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

A Seismic Shift
No one saw the tsunami coming. After Title IX became law in 1972, a wave of girls began to pour onto athletic fields. Between the school seasons of 1971–72 and 2010–11, the number of girls engaged in high school sports jumped by 947 percent; today two in five high school girls are active in organized sports.

Participation in college athletics skyrocketed, too. There are now nearly 10 times as many female players in intercollegiate sports as there were in 1972, and since 1998 the number of women’s teams in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has grown by 46 percent. A larger meaning of that change: In the space of a few decades, what was once almost an entirely male ticket to the best colleges has become a human one.

Girls who were newly able to pursue athletic endeavors learned valuable skills on the field that were useful for advancing in a man’s world. “Sports teach the need for collaboration and risk taking. Players, if they lose, learn to get up and try again,” says Susan R. Madsen, PhD, a professor of management at Utah Valley University in Orem. In her studies of successful female academics and government officials, “the women said that athletics had been critical to developing their leadership competencies.”

While no one claims that Title IX was completely responsible for all the amazing educational and occupational attainments of American women in the past 40 years, Wharton School economist and professor Betsey Stevenson, PhD, has pinpointed some contributions of the law: “My research has shown that Title IX was responsible for up to 40 percent of the rise of 25- to 34-year-old women in the labor force between 1980 and 2000. For this cohort of women, Title IX also explains 20 percent of the increase in the length of their education, 15 percent of their growth in traditionally male occupations and all of their additional participation in sports-related jobs during that time.” What’s more, she says, playing high school sports “seems to have led to around a 5 percent increase in wages for these women.”

Because it helped create these enormous social and career opportunities for American women, University of Minnesota sport sociologist Mary Jo Kane, PhD, calls Title IX “one of the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation ever.”
—Melinda Dodd

Birth of a Notion
In the 1960s, Gwendolyn Mink was elected president of her school class, but the teacher made her give up the title because she felt that a girl should be only vice president. A few years later, Gwendolyn was denied admission to Stanford because, she says she was told, the university had filled its quota of women. As it happened, Gwendolyn’s mother was U.S. Representative Patsy Mink, an Asian American who was the first woman of color elected to Congress, and she drew on these incidents of bias against her child when she coauthored Title IX. “For my mother, what she’d gone through had been bad enough, but it was even worse to see the next generation of women endure the same kind of discrimination all over again,” Gwendolyn recalls.

Title IX, as originally conceived, was focused on education in general, not specifically on athletic programs. But after the law passed, the NCAA and the male athletic establishment lobbied to win an exemption for intercollegiate athletic departments. “From the moment of Title IX’s passage, my mother was fully engaged in the struggle to make sure that athletics weren’t carved out as some kind of huge exception,” Gwendolyn says. “She knew that exceptions would swallow the rule.”

First published in the June 2012 issue

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