Title IX: Spectacularly Successful and Disturbingly Unfulfilled

A lack of enforcement has blunted the law’s transformative potential

By Anne M. Blaschke

Title IX celebrates its 50th birthday on June 23. Signed into law in 1972, the policy requires educational institutions that receive government funding to treat all sexes and gender identities equally.

This mandate has at once been phenomenally successful and disturbingly unfulfilled. In banning sex discrimination, Title IX fundamentally changed American education by creating the legal expectation of equality. Millions of people have seized the expansive gender opportunities Title IX has forced open, and now their children and grandchildren expect and even take for granted those options.

Yet the policy has historically fallen short of its mandate because of a lack of enforcement, particularly on issues of sexual abuse and bigotry. As a result, its radical potential to normalize equal treatment across sex and gender in education has not been realized.

Title IX passed in 1972 amid other policies affirming women’s rights. Feminists celebrated the law, although they initially thought it would only affect academics. Controversy exploded when girls and women rushed to claim space in academic programs and on athletic playing fields.

Title IX’s impact on sports drew the most attention because it was the area in which the sex gap was the most egregious. Girls and women in sports also visually challenged long-held sexist tropes about their capabilities and ambitions. Since the late-19th century, doctors and sports executives had feared athletic activity could cause hysteria, infertility and cancer in women. Nearly as worrisome, athletic competition might compromise the heteronormativity and femininity essential to women’s social roles, turning them into deviant “muscle molls.”

Sexist gatekeepers fought to exclude women from athletics. In 1967, for example, Boston Marathon Director Jock Semple tried — and failed — to drag runner Katherine Switzer off the course. As a result of decades of sex discrimination, girls comprised just 7 percent of high school athletes in 1971, while collegiate women received just 2 percent of overall athletic budgets and almost no scholarships before President Richard M. Nixon signed Title IX into law in 1972.Advertisement

Title IX radically changed this reality. The sheer volume of women who flooded athletic fields within a year belied the long-held belief that girls lacked interest or competitive drive. The law also emboldened athletes to take drastic measures to force their schools’ compliance.

In 1976, the Yale women’s crew team protested their inadequate facilities to physical education director Joni Barnett at her office, naked save for the phrase “Title IX” scrawled across their torsos. In the wake of scathing press coverage, Yale granted the women locker rooms and showers. Title IX’s impact also reverberated beyond campus into the free market, as female athletes bought and popularized apparel, such as sports bras, that women entrepreneurs designed.

But after less than a decade, the Reagan administration weakened Title IX. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan crippled the National Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs, a women’s federal advisory board on sex equality, by replacing its executive director with a state leader of Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-feminist Eagle Forum group.

A year later, he dissolved the board altogether. Reagan’s 1981 Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O’Connor also concurred with the majority in Grove City College v. Bell (1984), which held that schools must only apply Title IX to discrete areas of their operations that received federal funds, rather than to entire institutions; the decision threatened to gut Title IX’s broad impact on campuses. In 1988, when Congress voted for the Civil Rights Restoration Act — which restored Title IX to all aspects of campus affairs — Reagan vetoed the bill and, like other conservatives, lambasted its passage as intrusive government bloat when Congress overrode his veto.

Amid this backlash, women conquering new Olympic sports and breaking athletic records were accused of gender deviance when their talents soared beyond mainstream social expectations of womanhood. Record-setting Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner (“Flo-Jo”) famously faced doping accusations, often tinged with racism, due to her muscularity and speed in the late-1980s.

And yet, millions of Americans broadly accepted the idea of gender equality Title IX promoted. Consider, for example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s about-face on women’s sports. During the 1970s, the organization had lobbied against Title IX and attempted to exempt men’s revenue-producing sports. Yet college sports for women grew exponentially as athletic powerhouses like UCLA and the University of Michigan created women’s athletic programs.

In 1982, the NCAA reversed course and took control of women’s athletic governance, offering prominent universities lucrative opportunities to compete in NCAA tournaments and secure television contracts — thereby strangling the smaller, single-sex organization that had originally supported Title IX, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

Most large universities bowed to Title IX’s pressure to create women’s sports programs, though they often segregated these into “women’s centers” rather than integrate the sexes on equal footing. In these expansive new roles — as in other arenas of women’s increased access due to Title IX, including in business, medicine and entertainment — stereotyping and harassment often accompanied women’s efforts on the playing field. By the 1990s, women experienced both harassment and opportunity, even as the political environment became more supportive of the legislation with the Bill Clinton administration working to expand Title IX reporting and redouble efforts to combat sex discrimination.

It may sound incongruous that President Clinton waved the banner for sex equality policy in 1997, at the height of his own sexual harassment and perjury scandals. But, a closer look shows that this behavior mirrored the application of Title IX on issues of campus safety from the 1990s forward.

During the Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, when women students accused male athletes of sexual assault, coaches, university boosters and community leaders frequently circled wagons to protect the alleged perpetrators. This was especially true since the accused often graduated, and sometimes ascended to lucrative sport careers — even as the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights issued guidance compelling schools to prevent, eliminate and remedy sexual harassment, and lower the standard of proof needed to demonstrate sexual misconduct.

Students who reported their coaches’ sexual assaults also faced the trauma of being silenced and subjected to further violence. At Penn State, for instance, assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky abused boys for years — and was further enabled by legendary head coach Joe Paterno and other university power brokers who violated Title IX by failing to report the abuse for more than a decade. At Michigan State University, orthopedist and athletic trainer Larry Nassar began sexually abusing children and undergraduates on campus in the 1990s, but university officials ignored multiple students’ reports of abuse, allowing him to break down the lives of over 500 athletes over the course of 20 years.

These individual examples speak to a catastrophic failure to enforce Title IX by both academic institutions and the federal government. The onus not to be harmed, it seems, is now on victims, rather than on schools to fulfill their mandate and perpetrators not to rape, molest or assault. Until her recent death, Title IX pioneer Bernice Sandler referred to these stakes as a “chilly climate” for the vulnerable. Meanwhile, queer and trans students continue to face institutional whiplash over access to campus spaces and organizations in alignment with their gender identity and sexuality, although Title IX affords them these protections.

Despite these major shortfalls, many of the sweeping changes Title IX mandated have now become mainstream — often imperceptible. And each generation has been less aware of the law’s existence than the one preceding it. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in February 2022, for example, women under the age of 50 were less likely than women over age 50 to have heard of the law, and 50 percent of Americans have never heard of it.

But even if a marker of Title IX’s success is the decades-long assumption of sex equality on campus and beyond, the law has not created a cultural shift from a patriarchal to a more feminist, egalitarian society. Reflecting on the impact of women in sports, U.S. 1999 World Cup soccer champion Brandi Chastain recently asked, “How do we disrupt a culture that has been systematically not for us?” Until institutions fully utilize the potential of Title IX, that question will remain unanswered.