When Title IX was passed in 1972, it opened doors to athletics that had been closed to girls and women. Many of the girls’ and women’s teams that are common at high schools and universities today didn’t exist back then. Title IX was vital, “even just for legitimizing the idea that women could play,” said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and Arizona State University professor.
For Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Title IX opened doors to a scholarship—and then to three gold medals and one silver at the 1984 Olympics. “It was groundbreaking. There’s no way I would have gotten a college scholarship or gone to the 1984 Olympics if it hadn’t been for that statute,” she said.
“It didn’t matter what world records or championships I had, how hard I worked, or how talented I was. What mattered was they just weren’t going to give any scholarship to a woman without that statute.”
The statute itself doesn’t actually say anything about sports. It says: “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.” Because sports are largely tied to schools in the United States, Title IX has reshaped athletics and encouraged four decades of girls to be athletes.
The fact that sports are linked to education “gives Title IX its energy,” said Hogshead-Makar, now a lawyer and founder of Champion Women. She advocates for girls and women in sports and has helped schools comply with Title IX.
[beauty_quote quote='“It didn’t matter what world records or championships I had, how hard I worked, or how talented I was. What mattered was they just weren’t going to give any scholarship to a woman without that statute.” - Nancy Hogshead-Makar']
Before Title IX, 1 in 27 girls played sports. Now, 2 in 5 girls do, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
“Title IX changed the face of women’s athletics,” said Kate Robbins, who rowed at the 2004 Olympics (then as Kate MacKenzie). “It meant we could actually have really nice facilities, we could have scholarships, and we were encouraged to pursue our sport beyond college,” she said. “For a lot of other generations, I don’t think that thought even crossed their minds.”
Her rowing team at the University of Michigan moved from club to varsity status—an immense change. As a club team, the athletes traveled frequently for competitions but slept on church or gym floors. Even old rowing shells were expensive, so rowers raised money by doing four-hour sessions of yard work for local residents, called “rent-a-rower.”
As a varsity team, the women could afford to stay in hotels and buy better equipment. The team could practice rowing instead of spending hours doing manual labor in someone’s backyard.
“As a club team, we were really, really good, but we were scraping to get by,” Robbins said. Then, as a varsity team, “we had this level of support that those of us who had been club athletes had never dreamed of.” This included access to athletic training and tutors, and scholarship money—which helped Robbins “stay an extra year and really hone my rowing abilities,” she said.
Being taken seriously by the university “gave us an extra bit of confidence, like we’re respected, and the university supports us,” Robbins said, noting that she thought to herself: “I get to be part of this elite group at this elite university, so why can’t I be in that elite group at the top of the food chain in the rowing world?” Without that kind of support, she said, “I don’t think I would have been as motivated to pursue the national team. I wouldn’t have gone as far as I did.”
Robbins was first introduced to rowing by her mom, who had rowed on her own, without a team and without competing. “Without Title IX, her generation never got even the opportunity to think about becoming high-level athletes,” she said. They weren’t introduced to sports at a young age, like Robbins was, nor like the current generation of girls.
Another way Title IX changed the landscape is that it socialized young boys and girls, Jackson pointed out. Title IX desegregated physical education—boys and girls had been kept separate before that. Then, “gym teachers fit the girls more into the sports the boys were playing, rather than subject the boys to the type of physical education that the girls experienced before that.” That opened up new athletic experiences to girls, and “boys learn as much as girls from mixed-gender play,” Jackson said.
[beauty_quote quote='“It didn’t even occur to administrators that girls would need uniforms, so they either sewed their own or raised money to purchase them by having bake sales or that sort of thing, or they inherited the boys’ hand-me-downs.” - Victoria Jackson']
Jackson, who was a collegiate and then professional runner, grew up playing sports in public school in a wealthy Chicago suburb in the 1990s, and she remembers the girls’ and boys’ teams being treated equally across the board, and her school having plenty of resources for both. “All the things that I didn’t realize women had fought for were just an automatic part of my high school experience. I did not realize how privileged I was until much further on in my sporting life.”
Jackson learned that the situation had been much different a generation earlier. For example, she said, “It didn’t even occur to administrators that girls would need uniforms, so they either sewed their own or raised money to purchase them by having bake sales or that sort of thing, or they inherited the boys’ hand-me-downs.” Her research revealed a long delay before schools actually instituted changes in response to Title IX. “It’s really not until the early ‘80s that you see schools putting policies in place and following through.”
Today, because so many more girls do play sports, the public perception might be that girls and boys are on more or less equal footing. But that’s not the case. In high schools, girls have about 1.2 million fewer opportunities to play sports than boys have. And girls of color have fewer of these opportunities than white girls, white boys, and boys of color do.
A common misconception about Title IX compliance is that the number of teams should be equal between men and women, but it’s the number of students who have the opportunity to participate that counts. The gender equity gap in U.S. high school sports—the gap between the percentage of spots on teams allocated to girls and the percentage of female students—is 27.9 percent, the National Women’s Law Center found. Vermont had the smallest gap, at 1.9 percent, and Georgia had the largest, at 66.3 percent.
“We’ve made strides in terms of actual access to sports for girls and women,” but their locations and socioeconomic status “can dictate the types of opportunities available,” said Sarah Axelson, director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation.
At the collegiate level, women make up 54 percent of undergraduates but only 43.5 of the participation in sports, according to an NCAA report.
[beauty_quote quote='“All the things that I didn’t realize women had fought for were just an automatic part of my high school experience. I did not realize how privileged I was until much further on in my sporting life.” - Victoria Jackson']
In a survey that the Women’s Sports Foundation conducted on public support for Title IX and girls’ participation in sports, six in 10 U.S. adults said girls have fewer opportunities to participate in sports. Seventy-three percent said that high schools and colleges provide better support for boys’ sports than they do for girls’ sports.
Even when girls and women do participate, their facilities, equipment, coaching and scholarship resources, and uniforms might be inferior. And male and female coaches often have significantly different salaries. “Part of the scholarship surrounding Title IX includes an advocacy competent that it’s not equal, and we need to be doing more to advocate for women to get more, because there’s still these ongoing disparities,” Jackson said.
So why have these gaps persisted? “It takes somebody understanding the law, understanding their rights, and being willing and able to speak out and speak up for equality,” Axelson said.
“There’s still a big gap because people don’t have their eye on the ball of gender equality,” Hogshead-Makar said. For example, if a school’s alumnus donates money to improve a boys’ team field, is the school prepared to upgrade the girls’ field as well? The school and the parents might not be thinking along those lines. “They’re just one attorney phone call away from being forced to provide equality at a school,” she said. “It takes vigilance.”
“The law is really good for athletes,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Schools have tried to find ways that their male and female programs are ‘close enough’—but courts keep affirming that equality is equality.” And a judge can enforce equality.
Hogshead-Makar noted that fathers’ willingness to speak up when their daughters are shortchanged has made a difference. “For a lot of fathers, they see the differences between the baseball and softball facilities, and they say, ‘Oh, no, not my daughter.’ Because they know how important sports were to them.” Mothers who grew up accustomed to second-class facilities might see things differently, she said.
“There’s a need to educate our students, educators, athletic directors, college presidents, and principals,” Axelson said. “We need to educate the folks who have the authority to make change, and we also need to educate the folks who can stand up when they see something that’s not right.”
One way the Women’s Sports Foundation has done that is through PLAY IX, a game that teaches students about their rights. College students today may be more familiar with the law in the context of sexual assault than in sports, Axelson said.
Perceptions of Title IX’s value have shifted over the years. Because it is not limited to sports, it has served as an important safeguard against sexual assault and harassment, as well as discrimination—all of which occur both inside and outside of sports. The National Women’s Law Center found that more than a quarter of LGBT students reported being harassed or assaulted while playing sports because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
Regarding equal opportunities for women in sports, there’s an ebb and flow to public concern, Jackson said. “In moments of conservatism, we see less emphasis on equal athletic opportunities,” and it’s also tied to the economy, she noted. “The late ‘90s were a high point in broader cultural support for women in sports, and I think we’re in a bit of a decline now.”
Still, Title IX’s effect is visible on and off the field. Jackson noted, “I remind my students that the reason college campuses look the way they look today is because of Title IX. It’s the reason most campuses have majority female student bodies and have more female faculty.”
“I have a lot of male students in my sports history classes, and when we cover Title IX, they tell their moms about it, knowing that their moms played college sports, but not really knowing much about their moms’ experiences,” Jackson said. Then they hear their moms’ stories about the terrible fields they had to play on and other unequal circumstances, and the sons get passionate about it.
Boys aren’t unaffected by gender inequality. “We don’t want girls to accept second-class treatment, but it’s also important for the boys,” Hogshead-Makar said. “It’s setting them up for this expectation that they really are more important than girls.”
Research has shown that sports benefit girls and women in myriad ways, from physical and mental health to academic performance, to self-confidence, to career opportunities.
Robbins is a physical therapist who works in a hospital emergency room, where the physicians are mostly men. If you took athletic opportunities away from women, “you’d get an even bigger divide” between men and women who take on predominantly male jobs, she said. “One of the life skills being an athlete teaches you is how to take on adversity and triumph. If you don’t give women the opportunity to experience all of that, you’re not allowing women to grow as much as they could.”
Another reason this matters is that sports “teach you faith in yourself,” Robbins said. “You find strength you never knew you had when you’re an athlete. You push through pain, you push through mental anguish, you push through injury, and when you come out the other side of it, you say, ‘I did that. Whatever this world has to throw at me, I can handle it, because I did that.’”
Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here.