Title IX Turns 40, Flaws and All

As The Root celebrates the law that changed girls' sports forever, we also examine its shortcomings.

(The Root) — I am a Title IX baby. My 10-year career as a competitive gymnast and high school and college track athlete can be credited to the 1972 measure, which increased funding for women’s sports programs at all levels so that young women like me were able to excel in a new athletic frontier. As Title IX celebrates its 40th anniversary on June 23, it’s still up for debate whether the landmark legislation has been 100 percent successful. Still, there’s no question that Title IX fundamentally transformed our society from a world where sports was just for boys to a much more even playing field.

Title IX, which passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, stated, “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.” This shift allowed women to compete like their male counterparts in athletics against rival schools. Coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX was the culmination of pressure from women’s-rights advocates who viewed athletic participation crucial to women’s development and as an opportunity for them to be well-rounded students.

Women’s ability to participate in sports is something that is taken for granted now, but that was not the case 40 years ago. Since Title IX, there has been a 1,079 percent increase in the number of girls playing high school sports. It is no longer unusual for the best athletes from a school, township or university to be female. It is no longer unusual for legends in a sport to be women — see Serena and Venus Williams.

Sports are so essential to the personal development of young women that it’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t even allowed or encouraged to participate. Studies have suggested that the changes set in motion by Title IX have had a positive effect on women’s academic, employment and health prospects and that athletic participation decreases the likelihood of teen pregnancy and also helps raise self-esteem.

When President Obama, whose daughters are active in sports, was asked this May about what the anniversary of the transformative legislation meant, he said, “I am a huge believer that sports ends up being good for kids, and especially good for girls. It gives them confidence, it gives them a sense of what it means to compete. Studies show that girls who are involved in athletics often do better in school; they are more confident in terms of dealing with boys … I think [it] has helped to make our society more equal in general.”

Not everything about Title IX is positive. Earlier this month, the New York Times put Title IX and race under a microscope, highlighting the fact that its focus on gender equality did not necessarily take into account racial equality in women’s sports. The result is that the measure had a much larger effect on white girls than it did on anyone else.

“There’s a whole host of African-American women who have benefited greatly from Title IX. We’ve gotten college scholarships and college degrees; we’ve made Olympic teams. Track and field is an area where a large number of African-American women receive college scholarships,” Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, an Olympic track-and-field gold medalist, told the New York Times, “But in the grand scheme of things, Caucasian girls have benefited disproportionately well, especially suburban girls and wealthy Caucasian girls.”