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 

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

But once we filmed the ad and people saw the rough cut, it became very controversial. Suddenly you had a little seven- or eight-year-old girl in front of you saying, “If you let me play sports, I’ll be more likely to leave a man who beats me.” The ad was much more powerful than we had anticipated. Certain people at Nike had strongly cautioned Wieden + Kennedy against “feminizing” the brand. Now some of the men felt we had crossed the line from self-empowerment to a type of feminism they didn’t want to be involved with. They also worried that we’d gone from selling shoes to selling self-esteem, because we never talked about shoes or clothes in the ad.

Luckily the agency heads, Dan Wieden and David Kennedy, stood behind us completely. In the end Nike wentfor it, we put it on as is, and the response was amazing. The company setup a special department to handle the e-mails. I got calls and handwritten letters from parents, and 12-year-old girls sent me stuffed animals. For every angry letter, we got nine or 10 saying “Bravo!” And people continue to write—these days on blogs—about being affected by that ad.
—As told to J.J.

My Daughter, Myself: What a Difference a Law Makes
I can still see Miss B., trim in her maroon pleated wool skirt and neatly pressed button-down shirt, her gray hair permed into an immovable helmet. It’s 1974, and who can blame her for scowling at us? She was faced with a group of teenage girls who would much rather be drinking black coffee and smoking Marlboros at the diner than attending her gym class. When Miss B. managed to make us run a lap, we—literally—dragged our feet. We did anything to avoid breaking a sweat; it simply was not done. Title IX had recently passed, but I don’t know if we’d even heard of it.

Ironically, we grew up surrounded by demonstrations and had no trouble labeling ourselves feminists; we were quick to throw around terms like chauvinist pig. But we were too young and self-centered to connect the dots, to appreciate the generation just ahead of us who had fought for Title IX or Roe v. Wade. In just a few more years, we stopped taking these changes for granted when we entered the workforce and came face to face with the many roadblocks that still lay ahead.
More than 35 years after Miss B.’s phys ed classes ended, I am once more sitting on the sidelines of a high school gym—but now I’m watching my teenage daughter, Sasha, play JV volleyball. She isn’t a natural athlete, but she loves being part of a team. While Title IX wasn’t passed soon enough to really affect my adolescent years, it is an unspoken chord running through hers. Today even the most athletically challenged girls join a sport; it is a fundamental part of their school experience. When I tell Sasha how cool it is that she sees participating in athletics as a given, she replies, “It’s not cool, Mom. It’s just normal.”

Perhaps every generation takes the previous generation’s victories for granted. But today, when so many of the issues we thought were settled—contraception, choice, women’s place in the workforce—are coming under attack again, none of us have that luxury. I hope the lessons Sasha and her friends are learning on the playing fields will serve them well as they pick up the mantle. Which I firmly believe they will do. I recently ranted to Sasha in an e-mail about the current war on women, and she wrote back, within seconds, “Girl power!!!” She typed it while on the elliptical trainer.
—Emily Listfield

First published in the June 2012 issue

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