How Title IX Works

The Evolution of Title IX

South Carolina Lady Gamecocks 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.