On June 23, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon signed an omnibus education bill that would change the paths of millions of women and girls in the United States. At first glance, the sweep conveyed by the words themselves can be hard to recognize.
Title IX was part of a long list of education amendments in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, buried amid antibusing policies and outlines of federal financial aid funding. In just 37 words, the statute guaranteed a means to ensure equal access for women to education.
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
Lawmakers used the Civil Rights Act for framing but intentionally downplayed the policy’s significance to assure its passage through Congress. Fifty years later, Title IX continues to reverberate around the country, ushering in a new era of women’s sports and a framework for handling sexual misconduct complaints on campus.
“Part of the beauty of Title IX is its breadth and comprehensiveness. It’s a ban without creating an exhaustive list,” said Wendy Mink, whose mother, Representative Patsy Mink, Democrat of Hawaii, was one of the lawmakers to spearhead the policy. The official name of Title IX was changed to the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act after Mink’s death in 2002.
“It’s open to interpretation and application,” Wendy Mink said. “She wanted to make sure each of the interpretations would not only be applied but enforced.”
The most visible changes were seen in gymnasiums, fields and courts across the United States — young women were entitled to the same athletic opportunities as their male counterparts at schools. According to a study by the Women’s Sports Foundation, high school participation rose from 294,015 in the 1971-72 school year to 3.4 million in 2018-19 (participation by boys was 3.67 million in 1971-72 and 4.53 million in 2018-19). At the collegiate level, participation at N.C.A.A. schools rose from 29,977 athletes in women’s sports in 1971-72 to 215,486 in 2020-21. Men’s sports had 275,769 athletes in 2020-21.
“Even my father couldn’t have predicted the profound impact it has made over the last 50 years,” the former Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, said. His father, Senator Birch Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, sponsored Title IX in the Senate. “He had hopes; he had aspirations,” Evan Bayh said. “I think he would be very pleased and pleasantly surprised to see the difference it’s made.”
What’s in the law?
Title IX prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding in primary, secondary and higher education. Although the statute is short, the Supreme Court and U.S. Department of Education have solidified its broad scope, including its purview over sexual assault and harassment on school campuses. According to the Education Department, Title IX applies to about 17,600 local school districts and more than 5,000 postsecondary institutions, as well as charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries and museums. It covers both students and employees.
Title IX was signed into law in 1972, yet the Office of Civil Rights did not adopt an intercollegiate athletics policy to determine compliance measures until 1979.
How is it enforced?
The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights oversees compliance with Title IX and investigates multiple types of discrimination, including with regards to admissions, athletics, recruitment, discipline, gender harassment, scholarships and sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Under Title IX regulations, any educational institution that receives federal funding must designate at least one employee to serve as its Title IX coordinator. The coordinator is responsible for compliance, including the investigation of any Title IX complaints. The Education Department has around 3,600 pending investigations, of which roughly 1,300 included a Title IX issue.
Schools are rarely stripped of their funding and usually resolve Title IX problems voluntarily.
Dr. Courtney Flowers, an associate professor of sport management at Texas Southern University and a co-author of the Women’s Sports Foundation report, said that compliance could improve, as could the shortfalls in sports that aren’t addressed by Title IX.
“Across the board, we’ve all won,” Flowers said. “But sometimes, we have to recalibrate and make sure that in the next 50 years we’re not saying the same thing and advocating for the same thing and figure out what does equity look like now?”
What’s missing from Title IX?
While Title IX’s intentions to be broad and encompassing have ensured rights for many women and girls, white women have benefited the most.
Title IX does not directly address race, gender identity, disabilities or other characteristics besides sex. The Women’s Sports Foundation found that Asian, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and other girls and women of color participate in sport at lower levels than white women do. The same was true for women with disabilities compared with men who had disabilities.
Women of color are also underrepresented in athletic leadership.
Title IX covers transgender students, but sports remain an open question and vivid debate.
Title IX falls under the executive branch and therefore is subject to interpretation by each administration. In 2021, the Education Department said the protection of Title IX would extend to transgender students, reversing a policy under the presidency of Donald J. Trump that essentially did the opposite.
The new regulations are expected to be formally announced soon by the Biden administration and will most likely look much like what was telegraphed in 2021. As proposed, the guidance would officially make protecting transgender students a federal legal requirement of Title IX.
Still, it is not clear what that might mean for sports participation, amid contentious debate throughout the sports world about whether transgender women should be allowed to compete in women’s divisions.
Some major sports federations have heavily restricted transgender women from competing in women’s divisions. FINA, the world governing body for swimming, voted to prohibit transgender women from competing unless they began medical treatments to suppress production of testosterone before going through one of the early stages of puberty, or by age 12, whichever occurred later. It established one of the strictest rules against transgender participation in international sports.
Nearly 20 states have enacted laws or issued statewide rules that bar or limit transgender sports participation.
Title IX, for now, is unlikely to be used specifically by lawmakers either to push for more inclusion or exclusion of transgender women in women’s divisions. The law, an education policy at its core, enjoys broad support by the public and both Republican and Democrat lawmakers.