classroom? In 1996, I introduced a class on women’s sports history at George Washington University that filled quickly, enrolling a dynamic mix of Division I student athletes and women’s studies majors. As the course expanded to attract students studying history, health, journalism, and business, plus a few auditing lawyers and coaches, I soon was teaching additional sections at Georgetown University, American University, on board the global college program Semester at Sea, and—after I relocated to California in 2017—at Santa Clara University, Saint Mary’s College, and the University of California, Berkeley.
Although Title IX is easily misunderstood, it is also easily researched, with an accessible paper trail of policy.
On each campus, the final paper or exam required students to analyze the impact of Title IX, but I learned quickly that most undergraduates were completely unfamiliar with the law. Moreover, across 25 years, I almost never met a student athlete who could tell me how 20th-century sex discrimination had affected their own sport. None knew the basic prongs of Title IX that covered their own educational rights. Yet in the absence of a ratified Equal Rights Amendment, Title IX remains the closest legal guarantee of sex equity in American education. Unlike the history of racial discrimination, with which it overlaps, discrimination in women’s sports is seldom introduced in middle school or high school history classes, and there is no expectation of proficiency in this topic. Sports history remains a special topic taught only at the college level, if at all. That means too many student athletes begin their university careers lacking critical familiarity with their own rights. And it’s not just athletes who benefit, personally and academically, from literacy in the success stories or struggles of previous generations.
Teaching this history requires a multilayered approach. Although Title IX is easily misunderstood, it is also easily researched, with an accessible paper trail of policy. Students can download thousands of articles, editorial viewpoints, documents, depositions, and official statements from government offices and their own universities that debate the place of women in sports across the arc of social change from 1972 to the present day. That men’s sports remain the basic template while women’s sports are debatable speaks to the core of the problem—and, like other arcs of discrimination, it sets up lively discussion in the classroom.
As women’s sports gain a more visible and celebrated platform, feminist scholars and sports authorities alike are hard at work uncovering the lost histories of teams and athletes, and an entire new scholarly genre has emerged, with enough material to serve every educational level from elementary school to legal clinics. It’s a pleasure to see male coaches who are also high school and college history teachers introducing women’s sports history in their own classrooms. I hope that Title IX’s golden anniversary, as a year-long celebration marked by retrospective panels and conferences, will inspire a new generation of sports historians and students to map the arc of change.
- Susan Cahn’s Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport (Univ. of Illinois, 2015), a good introductory textbook
- Lauren Kessler’s Full Court Press: A Season in the Life of a Winning Basketball Team and the Women Who Made it Happen (Dutton, 1997), an account of fighting for equal coaching pay at the University of Oregon
- Daniel J. Boyne’s The Red Rose Crew (Hyperion, 2000), on Yale’s 1976 women’s crew team
- Sherry Boschert’s 37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting Sex Discrimination (New Press, 2022),a lively new history of Title IX
- Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s No Stopping Us Now (Three Rooms Press, 2022), a young adult novel set in the 1970s and based on Bledsoe’s own experiences of sex discrimination as a high school basketball player
- Dee Mosbacher’s film Training Rules (2009), a documentary on homophobic discrimination at Penn State University
Bonnie J. Morris is a lecturer in women's history at the University of California, Berkeley, professor emeritus at George Washington University, and the author of What's the Score? 25 Years of Teaching Women's Sports History.
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