Title IX Marks 50 Years Of Gender Equity in Education

The celebration marking half a century of one of the country’s most consequential engines of gender equity comes at a pivotal moment for girls and women in education.

By Lauren Camera

Sandler’s investigation uncovered arbitrary admission quotas, illegal hiring practices and disparities in promotions and salaries. And when she handed her research and data over to Congress in 1970 ahead of a seven-day hearing on sex discrimination, it became the rough draft for the legislation that would eventually be known as Title IX.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, signed into law on June 23 of that year, states: “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.”

Half a century later, those 37 words are widely regarded as one of the most significant levers for gender and racial equity in U.S. history, with ramifications that stretch far beyond equal treatment for girls and women in classrooms and on playing fields.

“It’s hard to believe that Title IX is 50 years old,” says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, which was founded the same year. “What it means in practice is that you now have multiple generations who have come up with the protections and understanding that sex discrimination is not permitted in school.”

“The way in which that has opened up entire fields of work for women, and set entire new standards of what it meant to be safe and treated equitably in schools, it’s nearly impossible to underestimate the importance that Title IX has had from our culture to our laws to our policies to our full economic security for women in this country,” she says.

Indeed, more women are attending college and earning degrees than ever before. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, women accounted for nearly 60% of all college students by the end of the 2020-21 academic year, and women were awarded 57% of the more than 2 million bachelor’s degrees conferred.

Title IX’s impact on advanced degrees has been even more acute: In 1972, women earned just 7% of all law degrees and 9% of all medical degrees. Today, they earn nearly half of all law and medical degrees. And women’s participation in career and technical education programs has risen as well – from virtually none in 1972 to nearly 30%.

And while women once accounted for less than 1 in 5 faculty members and just 3% of college presidents, they now make up 43% of full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty members, 54% of full-time, non-tenure-track professors and 32% of college presidents.

When it comes to athletics, girls’ high school participation rate is 10 times greater today than it was prior to Title IX – an increase of more than 1,000%. One in every 5 girls plays sports, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation – a statistic that was one in 27 in 1972. And more than 200,000 women now play collegiate sports, compared to less than 30,000 in 1972.

The impact has stretched into professional sports, too, with more women able to catapult collegiate careers into professional ones, especially in the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League. In fact, after a six-year battle, the U.S. women’s soccer team reached a settlement last month with U.S. Soccer, which pledged to equalize pay for the men’s and women’s national teams and to provide $24 million to current and former players, the majority of which represents backpay.

Of course, Title IX has also granted new protections for girls and women against sexual harassment and assault on campuses, for LGBTQ students and for students who are pregnant or are mothers. It’s also played a pivotal role in enshrining gender- and race-based admissions policies and helped combat discriminatory discipline policies that disproportionately impact Black girls.

While the law is rooted in erasing gender discrimination in K-12 and higher education, over the course of 50 years it’s also had a significant ripple effect in elevating the role of women in arenas that they historically weren’t allowed to access.

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in politics, where just 15 members of Congress were women when the federal civil rights legislation was signed into law. Today, 146 women account for roughly 27% of all seats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has led House Democrats since 2003 – the first woman to ever lead a party in Congress. More women are running for office and voting than ever before, and not to be overlooked, Vice President Kamala Harris is the first woman and first person of color to serve in that role.

“We changed the laws around Title IX and look at the powerful difference it made,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat who spoke earlier this week during an event celebrating 50 years of Title IX, which was hosted by The 19th*, a nonprofit newsroom that covers politics and policy through a gender lens – itself a testament to the progress forged in the five decades since the law was passed.

“That [law] has made a profound difference in everything we do, in the determination of our lives, in the things that are open to us,” Warren said. “I see Title IX as when we begin to talk as a whole country and say, ‘You know what? We got a lot of talent over there. We got a lot of women who are smart and thoughtful and engaged and we want to hear from them.’”

Yet in many ways, how much America wanted to hear from them and how much progress was considered enough progress depends on who is asked.

According to a new AP-NORC/National Women’s History Museum poll, 61% of men perceive a great deal or a lot of progress has been made in achieving equal treatment for women over the last 50 years, including as it relates to education, sports and protections against violence, but just 37% of women feel the same.

Among women of color, 36% say there has been a great deal of progress made since Title IX. Meanwhile, just 33% of LGBTQ women and 25% of low-income women agree.

Republicans are also more likely than Democrats to believe there has been improvement in equal treatment over the last 50 years, and 77% of Democrats compared to 53% of Republicans approve of Title IX and its key priorities.

To be sure, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of one of the country’s most consequential engines of gender equity comes at a precarious moment for girls and women and the social, economic and political gains they’ve secured over the last half century.

At the outset of the pandemic, women lost 12.2 million jobs, reversing an entire decade of job gains since the end of the Great Recession – a figure that included roughly 3.5 million mothers with school-aged children who either lost their jobs, took a leave of absence or left the labor market altogether, according to an analysis by the Census Bureau.

While women have clawed back a significant amount of that lost work, their male counterparts have rebounded entirely: From February 2020 to January 2022, male workers regained all jobs they had lost due to the pandemic, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. But women are still down over 1.1 million net jobs since February 2020, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Perhaps most harmful to the collective strides girls and women have made: The Supreme Court stands poised to overturn the 1973 landmark decision Roe v Wade, which guarantees a right to an abortion until fetal viability, generally understood by experts to mean around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

That’s to say nothing about the fractured early education system that’s holding women back – the tens of thousands of child care facilities that have permanently closed since the pandemic, the sky-rocketing cost of child care, the early education workforce that’s still 12% below pre-pandemic levels and the 20% decline in state-funded preschool that erased a decade of growth in a single year. Or the baby formula and tampon shortage.

new report from the National Coalition for Women and Girls, “Title IX at 50,” underscores the important progress made toward ending sex discrimination in schools while also sounding the alarm over the work that remains.

Girls and women still receive more than 1 million fewer opportunities than boys and men to play sports in high school and college, for example. And when they do have a chance to play sports, they often receive worse facilities, uniforms and equipment, lesser experienced coaches, fewer resources and less publicity from their schools.

“Women and girls have still not achieved equity in athletics,” says Elizabeth Kristen, director of Fair Play for Girls in Sports, Legal Aid at Work. “Athletics equity is not just about fun and games, athletic participation improves critical health, educational and employment outcomes for girls and women. While we celebrate the amazing progress that has been made over the last five decades, we must renew our focus on ensuring equality in sports.”

One of the most pressing concerns to come out of the report is the barrage of anti-LGBTQ laws conservative states are pursuing.

The National Youth Law Center has tracked nearly 200 state laws that have been introduced over the last year that would restrict teaching about gender identity, sex, racism, equity and other so-called “divisive” topics, or roll back the rights of LGBTQ students and their families by not allowing them to use the bathroom or play on the sports teams that match their gender identity. And while most won’t get out of committee, GOP-controlled states are pursuing various versions of them at break-neck speed.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has delayed the release of new Title IX regulations that govern campus sexual harassment and assault – protections that advocates have been clamoring for the White House to restore since they were stripped by the Trump administration in 2018.

“You cannot help but wonder how it is that the progress that we have feels so fragile and whether it’s the dismantling of Roe v. Wade and abortion access in this country or the full-throated attacks that are being levied culturally in statehouses against trans youth, you see this wave of attacks,” Goss Graves says. “I’m not surprised that progress feels fragile. Progress is always fragile and the thing I know is that we always have to work at it.”

That’s a lesson that Sandler, who became known as the “Godmother of Title IX,” and who died in 2019 at the age of 90, came to understand as she dedicated the rest of her life to gender equity.

“I was extraordinarily naive,” she wrote in 1997. “I believed that if we passed Title IX it would only take a year or two for all the inequities based on sex to be eliminated.”

“After two years,” she continued, “I upped my estimate to five years, then to 10, then to 25, until I finally realized that we were trying to change very strong patterns of behavior and belief, and that changes would take more than my lifetime to accomplish.”

One of the inherent strengths of Title IX, legal experts say, is that because it pertains to every facet of K-12 and higher education, it’s always being tested by young people demanding better and removing the next barrier. And in that sense, it’s a law that will always be setting up future generations of girls and women for even more success.

“With the U.S. women’s soccer team, the reason they’ve been such a deep inspiration for people in this country is because we were able to celebrate their greatness in part because of Title IX and also demand they be paid equally because of equal pay laws in this country,” Goss Graves says.

“But they had to fight for it. The best in the world had to fight for their equality. And that’s a reminder to all of us that the gains we have won over the years in sports, in science, in schools more broadly, we have to fight for them to be protected and to ensure that the next generation experiences a world and experiences classrooms that are better than the ones we had.”