(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."
According to the Times, a 2007 Department of Education study concluded that, while 51 percent of white sophomore girls participated in sports, only 40 percent of black girls, 34 percent of Asian Pacific Islanders and 32 percent of Hispanics did. In college, although 50.6 percent of Division I women's basketball players are black, as are 28.2 and 27.5 percent respectively of women's indoor and outdoor track-and-field participants, the numbers are dismal in other sports: 2.2 percent in lacrosse, 2 percent in swimming, 5 percent in soccer, 8.2 percent in softball and 11.6 percent in volleyball.
"We should be allowed to say that Title IX doesn't produce the solutions for all girls, because that's the next step for advancing to a solution that does," Dionne L. Koller, director of the Center for Sport and the Law, told the New York Times.
Joanne Smith, the founder and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity, Inc., was a college athlete. She benefited from Title IX but, like Koller, is not afraid to discuss its shortcomings. "I got a basketball scholarship," she told The Root. "To be able to graduate [from college] without debt was an amazing opportunity, but at the same time, many of the coaches continue to be male, even in women's sporting events."
Smith is pointing out one of the other rarely talked-about realities of Title IX. While there were increased opportunities for female athletes, there has not been the same level of opportunity for women to coach as the number of teams increased. In fact, the number of women who coach intercollegiate women's sports decreased after Title IX — from 90 percent in 1972 to 44 percent in 2010.
Smith also says that all aspects of the law — which bans gender inequality in federally funded programs as a whole, not just in sports — should be adhered to, and the implementation of the law must be uniform at all levels. "There is still such a gap between the letter of the law and the application of the law," she said. "Title IX coordinators should be identified on the school's website. It's time for the Department of Education to revive this policy and put things in place to uniformly implement Title IX."
For Smith this includes a focus not only on athletic participation but also on a reduction in gender-based harassment and violence in schools. "If we focus on these other areas, it will help us normalize Title IX and accept that we need implementation in other areas — instead of just focusing on the area of sports."
Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst and contributing writer for Ebony.com, theGrio.com and Feministing.com. She writes about national politics, candidates and specific policy and culture issues, including domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality. Follow her on Twitter.