How Title IX Works

In 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King triumped over Bobby Riggs, (not pictured), in his 'Battle of the Sexes' challenge at the Houston Astrodome. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images
In 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King triumped over Bobby Riggs, (not pictured), in his 'Battle of the Sexes' challenge at the Houston Astrodome. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

The Houston Astrodome, 1973. More than 30,000 roaring sports fans thronged the tennis court as a 55-year-old retired tennis legend Bobby Riggs emerged in a rickshaw pulled by female models. Riggs, the No. 1 player in the world in his heyday, was an unabashedly sexist athlete who was so convinced of the innate superiority of men that he had challenged the great Billie Jean King to a "Battle of the Sexes."

Billie Jean King, mind you, had also been ranked No. 1 in the world and won 12 career Grand Slam singles titles, including five at Wimbledon by 1973. But feminism was still a fringe movement at the time; most women couldn't even get their own credit card without a man cosigning and Title IX, the legislation that outlaws gender discrimination in education had only been around for a year [source: Chapin].



Before Title IX became law in 1972, women faced inequity at every turn in the world of education. School athletics epitomized that inequity. When Billie Jean King went to university, she couldn't get a sports scholarship because there simply were none for women back then. And the problems started much earlier. Female tennis players at one high school, for instance, had to buy their own uniforms and equipment, and were expected to keep quiet about their success as a team even though they had a phenomenal winning record [source: Winslow].

Gender equality needed a champion and it got one when King took Riggs up on his challenge. Riggs had been provocatively declaring that women weren't emotionally equipped for athletics and that they were better off in the kitchen and the bedroom where they belonged. King later said she knew that if she had lost, it would have been a blow to feminism, women's tennis and Title IX. In other words, she had to win [source: Winslow].

That day at The Astrodome, King emerged on a golden throne held aloft by bare-chested male lackeys. Then she got down the business of demolishing Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 [source: Chapin]. The "Battle of the Sexes" was Title IX's first big win.

Patsy Mink of Hawaii
The late U.S. Democratic Congresswoman Patsy Mink of Hawaii introduced the legislation we now know as Title IX in 1972. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

At Maui High School in the early 1940s, Patsy Mink, the woman who would become known as "the mother of Title IX" couldn't play full-court basketball because back then everybody was sure that running that much would be too hard on girls [source: Chan]. When Mink graduated from the University of Hawaii, she applied to 12 different med schools and was rejected by all of them even though her qualifications met or exceeded those of her male peers who were admitted. So, she went to law school instead.

But her law degree provided no golden key to a career. Because she was married, no law firm would hire her. Her only option, it seemed, was to start her own firm. But in order to do so, she first had to pass the bar exam. The officials in charge said that only residents of Hawaii could take the bar. Mink protested that she had been born and raised in the state — of course she was a resident. But legally, it turned out, she wasn't. Her husband was from out-of-state and his non-resident status was automatically conferred to her. Mink fought this ruling hard and was finally granted permission to take the exam. She passed it, becoming the first Japanese-American woman lawyer in Hawaii's history [source: Chan].



Mink wasn't done breaking ground. She was elected to the Hawaiian House of Representatives and later the state's senate from 1962 to 1964 [source: U.S. House of Representatives]. In 1964, Mink decided to run for U.S. Congress. Because she refused to make backroom deals and concessions, she couldn't get the Hawaiian Democratic party machine behind her [source: U.S. House of Representatives].

So, she ran a grass-roots campaign, raising money with small donations from individual voters. She won her seat, becoming the first woman of color in the U.S. House of Representatives [source: U.S. House of Representatives]. It was the beginning of a long, illustrious career.

In 1972, as Congress was drawing up an act consisting of large scale education amendments, Mink and her colleague Edith Green introduced a subset of the act, which in legislative parlance is known as a "title" [source: Legal Information Institute]. Title IX, as it would be named, is an example of civil rights legislation and can be seen in the larger context of the civil rights movement of that era. Title IX is about a page long and it begins with these words: "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" [source: U.S. Dept. of Labor].

When Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 into law, he accompanied the occasion with a statement in which he outlined what he considered to be the important elements of the act. He talked approvingly about changes to funding mechanisms that would improve research facilities, he disagreed with Congress's approach to the hot-button issue of bussing in the post-segregation era. Nowhere in the statement does he mention Title IX [source: Woolley and Peters].

It was a remarkably inauspicious beginning for an education law that Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of Oklahoma would later say was among the most significant in the history of the country [source: Winslow]. In fact, for many people, Title IX would remain an obscure legislative footnote for an entire year. Then, in 1973, Billie Jean King made it international news.

South Carolina Lady Gamecocks
South Carolina Lady Gamecocks celebrate their win during the 2017 Women's Final Four at American Airlines Center on April 2, 2017 in Dallas. Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Championed by women who had a profound, experiential understanding of discrimination, Title IX was meant to change education for girls and women — and it did. The clearest and most impressive example of that change has been at the intersection of academics and athletics.

Directly after the act was signed into law in 1972, Sue Gunter, a women's basketball coach at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, called her squad to a meeting and announced that some of them might be eligible for scholarships the following year. Gunter, who would go on to become one of the winningest coaches in the NCAA, remembers the young athletes' eyes widening with disbelief. Title IX, she explained, had changed everything [source: Winslow].



In a recent interview, Sarah Axelson of the Women's Sports Foundation (which was created by none other than Billie Jean King) says that in 1972, one in 27 young women took part in sports. Today, she says, that number is two in five. By 1978, the number of high school girls playing competitive sports had multiplied six times, North Carolina State's budget for women's sports was 15 times what it had been in 1974 and the University of Michigan had 10 varsity women's teams, up from zero just five years earlier.

Decades later, in 2015, 211,886 women were playing college sports — that's 25 percent more than were participating in 2005 [source: Rothman]. Equity has far-reaching consequences. Axelson points to studies that demonstrates the long-term benefits of participating in athletics. These benefits include lower rates of obesity, lower risks of cancer, higher rates of academic success, higher rates of employment, and greater degrees of independence and self-reliance. Given these benefits, Axelson says, the challenge now is to extend them to a higher percentage of girls and women. If two in five females are participating in athletics, where are the remaining three? We'll get back to that in a minute, but for now we need to talk about the other arena in which Title IX has played a prominent role: sexual harassment.

For the first 25 years of its life, Title IX was, for the most part, all about women and sports. But another issue was working its way toward prominence. In 1980 a lawsuit, Alexander v. Yale University, was the first occasion in which a court, in this case the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, officially recognized Title IX as legislation that made sexual harassment unlawful. It was the beginning of a snowball effect that really began rolling in 1997 when the Office of Civil Rights, the federal bureau charged with enforcing Title IX, issued a document that supplied schools with federal guidance on how to handle cases of sexual harassment on campus [source: The Associated Press].

Professor KC Johnson of Brooklyn College said in an interview with HowStuffWorks, that issuing of that 1997 document marks the beginning of the era in which Title IX became inextricably linked to the issue of sexual harassment and assault in schools.

Colleges and universities have blamed cuts in budgets on Title IX, but those cuts are likely related more to the huge expenses of NCAA football and basketball teams. Wesley Hitt/Contributor/Getty Images
Colleges and universities have blamed cuts in budgets on Title IX, but those cuts are likely related more to the huge expenses of NCAA football and basketball teams. Wesley Hitt/Contributor/Getty Images

From the beginning, Title IX had its share of opponents. In 1975, a congressman sought to amend Title IX to allow the separation of boys and girls during gym class. Knowing well that separation can all too easily reinforce inequality, Congresswoman Mink and her colleagues fought off the change. It was the first of many battles to save the law. Over the years, more than 20 attempts have been made to change or eliminate Title IX [source: Chan].

In the decades since it was signed into law, the budgets for some traditional male college sports like wrestling, gymnastics, baseball and track have been severely cut, or the programs have been abolished altogether. Seeking a scapegoat for this trend, the ire of some coaches, athletes and fans has focused on Title IX. The argument goes like this: Title IX dictates that colleges must spend money on women's sports in proportion to student enrollment rather than team participation. That means that even though a smaller percentage of women participate in college sports than women, smaller men's sports have gotten shortchanged [source: Thomas].



While colleges and universities frequently cite the need to comply with Title IX as the reason behind the cuts in funding, some sceptics suspect they're using the law as cover for unpopular decisions [source: Fagan]. Those decisions have more to do with the mushrooming expense of maintaining NCAA football and basketball teams than equity requirements in sports.

In reality, the statistics show that male participation in college sports has grown even faster than female participation in the post Title IX era [source: Fagan]. The argument that schools must spend equal amounts of money on women's sports is specious. Title IX has no such requirement and most colleges spend considerably more on men's sports. Title IX simply requires that schools not discriminate against girls' and women's sports. If a women's hockey team has substandard equipment and facilities compared to the men's team — that's discrimination and it's illegal under Title IX. This basic idea of fairness could be the reason why polls demonstrate that Title IX is overwhelmingly popular with the general public [source: Fagan].

But Title IX's popularity has not protected it from controversy. On the contrary, the law remains a socio-political lightning rod in the culture wars. As mentioned earlier, Title IX first became known for its application to athletics, but since the late 1990s, it has become increasingly relevant to sexual politics.

sexual assault protest on college campus
Meghan Downey of Chatham, New Jersey protests after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced changes in federal policy on rules for investigating sexual assault reports on college campuses. The Washington Post/Contributor/Getty Images

In 2014, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) under the Obama Administration issued a letter to universities and colleges that began with the salutation, "Dear Colleague." With the "Dear Colleague" letter, the OCR sought to clarify how schools should handle campus sexual assault cases under the aegis of Title IX. While the letter was not the result of any new legislation, the OCR asserted that it had the authority to enforce the guidance it had offered if schools failed to comply. Many gender rights activists and sexual assault survivors hailed the letter as a positive step forward in the ongoing effort to deal more effectively with campus sexual assault.

Critics, however, were quick to leap on several elements of the letter. One of those was the section that outlined how schools were to use a "preponderance of the evidence" in deciding a case, rather than the standard used in criminal court, which is "beyond a reasonable doubt." Those opposed to this guidance argue that a "preponderance of the evidence" amounts to a call for the lowest possible standard of proof [sources: Johnson and Taylor].



Professor KC Johnson wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post citing this element of the "Dear Colleague" letter as troubling, but less so than another section that prevents a survivor from being questioned about the assault. Taken as a whole, Johnson wrote, the "Dear Colleague" letter was flawed because it interfered with the principle of "due process" to which all accused persons are entitled under the law. He said he believed that the Trump administration was right to roll back the guidance outlined in that letter, referring to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's announcement to rescind the Obama-era guidance.

Proponents of the "Dear Colleague" letter, like Alexandra Brodsky and Dana Bolger, maintain that the guidance outlined by the OCR does indeed protect the rights of the accused while addressing an important problem: namely that the conventional criminal justice model doesn't work well in cases of sexual assault because it puts the burden of proof on the victims [sources: Bolger and Brodsky]. Frequently in sexual assault cases, the alleged perpetrator's defense lawyer will actively seek to tarnish the victim's character in order to sow doubts about the reliability of their testimony.

All of this has led some to question the applicability of the criminal justice system to the problem of sexual assault. Professor Mary Koss of the University of Arizona, for instance, advocates the use of a "restorative justice" approach, which seeks to engage all of those involved in a conversational process that might offer some form of remedy for the harm without re-traumatizing the survivor through disciplinary hearings [sources: Bolger and Brodsky].

In a 2016 article for The Nation, Brodsky also notes that while the restorative justice model has many positive aspects, advocates worry survivors might feel pressured to resort to it rather than the standard disciplinary process, even if they preferred the latter. Professor Johnson points out that the restorative justice model isn't the best approach for getting to the bottom of "who did what." On the other hand, he notes that it might be a methodology that has the best real-world results for both the victim and the accused.

One way or another, Johnson told HowStuffWorks he believes that, with the exception of the "Dear Colleague" letter, Title IX has been a highly beneficial law that has served, and continues to serve an important and necessary role.

Axelson of the Women's Sports Foundation agrees, noting that Title IX has had a remarkable record of success at all levels of education for girls and women. Still, she adds, there's much work to be done. Remember those three girls out of every five who aren't participating in sports? The Women's Sports Foundation seeks to ensure that they're not playing sports as a matter of choice rather than lack of access.

The real focus now, Axelson says, is on making sure that girls of color have equal access to athletic programs. Recent research, she adds, has shown that many girls of color attend schools with inadequate resources, and often those few resources are not allocated fairly.

Author's Note: How Title IX Works

Reading about the "Battle of the Sexes" reminded me just how fantastically crazy the '70s were. When you realize that David Bowie introduced the world to Ziggy Stardust in the same year that Title IX was signed into law, the spectacle of that famous tennis match suddenly makes sense. Billie Jean King on a golden throne (ornamented with flamingo feathers) carted out by bare-chested men to face Bobby Riggs in a rickshaw dragged by big-haired models in a contest that would help seal the deal on gender equity legislation ... the whole scene is of a piece with the era of cross-dressing glam rock stars.

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More Great Links


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