Given the prevalence of girls on softball and soccer fields, the love heaped on female Olympians, and the frenzy over women’s basketball, it’s almost hard to imagine the world before Title IX. The federal act, passed on June 23, 1972, and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, prohibited sex discrimination in any educational program or activity that received federal funding. In effect, it required schools to provide equal access to sports for men and women, boys and girls — to level the playing field, sometimes quite literally.
In 40 years, the landmark bill — which also improves women’s access to labs and technology, and protects against sexual harassment and discrimination — has gone through its share of ups and downs. There have been congressional attempts to water it down, lawsuits required to make colleges comply, laws passed to increase accountability. Title IX has been criticized for its imprecision: Because schools must invest in women’s sports based on enrollment in men’s sports, some believe that certain girls’ sports have been unnecessarily inflated, and certain men’s sports have been unfairly shuttered.
But the overarching social stereotype that prompted Title IX in the first place — the idea that girls aren’t as interested in sports as boys — has been disproven by the law’s dramatic results. In 1971, before Title IX passed, 7 percent of high school athletes were girls. By 2011, that number had risen to 41 percent. And the effects of the law have reached far beyond athletic fields. Before Title IX, many schools had separate entrances for men and women, limits on the number of women who could enroll, and few scholarship opportunities for women and girls. Many credit Title IX for the increased numbers of women in biology labs and computer labs, in boardrooms and in politics. It is rare legislation that changes things so dramatically, and for the benefit of so many.