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 

by MORE
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.”

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.

I was born two weeks after Title IX passed. I joke that I’m a Title IX baby, because it always seemed as though the legislation was written especially for me and girls like me. Organized sports weren’t offered at my elementary school, so the first time I picked up a basketball, I was 12 years old and in seventh grade. I also did volleyball and softball and ran track. I could hardly believe I got to go to school and play.
I did not grow up with a notion of what women were supposed to do as opposed to what men were supposed to do. My mom was a single parent who held jobs that weren’t considered particularly feminine—like driving an 18-wheeler truck and working as a mail carrier—but she always wore lipstick and had her nails polished. That’s why I grew up feeling I could do it all.

Becoming a co-owner of the L.A. Sparks seemed like a natural move for me. From day one as a pro basketball player, I was in on more than my share of business meetings, sitting elbow to elbow with management and bringing in corporate sponsors. Now I can do that right in my community. I’m looking forward to getting our sponsors and our old ticket holders more involved with the team again, because we lost a lot of them when I retired from playing. I’m the mother of two children, so this feels like a great fit for my career right now. I’m up to the challenge.
—As told to J.J.

The Communicator: Janet Champ
In 1996, Janet Champ cocreated the famous TV commercial “If You Let Me Play,” part of Nike’s campaign to market to women. Still widely available on the Internet (for example, on YouTube), this touching advertisement shows young girls listing the positive effects of participating in sports. Champ is now an Oregon-based freelance writer.

Nike came to our ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy, in Oregon, and asked for a spot that spoke to the phenomenon behind Title IX and what it meant to a generation of young people. They gave us reams of information—boxes and boxes of statistics—and my art director and I waded through all of it. We came up with a lot of scripts and boards, and every week, sometimes twice a week, we showed new ideas. After one of our meetings, the Nike ad manager took me aside and said, “I don’t know, this feels like it’s not coming from your heart. It doesn’t feel like you’re really passionate about it.”

We felt stymied until, all of a sudden, the “if you let me play” idea just popped up. It came out of my experience as a stepmother and an aunt. I knew that lots of young girls—like my nieces and stepdaughters—didn’t have softball, volleyball or soccer programs in their schools because the money just wasn’t there. Even though Title IX had passed and was a wonderful amendment, it wasn’t always being implemented. Spending so much time around 10-year-old girls, I saw that many parents, especially mothers, didn’t understand that their daughters really did want to play.

So we did the boards and took them in for an emergency meeting the very next day. I knew it was right because I got choked up while I was presenting our proposal, and then half the room started to cry. Everyone clapped and said, “This is it!”

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

The Ripple Effect
Title IX affected the country in many ways that were never anticipated. For instance, post–Title IX studies have shown that pursuing athletic endeavors during the school years raises self-esteem, increases life satisfaction, fights depression and enhances feelings of confidence and competence. What’s more, female athletes are more likely than nonathletes to avoid drugs, abstain from smoking and graduate from college. They also wait longer to have sex.

Benefits continue well after female players receive their diplomas. As adults, they tend to have healthier hearts, stronger immune systems, more resilient bones, less obesity, a lower risk for breast and other cancers and less chance of becoming diabetic than women who sat on the sidelines as teens. Ten years after college, they are also less likely to be depressed. Let’s hear it for the law of unintended ¬consequences! —M.D.

Illustrations: Quickhoney. Statistics sources: U.S. Department of Education 2011 Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act

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First Published Mon, 2012-05-07 15:44

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