37 Words That Changed Women’s Lives Forever

On June 23, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law a measure that forbids discrimination in educational activities, eventually including sports, on the basis of gender. Over the next 40 years, Title IX went on to fundamentally alter the playing fields of America—and to open up a world of opportunities, even for women who have never picked up a lacrosse stick. Here, the numbers, studies and firsthand accounts that reveal how Title IX sparked a revolution that touched all of us 

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37 words changed women's lives image
Photograph: Illustrated by Brian Rea

The NCAA’s early move to gut Title IX failed, as did several later attempts. A month after Patsy Mink’s death in 2002, Congress renamed the still-intact law the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Gwendolyn, now 60 years old, has continued her mother’s fight against discrimination. After getting a PhD from Cornell, she went on to become a prominent policy expert and professor and a lifelong activist for the rights of women and minority-group members.
—Judy Jones

The Pioneer: Billie Jean King
Tennis legend Billie Jean King has won 39 grand slam titles. In 1974 she cofounded World TeamTennis, the coed professional tennis league. She also founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, an advocacy group that she calls “Title IX’s guardian angel” because with her help it has fought off attempts to neutralize the law. But what many people remember best is a 29-year-old King triumphing over former men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs, then 55, in 1973’s televised Battle of the Sexes match in Houston. Riggs felt that men were so superior to women athletically that his age would not be a handicap. Wrong! Below, King recalls the event.

Bobby had been proposing the match to me for a few years, but I kept turning him down. I was too busy starting women’s professional tennis. So he asked a lot of other people, and finally top-rated player Margaret Court said yes. When she lost, I no longer had a choice. But I knew that with me playing, it would be a very different match.

First of all, unlike Margaret, who is Australian, I understood American culture well enough to know this wasn’t going to be any walk-out-on-the-court-and-play-tennis match; it was going to be a circus, and I was prepared for it. Second, I was the leader of the change, of turning tennis into a sport that would be fair not only for men but also for women. I knew I had to win. I was very clear that this was making history.

The timing couldn’t have been better. It was at the height of the women’s movement. We’d just had Roe v. Wade. We were in our third year of women’s professional tennis [the Virginia Slims Series began in 1970].

The response to a woman winning the match was crazy. You could not believe how emotional people got. One guy was so pissed that he took his television and threw it out the window of his home. Most men were great about my victory, though. The thing is, men respect skill, especially in sports. I still get men coming up to me all the time, saying how the match changed their lives. President Obama told me it influenced the way he’s raising his daughters. That was huge.

If you watch a World TeamTennis match, in which both men and women may play, you’ll see what I want for our sport, what I want for the world. I really want a level playing field and men and women working together. We’re all in this together; we’re on this earth together. Diversity equals strength.
—As told to J.J.

The Superstar: Lisa Leslie
Basketball icon Lisa Leslie is a three-time most valuable player in the WNBA and a four-time gold medalist in the Olympics. The six-foot-five athlete, who was the first woman to dunk in a televised pro game, has also worked as a TV broadcaster. She is currently co-owner of the team she once played for, the Los Angeles Sparks. Here’s her story.

First published in the June 2012 issue

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